The town of Lloyd has a plan for the hamlet of Highland: that’s where most of the people should live, so that’s where most of the commercial and residential development should be. Increasing density in that core area should result in a community that has a more robust economy, more opportunities for work and play and more of a rural character in the outlying town. While all of those benefits may result over the long term, watching it unfold within feet of one’s home is far from a pleasant experience, and it’s one that neighbors of the Trailview Place development on Toc Drive have been experiencing since last summer.
Two of those neighbors, Ruth Dapp and Jessica Caswell, shared their experiences and their research into this project, where six six-unit, three-story apartment buildings are now looming on a formerly wooded lot. Caswell lives on Toc, where the entrance to the project will be, but the immediate impact on Dapp’s home on Commercial Avenue Extension is far greater. Because of the planned residential development (PRD) zone that the project is in, there are no setback requirements for the buildings, which are just inches from her property line. “There used to be deer here,” she said. What was once a home to foxes, deer and countless birds will soon house tenants in apartments that look down on her house and yard. What’s mostly left of the wildlife is the squirrel population.
Dapp never owned the property adjacent to her family homestead, where she’s lived for 35 years and played as a child, so when developer Brad Scott Sr. approached her about the project, it wasn’t a surprise. “He told me they were going to put in town houses,” she recalled. “He asked me if I would be willing to trade my house for one of them, but how could I watch them tear this down?” What she wasn’t aware of, however, was that the Town Board was in the process of changing the zoning on Scott’s land to a PRD, a zone which allows for considerably more density than town houses. Rezoning requires a new law, which requires a public hearing, and notice of that public hearing must be published in the town’s newspaper of record, which it was. Few people read the legal advertisements, but had Dapp been among them, she would have known what was in the works next door.
“Could we have noticed the neighbors?” asked town supervisor Paul Hansut rhetorically. “We could have.” However, the town’s attorney advised that mailing out individual notices when none are required is risky business, because overlooking someone could result in a lawsuit. When mailed notices are required, such as when a project is subject to a public hearing before the Planning Board, the law is quite specific about who is sent that notice and how, but for a law change, there is no such requirement and no such guidance. Therefore, notice of the zoning change only went into the paper, although notice of the project itself was mailed to all nearby neighbors, including Dapp and Caswell. No one attended the public hearing on the zoning change, according to Hansut.
By then, however, it seemed too late, because the project which Scott, representing his son Brad Scott Jr., was proposing was within the scope of the PRD zone. Planning boards in New York State are not, strictly speaking, in a position to say “no” to projects that comply with local zoning, and the members of this board were not inclined to try. Moreover, the neighbors were concerned because Scott the elder is vice-chairman of that same Planning Board, and the builder of the project, Scott Saso, is the chairman. They both recused themselves from the proceedings as the law requires, and even left the room during discussions, but the law on conflict of interest doesn’t consider whether or not other members of the board would look upon the project favorably because it’s submitted by their peers. A similar situation just arose in the Village of New Paltz, when Planning Board members Rich Steffens submitted plans for a subdivision, and neighbors opposed to the project were not convinced the remaining board members could separate his dual roles as developer and planning board member. The New Paltz situation was complicated by the fact that there are presently no alternate members who could step in and vote on the project. The Lloyd Planning Board did have alternate members when Trailview Place was approved, Hansut said.
Planning is a complex topic, and the process is guided in part by the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), which is often pronounced “seeker” by those in the business. SEQRA requires planning boards to answer a series of questions to determine how significant an impact a given project will have on a number of aspects, including water quality, environmental impact, historical significance of the site, conflict with zoning laws and the “character or quality of the existing community,” among others. Neighbors don’t feel it was fair for the Planning Board to determine that there was little or no impact to the community character, but it’s not cut and dried. This is a neighborhood with several high-density housing projects already, so that must be balanced against the clear evidence that this complex of buildings is built right up against quiet single-family homes. The court rulings regarding community character don’t yet draw a bright line, so filing a suit would be the only way to find out. According to Caswell, one attorney estimated such a case would cost $20,000 or more. “Who has that kind of money?” she asked.
“It would have been hard not to grant the zoning change,” Hansut said, considering how much of the area is already zoned PRD. The supervisor is, however, well aware that the but for the lack of setbacks, neighbors of this project might never have raised any issues.
According to building department director David Barton, eliminating setbacks in the PRD zone was important to the town’s comprehensive plan. That gives more flexibility for higher density in areas near transit hubs, supporting the critical mass needed to keep that infrastructure maintained and improving. “Planning looks at people who are going to live here for generations,” he said, not just those who might be inconvenienced here and now.
Those inconveniences include jackhammers, which started breaking up the rocky terrain over Fourth of July weekend and went nonstop for weeks. That decision was characterized as “unfortunate” by Hansut, but he won’t look to pass a stronger noise ordinance in response to that decidedly unneighborly action, because those laws are difficult to enforce. Instead, he’d like to see future site plans approved with restrictions on noise and work hours built in, so that the building inspectors who are there almost daily can react immediately and stop the offending pounding.
More concerns stem from that comprehensive plan, or more particularly who drafted it. That committee was chaired by Brad Scott Sr., and Scott Saso was the vice-chair. That committee prepared recommendations, but the Town Board was charged with accepting them. A request to the town ethics commission from Dapp to investigate the possibility of impropriety during this process was declined; town law states that ethics complaints may only be initiated by an employee of the town, the definition of which includes appointed volunteers. This is a common feature of local ethics laws.
Caswell has repeatedly questioned the need for new housing. “I’m not against development, if it produces jobs, but this isn’t doing that,” she said. “With all the foreclosures we have in town, we don’t need more housing.”
Barton disagrees on that count. “Developers do their homework,” he said, to make sure a new project will turn a profit. “Lloyd has a 2% vacancy rate, and 5% is optimal. Even that isn’t a lot. There have been only ten more rental units built in the past ten years.” He’s not referring to complexes, either: there have been ten rental apartments built. “Realtors have told me they are actively looking for properties to sell,” because of the high demand.
“There’s not a lot of rental property in Ulster County,” said Hansut, and there are many reasons people might prefer renting to owning their own home. While there does seem to be demand, larger projects in town are now being approved with conditions designed to keep the supply from outstripping that demand. Mountainside Woods, for example, is the first project to be approved for phased development. “That’s never done here,” Hansut said. “They won’t build until there’s a contract to sell, as the buyers are qualified for mortgages. There are 55 units in phase 1, then we decide on the next phase.”
“I know those buildings aren’t going anywhere now,” Dapp said. “I just want to make sure that nobody else has to go through this.” Strategies like including noise restrictions in site plans may help with that, but reading the notices published in the legal ads, or otherwise paying attention to what the town board is considering, will likely continue to be the responsibility of individual residents.