After working diligently on a draft scope that would include all of the areas of greatest concern regarding the Zero Place project for several meetings, New Paltz Village Planning Board chairman Michael Zierler is ready to give up on the so-called “expanded EAF” (referring to the environmental assessment form filed with such applications as this) process and call for a formal environmental impact statement instead. The Zero Place proposal is for a mixed-use building to be constructed on the empty lot at the corner of Mulberry and North Chestnut streets. It would include 48 apartments over a floor of retail space; the entire structure is intended to be net-zero in regard to energy usage, hence the name. Planning board members have been trying to ensure that all areas of concern are addressed and mitigated using this method, which falls short of an EIS, but now that way forward is in doubt.
Reading from a written statement, Zierler recalled that planning board members had agreed to the expanded EAF process — which is all but unheard of in New Paltz — “to provide an efficacious process that would allow the applicant to analyze these four potential environmental impacts and provide [board members] that analysis and propose mitigations to reduce or eliminate these impacts. There was never an intention to circumvent the proper use of SEQRA or to engage in a bilateral negotiation between the applicant” and board members, he explained; this process would include input from the public and a “robust response from the applicant,” together with the opinion of board-hired consultants, to inform any decision.
While an EIS is often feared by developers because of the potential for fast-ballooning costs, an expanded EAF raises hackles because there’s no clear structure to how it unfolds. Essentially, board members invite the developer to address the issues which would be the focus of an EIS before the vote to trigger that document is taken, in any way they see fit. The public hearings and strict timelines of an EIS are not required, but if planning board members are not satisfied, the more formal process could be required anyway. For Zero Place, the areas of concern include impacts to traffic and community character, and consistency with existing community plans. The fact that providing alternatives to the plan — required under an EIS — would not be an option also sticks in the craw of those looking for deeper analysis of this project.
Zierler opted to model this review on an EIS by creating a draft scoping document to keep the process “on a sure and steady course,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, the opposite seems to be the case. Both members of the public with concerns about the project and the applicant’s team are criticizing the draft scoping document and the direction” of the expanded EAF process, leading him to the conclusion that all stakeholders might be better served by returning to more familiar steps. “While recognizing that our ‘hard look’ standard remains the same regardless of the standard we choose,” Zierler is now leaning toward making a determination of significance. That’s the vote which would, if “yes,” trigger an EIS complete with a formal hearing about its scope.
The chairman’s suggestion was, as he admitted, a surprise to fellow board members, applicant David Shepler and his consultants and members of the public. While some of his peers seemed to be leaning toward agreeing to the sudden shift, William Murray asked for — and received — time to think about it: a vote on how to proceed won’t be taken until at least the next meeting.
While Zierler maintained he did not feel pressured by opponents to take this course of action, Shepler’s consultants did not seem convinced. During public comment, Friends of New Paltz attorney John Lyons had laid out numerous objections to an expanded EAF, and implied that proceeding could result in a lawsuit, saying that the “process feels like it’s biased in favor of the applicant.” There was a sense that those comments had unduly influenced the chairman, and they tried to argue otherwise.
Attorney Michael Moriello noted that 18 different categories of environmental impact must be considered before issuing a negative declaration of significance, thus this process was in no way biased toward the developer. The project does not rise to that level, he said, and to change course now would be “grossly unfair to the applicant.”
Barry Medenbach, the engineer for Zero Place, didn’t buy the argument that an EIS could be completed more quickly because it’s a familiar process. “The only time an EIS goes smoothly is when there’s no comments,” he said.
Comments there certainly would be, and Moriello noted that under the EIS process each comment must be responded to, both the ones dealing with technical aspects and those focusing on “how people feel” about both the project and the zoning under which it would be allowed. Some aspects of Zero Place that distress opponents, such as the building’s height, were intentionally included in NBR (neighborhood-business-residential) zoning to increase population density in the village core.
Shepler himself said that he had been counseled by experienced developers not to try building in New Paltz, and that allowing naysayers to draw out the process still further could well have a chilling effect on the NBR zone as a whole, as this is the first proposal considered under that portion of the code.