In New Paltz, large senior housing proposal proves controversial

The Ferris Woods proposal is for 60 two-bedroom senior citizen apartments built on 43 acres that would be accessed from the end of Brouck Ferris Boulevard. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Whenever a new development is proposed in New Paltz, it’s the perceived impacts on quality of life that determine how many people speak out in favor or against it. The Ferris Woods proposal is for 60 two-bedroom senior citizen apartments built on 43 acres that would be accessed from the end of Brouck Ferris Boulevard, with an emergency access route running from the back of the nearby car wash on Route 299. In this case, the proposal pits life on a quiet street against the prospect of being forced to age out of New Paltz due to a lack of affordable alternatives for senior citizens.

The project was the focus of a public hearing which was opened at the January 9 meeting of the New Paltz Town Planning Board. Several residents of Brouck Ferris Boulevard came out to express worries, the most immediate of which is the expected sharp increase in traffic on the quiet dead-end road, but also impacts to what is being characterized as one of the more important wetlands in the town.

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Christine Ransom lives at the end of that small road off South Ohioville, in the last house before the wooded tract that contributes to the “special setting” that she considers an “oasis” from the hustle and bustle not far away, replete with a vibrant night sky and “plenty of wildlife” that makes these woods and wetlands their home. “I may have the most to lose,” Ransom told board members, because with the access road just 14 feet from her property line, she expects to be able to read the license plates on this “parade of vehicles” through her living room window. Like others who spoke, she is expecting her pristine view of night sky to be ruined by lighting required for this complex.

Another neighbor, Michelle Didonna, told board members she’d specifically searched for a dead-end street on which to buy a home. A projected 500% increase in traffic would be an “accident waiting to happen” on Brouck Ferris Boulevard, a road without sidewalks.

In the process of getting her home daycare business licensed, neighbor Orna Gorosh said that the proposal “doesn’t feel safe,” particularly when she brings her young charges outside to walk down that now-quiet road.

Didonna’s husband, Matt, was skeptical that the traffic flow would even be that low for senior housing; he wondered who would regulate the age of residents. Rather, he believes that residents of the apartments will “plow through my neighborhood to get to the business district,” which he maintains “makes no sense” per the town’s comprehensive plan. That’s because Brouck Ferris Boulevard — named to evoke “Hasbrouck,” the family that once owned all this land and more — is a minor road, not a collector road.

Engineer Peter Setaro told board members that “nobody’s trying to say that there’s not an impact” on traffic, but he stressed the 55-and-over aspect, implying that people of that age simply don’t drive as often. Neighbors reached after the fact were skeptical of that assertion, and noted that those who don’t go out tend to have visitors, aides and deliveries that would likely offset any reductions in traffic.

Landowner Bart Panessa did not speak during the hearing, but when reached later agreed in principle with the concern about the complex exiting onto the quiet road where he himself lives, along with some other family members in nearby homes. He told the New Paltz Times that his initial proposal was to make the route past the Diamond Car Wash the main access, and use Brouck Ferris Boulevard as the required emergency access only.

Other neighbors fear for the impact on their relatively shallow wells. There’s no water or sewer infrastructure in that part of town, meaning that wells will need to be drilled and a septic field established. There are several wetlands on the property in question, and finding places to fit all the required improvements is only complicated by the town’s own wetlands law, which establishes a larger protective buffer than state or federal regulators. Both the emergency access via the car wash and the two proposed wells are shown within that buffer on the current plans. Panessa hopes that there will be sufficient water under those wetlands to sell excess to the town, to help address ongoing needs.

Those who are worried that the scale of this project isn’t in keeping with the neighborhood are calling themselves the Friends of Brouck Ferris Boulevard, adding to a list of named groups speaking out against particular projects. SEED — Sustainable Exit Eighteen Development — now has a broader scope than simply opposing CVS, and includes members from throughout the community. Most of the Friends of New Paltz live near the Zero Place development and thus have intimate ties to potential impacts, but due to their numbers and gravitas those concerns are being taken seriously. Across the river, the Friends of the Shawangunks fought for months to stop approval of the Mohonk Preserve foothills project; unlike the two previously-listed groups, those “friends” were unable to garner more widespread community support of their point of view. None of the above groups are tied to the local Quaker group, the formal name of which is the New Paltz Meeting of the Society of Friends.

