At their Thursday meeting, New Paltz Town Board members received a report on the possibility of passing a moratorium on development in the gateway area near the Thruway. The information was presented by members of an ad-hoc committee created just to study the issue after it was suggested by a number of residents concerned that many projects in process are being planned in the context of a comprehensive plan which was approved over 20 years ago.
For the purposes of studying what a moratorium would look like, committee members defined the gateway zone as ranging from the Ohioville hamlet to the ShopRite plaza. Ohioville is the first “sense of place” a driver encounters when arriving in town from the east, and beyond ShopRite (and the Empire State Bank, on the other side of the road) is where the sidewalk begins, heralding a new area. Planner Susan Blickstein, who led the effort, noted that there are several large sites with active proposals and other areas — such as the ShopRite plaza itself and the land formerly the site of the 87 Motel — which are ripe for redevelopment. It also includes a portion of the land proposed for Wildberry Lodge, and one alternative would be to include that entire lot in a moratorium because of the active plans there. Any connection of the county’s expanding rail trail network would also pass through this proposed gateway zone.
Blickstein addressed several criticisms of moratoria in general. It’s not actually anti-development, she said, because the result of pausing planning in the defined area would be to create “clear and predictable zoning,” meaning that the frustrating deadlock so common for developers at Planning Board meetings would be resolved ahead of time because the expectations would be laid out in black and white. That would save builders both time and money. The municipality, for its part, would likely see fewer Article 78 actions that drain town coffers, which could more than offset the expected cost of writing new zoning in the year or so provided under such a moratorium. That cost is predicted to be $23-25,000, with another $8,000 tacked on if the full Wildberry parcel is included as recommended.
The chairman of the bicycle-pedestrian committee, Peter Kaufman, explained that during a moratorium zoning would be updated to acknowledge the “sense of arrival” in New Paltz, which is not “anytown USA.” An eye would be kept on writing code to prevent inefficient and uncoordinated development, and would include consideration of non-motorized transportation through this important intersection. Not allowing for a solid rail trail connection in particular, he said, “could be a horribly lost opportunity.”
Environmental conservation board member Laura deNey reiterated the idea that moratoria are not designed to prevent development, but rather to create zoning that balances environmental and human building needs. She displayed a map to illustrate that there are many parcels of woods and wetlands in the proposed zone, despite it not being apparent from the road. The zoning would embrace smart growth principles, focusing on redeveloping existing sites with green infrastructure over removing natural habitat.
The idea of thresholds was discussed by John Orfitelli, chairman of the historic preservation commission. Committee members recommend that several exemptions be included in any moratorium, including plans with five or fewer units and commercial development of 2,500 square feet or less in area. Reoccupancy of existing buildings and current construction should also be allowed to proceed, he said.
Should a moratorium be passed, Blickstein said, it would have a finite time period of 9-12 months with the option to extend it for three more months, but only twice. “More than 16-18 months would be bad, bad, bad,” she said. “The shorter, the better.” It would require Town Board members to clearly define the goals, and a public hearing would be held on the moratorium itself, as it’s a law. Town Board members could declare themselves the sole arbiter on who gets relief beyond the exemptions built into the moratorium.
Blickstein said that there are funding sources which could offset the cost, which will include money for both studies and a consultant to oversee the project, likely a planner such as herself. For the job, she took herself out of the running: “I’ve worked on plans in communities where I’ve lived,” she said, and “I had to do my grocery shopping two towns over,” because of the great interest in the work.
Council member Jeff Logan asked about the 2011 comprehensive plan, which while it was never adopted did include a survey of community sentiment that suggested there’s already a clear sense of how to develop that area. Blickstein said that the unadopted plan should be considered, but as for the community sentiment, it was “one of the worst surveys I’ve ever seen done for a community planning process.”
Board members also wanted to know how this would fit into the joint comprehensive plan now in development for the town and village. Blickstein explained that this process would be necessarily much faster, because the area is but a sliver of the entire town, but that it could easily be included in the final plan created by that committee. Supervisor Neil Bettez likened it to fixing the roof while making plans to remodel the entire house.
Marty Irwin asked about liability. “If we decide, for example, that CVS is not okay, does that open us up to litigation?”
While anyone can sue for any reason, Blickstein said, “that’s what the tool is for.” If the moratorium is solid, she said, “They will be throwing their money away.”