New Paltz restaurant/drugstore project still alive, despite moratorium

The intersection of Route 299 and Putt Corners in New Paltz. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

The town of New Paltz’s gateway moratorium, now in effect, was imposed in order to consider zoning changes from the village border to the town line with Lloyd. While it’s clear from the concerted opposition to the CVS project proposed adjacent to the Thruway that there is deep discontent with what’s allowed under the current rules, not everyone is comfortable with using this pause in development to figure out exactly what those problems might be. Town council member Jeff Logan asked for those issues to be laid out several times during the debate over the moratorium, and town planning board member Amy Cohen remains unclear as the discussions around new zoning unfold.

Cohen sees this as a lack of focus, which troubles her. She believes the moratorium is having a “chilling” effect on development, which she considers a significant problem for a community where about a third of all property is not taxed. Putting impediments on commercial development, which can result in tax relief for residential property owners, is no joke in her mind.

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“The problem is that we still don’t know what they don’t like about the zoning,” she said during an interview last week. That kind of information could help developers anticipate what the zoning might look like, and prepare applications appropriately.

No lack of foreknowledge will prevent the Trans-Hudson application from moving forward as far as it can, however. The so-called CVS proposal calls for the titular drug store, as well as a Five Guys Burgers and Fries, to be placed on the 5.6-acre parcel bounded by the Thruway, Route 299 and North Putt Corners Road, with a third potential pad site to be developed at a later date. Developers have opted to continue with site plan review, which could save time once the moratorium is lifted. On the other hand, if zoning rules are significantly altered, they may have to go back and revise those plans yet again in order to gain final approval to build, which is the one step planning board members cannot take under the moratorium. In short, they’re proceeding at their own risk.

The Trans-Hudson developers “have spent $450,000 between their consultants and ours, and they still don’t know” what it would take to satisfy residents, Cohen said. “The consultants are making a fortune. It’s almost like a con game.”

Cohen is one of four planning board members who failed deputy supervisor Dan Torres’ “litmus test” by voting that the CVS plan wasn’t significant enough to require an environmental impact statement. She appreciates that Torres and others are concerned about the extensive tree removal and massive amount of fill which would be trucked in to level the lot, but wonders why a similar mass-execution of trees to develop more parking at Mohonk Preserve didn’t cause the same people to raise alarms. Cohen also supported that project, saying, “I thought it was needed, but there’s not a lot of animals by the Thruway.”

In addition, there’s the possibility that community members will win this fight but end up with a worse project as a result. The planning process generally involves developers offering community benefits as a way to offset or mitigate issues created by a project, but those might not come to pass if this project is approved by a judge as the result of a lawsuit. Council members Logan and Marty Irwin have expressed fears that such a suit might result from new zoning being imposed several years into the application process, and used that rationale to unsuccessfully push for this project to be exempted from the moratorium in the first place. Cohen also thinks such an exemption would have been appropriate, and points to the village moratorium in the neighborhood-business-residential (NBR) zone along North Chestnut Street for comparison. In that case, the flashpoint was the Zero Place project, which village trustees exempted without controversy.

While she appreciates that the circumstances are different, nevertheless Cohen said, “It seems like a double standard. The people on Huguenot Street are beside themselves over Zero Place, but they’re dismissed as NIMBYs. By the Thruway we’re just talking a drugstore, but this is in their back yard.

Cohen is mindful that there’s no insurance policy to pay for the sort of lawsuit Logan and Irwin fear, and that the town tax rate was already hiked eight percent this year alone. On the other hand, she points to the town’s community center as an example of what’s possible through negotiation with developers; it was paid for by the ones who built the medical center not far from where the controversial CVS project would be sited if approved.

One offer made in association with this project is the synchronization of traffic lights from Ohioville Road to Manheim Boulevard, an expensive proposition that speaks to the frustration of many community residents. Questions about the timing of lights are not uncommon in New Paltz-related Facebook groups.

Part of the reason the opposition to CVS has been fierce is because there’s eventually going to be a connector between the Wallkill and Hudson valley rail trails, and it’s going to have to come through that intersection. Developers are willing to make room for it to run through the back of the property on the way to Henry W. Dubois Drive, some of which is already primed and ready for safe bicycle travel. The idea of creating a rest area for bicyclists is also still on the table.

Bicycle access could also improve safety for high-school students, Cohen believes. The other business proposed for this site, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, is popular enough with students that she’s been told by several that they bike up to Kingston just to eat there. With planned improvements to South Putt Corners Road, students could get the same experience with far fewer parental heart attacks as a result of the trip.

Developers are also willing to build two bus stops anywhere in the community, Cohen said, which is something she would like to see for those residents who don’t drive. “Planning board members all have cars,” she said, but those who use buses in New Paltz are more often than not obliged to wait for them in all weather without shelter.

A disconnect between board members and residents runs through this entire process, in her view. In addition to the question of buses, she doesn’t believe her colleagues appreciate how important another drugstore would be to local senior citizens, some of whom must travel to Kingston now in order to obtain affordable medications. “Not everyone has health care benefits from jobs,” she pointed out.

Water issues could also be addressed by an amenable developer, Cohen believes; her dream is to get a water connection across the Thruway paid for through the CVS project, which itself would benefit from a municipal hookup. That could make the derelict Genesis Diner, as well as the 87 Motel site, on the other side of the interstate highway more attractive for redevelopment.

Even the aesthetic improvements, creating buildings in the style of the Hampton Inn rather than the cookie-cutter CVS originally proposed, could end up on the cutting-room floor if planning board members don’t get to make the final call, Cohen fears.

Impacts on the CVS project are worrisome to Cohen, but so too is the committee created to look at the zoning. While planner Mike Welti is facilitating the process, “no town employees or [regular] consultants” are part of the committee, which she feels is a missed opportunity to draw upon their experience. She further believes that the appointed members were selected in part for their opposition to that specific project.

Town Supervisor Neil Bettez, who was reached for comment on Cohen’s concerns about the purpose of the moratorium, sees things differently. “I have heard the same question about what exactly needs to be changed from at least one of my board members,” he wrote in an e-mail. “My response to him as well as [Cohen] is that we do not know exactly what needs to be changed; if we did, we would change it. What we do know, however, is that a great deal has changed in urban planning and people’s expectations for their built environment since the last plan was adopted more than 20 years ago. The goal is not for the planning board or the town board to tell people what their town is going to look like, but to let the people of New Paltz decide what, if any, changes they want through a public process.”

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That’s little solace to Cohen, who recalls that Bettez and others ran for office in part on a platform of revising that master plan, something which she feels would have been a better use of funds than this moratorium and public process to rezone a small area instead.

Planning board co-chairs Adele Ruger and Lagusta Yearwood were also invited to comment for this story, but did not respond to a request to be interviewed.