The Friends of Brouck Ferris Boulevard don’t wish to characterize this as a dispute among neighbors; the issues, they say, do indeed impact a larger swath of the community. Those in attendance listened with keen interest to Noel Russ, a member of the town’s environmental conservation board, who told planning board members that the violations of the wetlands buffer posed a “significantly adverse impact” because it would fragment the Plutarch wetlands, habitat for “species of conservation concern.” Despite the fact that the emergency access road is one of the problems, Russ argued that it still would be better to make that the main access should the project be approved.

Panessa agrees that this process can easily be collegial; he said that the project has been prepared “with family and neighbors in mind,” and that his door is “always open” to those who have questions or concerns. His family has owned that parcel for many years, and declined to sell it many times, including to Walmart and Lowe’s. As he approaches retirement age, Panessa has recognized the dearth in housing alternatives for seniors who don’t wish to maintain a large home any longer. “There’s a lot of college rentals, but if you want to stay, you have to look outside of New Paltz.”

As noted, Panessa agrees that putting the entrance through to Route 299 would be preferable; he characterized himself as “absolutely ecstatic” so many people recommended that option, and that planning board chairman Mike Calimano directed his engineers to investigate it. He has also given thought to other concerns. The initial hope was that he could pay to extend water and sewer service to this lot, but “the town is not ready to do that,” necessitating the less-desirable septic and wells.

Town engineer David Clouser told board members that there is “a lot riding on the soil testing,” in particular the percolation test that shows how quickly water is absorbed. That’s important for the septic design as well as storm water retention plans.

No matter what board members and consultants think of this project, it could be frozen in its tracks if town board members approve a moratorium to study new zoning for this gateway to the community.

On the other hand, Panessa downplayed the importance of these wetlands, particularly one seasonally wet area that is used by Central Hudson personnel to maintain power lines that run through it. Other than that portion, the project is otherwise “hundreds of feet” from designated wetlands, although it does encroach upon the buffer established under the much-contested town wetlands law. That buffer, however, “is just a line,” he said, inferring that it could have just as easily been set closer to the areas in question.

Planning board member Lyle Nolan, who has been involved in crafting more than one iteration of that law before a version finally survived a court challenge, appeared less than enthused at the prospect of waiving the buffer requirement that easily. Despite the fact that any well must be built inside a wide radius of empty space controlled by the land owner, he told Panessa’s engineers, “I don’t see a good reason to move into the buffer. It took years to get this wetlands law.”

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When told that relocating the well would result in more trees being killed to defend a wetland that isn’t particularly high quality, Nolan replied, “I think the site is just too tight.”

Wetlands notwithstanding, Panessa feels that this project is designed to be sensitive to the environment and neighbors. It’s large, yes, but very few trees would have to die to make room for it, meaning that they would remain as privacy buffers, albeit not quite as robust a wildlife habitat as other neighbors assert it is right now. Technological innovations will reduce the light pollution problem, as well: LEDs can be installed that only brighten to full intensity when a car is moving through the parking area, he said. “I get it,” Panessa said. “I live there too.”

There is one comment

  1. Francis

    When did people 55 and over start being labeled as senior citizens? What happens at 55 that people don’t drive as much? Are the people who are looking for affordable housing also not working? How is the emergency access road going to avoid the Wetlands altogether if the already modified location is directly in the wetland buffer? How often does Central Hudson access and/or ‘drive’ through this regulated area? If approved, what will be the traffic impact of putting all those cars on 299 near an already congested intersection? How is the Town going to regulate that ONLY 55 and older tenants reside in this apartment complex AND they only have one car each, if the owner sells the complex? Will there be drawdown tests done on all the wells in the area to assure the residents their wells won’t be affected by a 5=building, 60-unit apartment complex? Where is all the wastewater going?

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