Relatively few residents of our town find themselves needing to interact with the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), a quietly efficient volunteer group of appointed government officials. Its members meet monthly and deliberate on the issue of whether or not to grant variances from our zoning laws. The deliberations of this board are designed to serve as a system of checks and balances so that local land use laws and zoning codes are neither unreasonably restrictive nor overly burdensome to property owners. When residential parcels are transferred, for example, surveys will occasionally uncover the fact that a shed, garage or other structure is a few feet closer to a property line than current zoning laws permit. After reviewing the facts and holding a public hearing, the board can grant a variance that will allow the homeowner to avoid the expense of demolishing or moving the structure.
During the many ZBA meetings I have attended in the town over the past 45 years, I have learned that this board can serve as the ‘heart’ of land use planning when the zoning code (the ‘brain’) does not reflect certain unique factors that could and often should be considered when granting building permits and site plan and subdivision approvals.
On May 13 our ZBA will be considering the application of the multi-billion dollar Wilmorite corporation for variances from our zoning code. The developer is seeking to construct a 732-bed rental project known as Park Point on a 42-acre parcel of land on Route 32 South adjacent to the SUNY New Paltz campus. It would like its 13 buildings to be taller and closer to one another than permitted by the code. Building separation is required to ensure that a fire in one location does not spread to others. Wilmorite is applying for a height variance from 35 feet to 40 feet. If granted, the code would require that the buildings be separated by 80 feet. Wilmorite is applying for a variance that would permit them to be separated by only 30 feet.
So how does the ZBA determine whether or not to grant a particular variance? Part of its decision-making process is to obtain answers to the following five questions:
1. Will an undesirable change be produced in the character of the neighborhood or will a detriment to nearby properties be created by the granting of the variance?
2. Can the variance being sought be achieved by some method feasible for the applicant to pursue, other than the variance?
3. Is the requested variance ‘substantial’?
4. Will the proposed variance have an adverse effect or impact on the physical or environmental conditions in the neighborhood or district?
5. Is the non-conformance for which the variance is being sought ‘self-created’ by the applicant?
The law governing the operation of the ZBA also states: “In no case shall a variance be granted solely for reason of additional financial gain on the part of the owner of the land or building involved.”
So why does Wilmorite want to construct taller buildings? The answer is that it will allow them to squeeze more rental units into the buildable area of the property. The greater the number of rental units, the greater the profit. When asked to justify the number of units applied for, Wilmorite answered that it “… determined the number of units in consideration of proprietary business/economic decisions…,” which “proprietary” decisions it chose not to share with the town.
Over the past 18 months, large numbers of New Paltz residents have spoken out in various forums, including many of the close to 500 who attended a public hearing on the project, to urge town and county officials to deny any land use approvals for Park Point, whose developer is seeking to have our community shoulder a 75% share of its real estate, sales and mortgage taxes. It should be noted that this same corporation has just plopped down a $1 million application fee to build a $350 million casino in upstate New York. Should Park Point be granted its variances by the ZBA and go on to receive site plan and subdivision approval from our Planning Board, Wilmorite would recoup that $1 million casino investment on the backs of the residents of New Paltz in just the first year of a 25-year tax avoidance scheme called a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement.
All citizens are invited to provide the ZBA with local knowledge that can help the board members reach a fair and equitable decision on the Wilmorite application for height and separation variances. By attending the May 13 meeting at the Town Hall you will have an opportunity to observe our ZBA in action and, more importantly, to contribute to its decision-making process.