Many Woodstock residents say large commercial projects are harming town’s character

John Capella, attorney for Woodstock Neighbors Committee, makes a point about Woodstock Way development at June 28 ZBA meeting. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

The main meeting room at Woodstock town offices on the Comeau Property was SRO for the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals public hearings on the evening of June 28. Town planners were in attendance, plus a who’s who of those who’ve fought major land use battles around town over the past decade. 

Most were present for a continuation of a recessed public hearing on a proposal from Tannery Brook Real Estate LLC, aka Woodstock Way Hotel, to increase its previously awarded setback variances and get the okay to augment its check-in building with a restaurant and patio with alcohol service. But others perked up their ears as neighbors questioned new variance requests for the wine bar and bagel shop compound going up at 45 Mill Hill Road between the Mobil station and Catskill Mountain Pizza.

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In over an hour of public comments, neighbors of both projects, and a host of community members, spoke about trends that have seen more and more commercial projects coming back to the ZBA and town planners, or the town’s building department, after major changes have already been made, asking that they be legalized. Many said it was harming Woodstock’s character. It was time, said one man to loud applause, that a line be drawn. 

Later it was uncovered that the only two people speaking on behalf of Woodstock Way were the husband and daughter of ZBA chairperson Maria Mendoza, a local interior designer and store owner.

Attorneys and zoning specialists dominated much of the evening’s talk about Woodstock Way, with promises of Article 78 lawsuits raised by meeting’s end.

But before that, things got off to a spirited start as the ZBA under Mendoza opened a public hearing on Douglas Ballinger’s bagel and wine bar extravaganza, which was represented by architect Brad Will. As Ballinger listened, his rep listed reasons why the ZBA should grant the famed Canadian-born nightclub developer’s request for variances for a three foot infringement into a minimum required 10 foot side “to legalize an already constructed 33 square foot storage shed;” the legalization of an already constructed raised wooden deck connected to the Wine Bar, and tall fencing that’s had neighbors and others throughout town in an uproar.

The conjoined enterprises will be named Mudd Club Bagel and Coffee Shop, where the architect’s office of Lester Walker was for decades, and Early Terrible Wine Bar, where the law officers of Wapner, Koplovitz and Futerfas, at 45 Mill Hill Road, were for years. Will later said that the wine bar name was a reference to a Ballinger concept from his early days before starting a string of multi-floor Toronto nightclubs, buying and revving up Manhattan’s Webster Hall, and opening what is now the City Beer Hall in Albany. 

While explaining the various variances Ballinger was seeking to legalize changes they had made on the property, Will — who also serves as architect for the Woodstock Way Hotel — read a statement noting the “transformative” nature of the project in both “functional” and “aesthetic” terms for a property that had previously been “kind of sleepy.”

But ZBA member Gordon Wemp asked “why are we hearing about the fence only now?” after Will described it being made of rough-cut local black locust boards that would “age beautifully.”

“It got built up higher than planned,” the architect replied, noting that while measuring ten feet high in parts, it was actually a six foot fence on top of other pre-existing features on the property.

Neighboring business owner Linda Tiano of Catskill Mountain Pizza, with former ZBA chairman Howard Harris quietly advising her, pointed out how excessive and anti-Woodstock such a fence was. She went on to bring up other changes made since Ballinger received planning board site plan approval for his bar and coffee/bagel shop. Lighting fixtures were now fanciful medieval creatures, copper was shining everywhere, rocks had been placed in a maze of seating arrangements.

Harris suggested that changes should be requested from the Woodstock Commission for Civic Design as well as the Planning Board. Will said he and Ballinger were in discussion with “members” of both boards.

Mendoza recessed the public hearing for later resumption while several in the audience started grumbling about “cumulative impacts” and bad precedents.

And Woodstock Way…

By the time the Woodstock Way application came up, the room had swelled to capacity. Attorney Ron Pordy repped project owners Ryan Giuliani and Jesse Halliburton, accompanied by Will.

Pordy opened discussion by noting how his clients had decided not to seek a variance for a new parking place at one of its buildings, and had taken a number of neighbors on a site walk of the Woodstock Way property before the meeting. He acknowledged attorneys hired by those neighbors, and said he’d already answered all their charges, with copies passed on to ZBA members.

Pointing to a density map of the hotel complex and surrounding properties, he pointed out how the 313 square foot patio with bar service window was adjacent to Woodstock’s commercial district, and how his clients were simply looking to “modify previous agreements.”

“If we survive tonight we go to the planning board and will have to modify our plans there as well,” Pordy added. 

At which point a long list of opponents to the Woodstock Way Hotel owners’ request for a space to serve alcohol, and other changes, started to speak.

Neher Street resident Chris Wanker and his attorney, Patrick Logan, talked about how the former NYC foreman invested in not one but two residences that back up onto what is not only becoming a hotel, but a “bar scene” as Wanker put it. They spoke about reaching an earlier compromise, and then having the plans change.

“I didn’t buy my house to be next to a bar,” Wanker said, asking how any 10 p.m. curfew could be maintained, let alone one maintaining that only hotel guests would be served. “These guys are very ambitious. They haven’t even opened and they’re changing their plans…We don’t need this.”

