The fur flew. Tempers flared. The frustrations were palpable. You could feel the tension in the air. I’m not sure which phrase best describes the atmosphere of the town board meeting last week, so maybe you should decide for yourselves. You can view the October 14 meeting on the town public access YouTube video channel at https://bit.ly/2ei3OOd.
Since there was only one issue on the agenda requiring a decision, it was expected that the meeting would be quite straightforward. The decision to be made was simply whether to hold a public hearing and send out for comments a proposed law to establish a nine-month moratorium on new development in the Exit 18 Gateway Area in the vicinity of the Thruway exit on Route 299. However, a heated debate lasting one hour and 36 minutes ended in a split vote, with three of the five town-board members voting to refer the proposed legislation to the Ulster County planning board and the town planning board for review and comments, and two voting against.
The reason for the split vote and heated discussion was a major rift in the perceptions of town-board members about the intent, impact and possible unintended consequences of the ultimate passage of a moratorium. Two members of the board felt that referral of the law was premature and that the town would be exposed to costly lawsuits if a law establishing a moratorium were ultimately to be enacted. The three others considered such concerns unfounded and felt that a nine-month pause in development in the designated area would allow time for the formulation and amendment of the zoning law in that area.
Town board member Jeff Logan, not in favor of a moratorium, argued that there had been no discussion of the proposed law by the board, and thus that submission to other boards for review was premature. “The supervisor is asking us to submit a law to the town and county planning boards which we have not discussed in public and have not discussed with any of the advisors or consultants who work for the town,” said Logan. “We are being asked to submit a document that we have done zero due diligence on.”
Logan also expressed his fear that this action would be perceived as a “Stop CVS Moratorium,” saying, “The law as currently written will invite legal challenges and these legal challenges have a high likelihood of success.” Quoting a New York State Department of State publication on land-use moratoria, Logan pointed out that the current proposed law “fails miserably” on specific test items designed to inform lawmakers as to whether a moratorium is likely to be upheld by the state judicial system. The state publication states that moratoria “must have a valid public purpose justifying the moratorium” and “address a situation where the burden imposed by a moratorium is being shared substantially by the public at large.”
Logan’s point was that only a very few landowners would suffer financial hardship if the moratorium were to be passed as currently written.
When I contacted him, Logan shared more information from the publication, specifically regarding a three-prong test established in case law to evaluate the legitimacy of any moratorium: “You have to show you acted in response to a dire necessity, [that] the action is reasonably calculated to alleviate or prevent a crisis condition, and [that] you are presently taking steps to rectify the problem.”
Logan clearly does not feel that the proposed moratorium law meets these criteria. You can read the New York State Department of State publication in full at https://on.ny.gov/2ep4ijc.
Town supervisor Neil Bettez felt that the meeting was not the place for a substantive discussion of the merits of a moratorium, stating to Logan, “The resolution before the board is to present this to the town and county planning boards. I’m not sure your comments are relevant to the motion before the board.”
I asked Bettez whether he believed the proposed moratorium could be viewed as a “Stop CVS Moratorium,” which would indeed be illegal and could result in a lawsuit that would likely be upheld in a court of law.
“I hope not,” he told me. “I sincerely believe we need to control growth in the Exit 18 Gateway Area, and we need to do it now. A full master-plan review would cost well over $100,000, and we don’t have that kind of money to spend. It’s similar to knowing you need a new car but you have to spend money to fix the brakes now until you can afford a new car. Right now we can redo the zoning in the Gateway for $50,000.”
The tentative budget being prepared by Bettez, soon to be submitted for approval to the entire board, contains $51,500 to pay for the costs of preparing the moratorium law and for engineering and legal work to refine the zoning law in the Exit 18 Gateway Area.
Board member Marty Irwin submitted a detailed financial analysis at the meeting showing the specific projects that would have legal standing to file lawsuits should a moratorium be enacted. “My financial analysis suggests that the cost to the town to defend against possible litigation may amount to as much as $250,000, not including defending against appeals,” he wrote.
Added to the $51,500 being proposed by Bettez to prepare the law, Irwin’s analysis comes to the conclusion that the final cost to the town would be $300,000. He again stressed that in his opinion it was premature to consider a moratorium without first discussing the possible unintended consequences and the full financial risk to the town.
Bettez estimates the cost of updating the zoning laws for the entire town at “well over $100,000.” Rather than spend $300,000 on a moratorium law, possible subsequent litigation and revision of the zoning law just for the Gateway Area, Irwin would rather allocate that amount to a full master-plan review for the entire town.
In a nutshell, Logan and Irwin do not share Bettez’s sense of urgency with regard to the Gateway Area. Bettez feels that the fears expressed by Logan and Irwin regarding possible litigation in response to the enactment of a moratorium law are not justified.
Clearly, there are differing viewpoints on this most important issue. It appears that the moratorium could cost the town anywhere between $50,000 and $300,000, not including the cost to defend against appeals.
At last week’s meeting the board members were talking at one another, not with one another. Interruptions, charges and countercharges predominated. However, one thing that all agree on is the need for the help of the public to inform their future substantive discussion of the issues.
Irwin told me, “As a board, we’ve expressed unanimity in seeking input from all town residents, whether they are for or against the moratorium. I hope that all will let their voices be heard at the upcoming public hearing.”
Supervisor Bettez agreed with this sentiment. “I think it is very important that people, whatever their views, come to the public hearing,” he said. “We need to know what the town residents think about this issue.”
The public hearing on the proposed nine-month moratorium is scheduled for this Thursday, October 27 at 7 p.m. at the Community Center, 3 Veterans Drive, New Paltz. The town board invites you to come and be heard.