The decision handed down on March 17 by judge Michael H. Melkonian in the New York State Supreme Court of Ulster County dismissing Wilmorite, Inc.’s Article 78 petition against the Town of New Paltz Planning Board has evoked a sigh of relief among town officials worried about how to pay for all the additional municipal services that a new 256-unit dormitory would have needed. For proponents of the Park Point project, including SUNY New Paltz, losing the developers’ lawsuit means going back to Square One in terms of augmenting student housing close to campus: an ongoing unmet need that also has negative impacts on rental properties within the village. For its part, the Ulster County Industrial Development Agency (IDA), which triggered the brouhaha in the first place by granting Wilmorite a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement against the town’s wishes, may also have to go back to the drawing board and rethink that policy — especially if the lawsuit still pending against it by the town doesn’t go its way.
“This decision is rewarding because it validates the actions of all the town agencies involved, as well as protecting the New Paltz taxpayers. The judge provided a thoughtful, clear and concise decision that is easily understood by all,” said town supervisor Susan Zimet last week. In explaining the rationale for his decision to reject Wilmorite’s arguments, Judge Melkonian pointed out that the State Environmental Quality Review Act requires a reviewing agency like a Planning Board to “engage in a systematic balancing analysis” of socioeconomic and environmental impacts of a proposed project. The basic standard usually cited is that the agency “must take a sufficiently ‘hard look’ at the proposal before making its final determination and must set forth a reasoned elaboration for its determination.”
As part of that “hard look,” according to the judge, “the Planning Board is obligated under SEQRA to determine the fiscal impact of the PILOT granted by the IDA upon the town, the village and the school district…Here, the Planning Board concluded that the revenues coming to the town and school district under the PILOT were insufficient to maintain local services. The Planning Board further concluded that local services may actually be decreased because of the state-imposed two-percent tax cap,” since a new tax-exempt property would do nothing to expand the town’s tax base for another 25 years. Based on the evidence submitted by the town to support these conclusions, the judge determined that the Planning Board had indeed met the “hard look” and “reasoned elaboration” parameters and rejected Wilmorite’s contention that its decision to deny site plan and subdivision approval to the Park Point project was “arbitrary, capricious, irrational, illegal and an abuse of discretion.”
“The decision recognizes the detrimental impact that PILOTs are having on our local communities to provide services,” Zimet observed. “It also recognizes the difficulty of PILOTs in a tax cap environment. This decision can have a far-reaching impact on not only PILOTs, but the way PILOTs affect the tax cap structure, and may force the state to reevaluate the impact of PILOTs and the tax cap…. In regards to the IDA lawsuit, we believe that the town is on the right side of this issue and will also prevail.”
In his decision, Judge Melkonian noted, “There is nothing in the record to support respondents’ claim that the Planning Board unlawfully usurped the authority of the IDA. The IDA set the PILOT. The Planning Board simply determined that the amount and terms of set by the IDA were insufficient to mitigate the adverse fiscal impacts. Both of these determinations were within the discretionary authority of each agency. Nothing requires that one defer to the other.” In other words, the decision is a victory for “home rule” that may make it increasingly difficult for an IDA to impose PILOT terms on a municipality without sufficient consultation.
So what’s next? Will the would-be developers be back at the table in the foreseeable future, Plan B in hand? Zimet hasn’t heard anything yet. “In regards to Wilmorite’s next move, that is for them to decide,” she said.
Certainly the demand for additional student housing will only continue to escalate as SUNY New Paltz seeks to increase its rate of admissions, but no next steps have been announced as yet. “The college remains committed to our critical need for safe, proximate, high-quality apartment-style housing for our students, faculty and staff,” said Melissa Kaczmarek, media relations manager at the college. “SUNY New Paltz is at the bottom of SUNY comprehensive colleges in the number of beds per student, and we will continue to explore options available to us to address the shortage of housing in New Paltz that is longstanding and critical to the educational interests of current and future students.”
“The Foundation has been steadfast in recognizing and supporting SUNY New Paltz’s need for student, faculty and staff housing,” said David A. Dorsky, chair of the Real Estate Committee of the SUNY New Paltz Foundation, a vocal proponent of the Park Point project. “We will continue to support the College in its efforts to help meet this immediate and critical need.”