Logan noted how the previous setbacks that Giuliani and Halliburton are seeking to have amended were already way off the actual requirements. He brought up the idea that the hotel plans may be moving forward in a segmented fashion, which is illegal. He suggested that the ZBA coordinate its review with the Woodstock Planning Board moving forward.

Attorney John Capella of Orange County, representing other neighbors formed into the new Woodstock Neighbors Committee, spoke about the site visit he’d made to Woodstock Way before the meeting, and how he’d immediately thought it would be a great place to host a party, especially on lower patios and lawns by the Tannery Brook waterfall. He noted Woodstock zoning law’s definition of nightclubs involving outside music, the idea of segmentation, and zoning laws’ basic requirement that it foresees all future uses for a property once granted variances.

“You have to ensure there are no adverse effects on a property’s neighbors,” he pointed out. “You have to consider future owners of a property. You have to consider the issue of cumulative impacts…You can ask the Planning Board for their input on all this.”

Menendez, speaking for the ZBA, asked Cappella for a list of all the members of the committee that hired him. Rod Futerfas, speaking as the ZBA’s attorney, asked Logan and Cappella for their legal arguments regarding segmentation, as well as possible coordination with the planning board.

Several people mentioned the idea of “creeping encroachments” from the audience as speakers started to rise and talk about the ways in which the Woodstock Way owners’ very seeking of new variances was breeding mistrust. They spoke about how what was being proposed, now, went against the idea of Woodstock everyone had. They addressed other areas where they felt town planning and building code agencies had let things slip, had allowed a form of “creep” to start, precedents get set, and a “sneakiness” enter into local development. They asked Mendoza and the ZBA to work at being transparent.

“I’ve lived in this community and worked for its betterment for over 35 years,” said one woman. Others echoed the cry. “This is our community.”

A man rose and only identified himself as the retired husband of a local business woman. He talked about how he used to sit in his yard, enjoying the quiet from a hammock. New neighbors were louder and later than he wished, but he didn’t feel he wanted to create a situation where he infringed on their rights. So he gave up on his hammock.

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A woman stood and said she didn’t want to give up her hammock.

Later, it was learned that the man supportive of Woodstock Way was Howard Amchin, ZBA chair Mendoza’s husband and business partner. 

Stop being steamrolled

“We have to try and stop this here,” said Aileen McNally, who owns a building on Tinker Street where a tenant has given notice because of the coming bar, or at least her perception of same. She spoke about the ways in which Woodstock Way could become an events center, and what would happen then. She asked ZBA members not to be afraid of the applicants filing an Article 78 filing a lawsuit, since project opponents surely would be, should the variance requests get granted.

Rachel Marco-Havens, a lifelong Woodstocker, asked those who were against the idea of alcohol service at Woodstock Way to stand. The entire crowd did, expect for three people. She noted how she didn’t trust newcomers to town telling people what they needed, or referring to the old Tinker Village neighborhood of rental homes as being dilapidated. “They were people’s homes,” she said. “No matter how ramshackle they appeared, they were Woodstock, man.”

Evan MacDonald, son of the beloved late musician Betty MacDonald, brought up the ways his living situation has been impeded upon by a slow progression of approved changes at Sunfrost, out Tinker Street towards Bearsville. Others spoke about what Station Bar & Curio, in the center of the hamlet, had done to its neighborhoods with noise up to and beyond its 2 a.m. closing hours. Several people spoke about how we might finally be seeing a limit to the economics of tourism. “Don’t forget we’re a community of residents,” one woman said, talking about having lived her long life in Woodstock.

Raymond Foye, a legendary publisher and art figure in New York City who’s kept a home on Meads Mountain for decades, gave an impassioned speech about the ways that noise carries in town. He noted the peaceful elements people still treasure, and the green agenda many in town espouse. He added up the taxes he pays, and the community elements he feels good about them paying for. “I think we have to draw a line in the sand,” he said. “There’s a question we need to face regarding a mentality in town that you just do what you want to do and come back and get it okayed. We have to stop being steamrolled.”

Another large applause answered his call to arms.

Giuliani rebuts

Later, Giuliani spoke. He noted how he and Halliburton had been in town 15 years. He reiterated the small size of the space in question, then noted that Woodstock Way would be happy to rescind its offer to the community to share in its new waterfall-side terraces and patios. He spoke about lies and distortion spreading on social media. He asked why no one had talked about their site visit before the meeting. He said he and Halliburton were already starting to take in resumes for employment. He talked about how Woodstock needed a high class hotel, and was moving beyond airbnbs and providing something city tourists wanted. 

“You don’t know me and my family and what we’ve given back to this community,” he said, after which audience members shouted out for specifics, which he refused to share. Wemp said he’d have anyone yelling evicted from the gathering.

A young woman spoke about what she likes to see in Woodstock as a New Yorker. Later it turned out she was Mendoza’s and Amchin’s daughter, Jordan.

Pordy, the applicants’ attorney, said he’d answered the opponents’ attorneys’ points and suggested the ZBA make a decision. He noted that the planning board could set stipulations. “If you need a coordinated review we can do that.”

The crowd talked about being good neighbors, trust, and again the question of precedent. How far, several asked among themselves, would Woodstock take its current acquiescence to development? 

“I hearby recess this application to the call of the chair,” Mendoza finally proposed. The board backed her up and all left into the still chill night, grumbling.

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