Woodstock Planning board chair outlines the challenges ahead

John Lavalle (photo by Dion Ogust)

John Lavalle, the former Woodstock supervisor who was named to his third year as chair of the town’s planning board earlier this month, holds one memory particularly dear as he considers the various transitions he sees his home going through of late.

He acknowledges that Woodstock’s always faced friction between its commercial side, which pays much of the town’s hefty tax bill, and those that don’t want change to their rural idyll. But then recalls an evening during one of his first winters visiting his wife’s family home at the corner of Rock City Road and Glasco Turnpike.

“Odetta was playing down in town at The Brass Rail so we decided to walk in for some music, a few drinks. We had a nice night of it and when we walked home we did so in our earlier footprints, right down the middle of the road.”

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Lavalle laughed.

We had been speaking seriously of the land use challenges he sees facing Woodstock now, and what he feels will be the big issues for the coming year. 

“The key issue will be the amount of legislation the town is tackling,” Lavalle said, noting matters that range from a current analysis and review of new regulations regarding short term rentals in Woodstock, an accompanying crisis in affordable housing in the town predicated by the diminishing long-term rental market, and “a growing number of needed zoning changes that have come into play.”

On the latter matter, the planning board chair pointed out how much more was needed than the various changes his board worked on throughout 2018, and are continuing to push towards implementation by the town board.

“Everyone kept waiting for the town’s comprehensive plan to be completed and approved by the town board,” Lavalle continued. “Now that that’s occurred, the comp plan needs to be implemented…That, in my mind, should involve a separate committee.”

When he was town supervisor in the 1980s, John Lavalle was heavily involved in an earlier push towards zoning changes.

The town’s law, passed in 1989 after he was no longer supervisor, is still in effect today, and though changes have been made over the years, many of the challenges that now need addressing — from cell towers and charging stations to short term rentals and solar fields — weren’t even imagined when the last revisions were debated.

“Nobody can see the future,” Lavalle said. “We’re looking at things now we couldn’t even think of in 1989…It makes for a lot on everybody’s plate.”

We asked the planning board chair what might be lingering from 2018, where a number of new issues arose that seemed to test the town’s elemental sense of trust.

First off, Lavalle pointed out how little difference a calendar change makes regarding policies or issues. Secondly, noting his 50 years in town, he spoke about how Woodstock has long faced commercial pressures, and a basic conservatism towards changes from its residents, their state and national political stances to the contrary. He also recalled how town differences can cause rifts that last decades, and never fully heal.

He said that of the major projects that drew so much ink over the past year, most were currently non-controversial, either underway or about to start construction. Twisted Gypsy, where Gypsy Wolf once stood on Tinker Street between the hamlet and Bearsville, is going up as “a scaled down diner with particularly good food, like its owner’s Phoenicia Diner.” Mud Club Bagels is hopping and Early Terrible Wine Bar will open by spring along Mill Hill Road, where Jerry Wapner and Les Walker had bucolic, Zen-style law and architectural offices for years. Woodstock Way is focused on maintaining a starting success as a hotel. Paul Fleischmanns’ store, eatery and apartments at the corner of Mink Hollow Road and Route 212 in Lake Hill are “moving along” after a process that highlighted the sort of cooperation planners like. Jim Nelson has cleared the land for his apartment complex at the corner of Wittenberg and Glenford roads, but is working through “some financial issues” before starting actual construction.

Still problematic, in Lavalle’s view, are the stop work order in place for The Lodge, the collection of cottages and restaurant, with pool, located behind the Woodstock Elementary School and granted a building permit “too early” according to the planning board chair. They need to get special use permits to continue renovations, have been facing legal action from neighbors, but are trying to take their case to the town board.

Then there are ongoing worries about enforcement of town zoning ordinances, in general, and planning board permit requirements and directives, in particular. 

Lavalle and other planners have long pushed for splitting the town’s building inspector and code enforcement officer positions but been told Woodstock can’t afford that. Although now the town’s hiring a new member of the building department to directly oversee Woodstock’s burst of new short term rentals. Maybe there’s some hope for changes in this area, Lavalle hinted.

In the meantime, he noted how much short term rentals have changed the town. He says he and his wife now have one next to them, on a property whose owners said they’d never allow such a thing in the neighborhood. 

“At least the county screening process seems to be working,” he said of a new protocol whereby Ulster County sends information to towns on which properties are being rented short term. The county is pushing for such properties to register and start paying lodging taxes. The town’s looking to implement and then enforce new regulations regarding the conditions for such rentals, including regular inspections.

The big issue that Woodstock will now have to turn its attention to is how to restore the long term rental market that had provided affordable housing for the town for years. As well as the aftermath of a slew of new developments that cost “millions to get to a point of opening doors” in a market that still tends toward the fickle, even as the town becomes less seasonal.

“From a planning perspective, much of what’s come before us in the past year hasn’t been clearcut in terms of what’s being planned and presented,” Lavalle added. “This has made our jobs harder as we work to pull out the nuances of a proposal, and neighbors often come forward to object to the major changes they’re seeing.”

As for big projects for 2019, beyond the legislative and macro-planning projects such as short term rentals, affordable housing, and a total zoning rewrite, the returning planning chair noted two major things on the horizon.

One is a pair of actions involving Ametek Rotron, off Route 375 and once a local employer of a thousand Woodstockers. On the one hand, a correction is needed on zoning maps drawn up 30 years ago that split the business’ campus between Light Industrial and R-3 residential zoning. On the other, plans are underway for a 60,000 to 70,000 square foot addition joining two of Rotron’s main buildings, with funding recently awarded through New York State’s Regional Economic Development Corporation grants and loans.

“They’re shifting into metal 3D printing, from what I hear,” Lavalle said. “More high-paying jobs for the town is good.”

Then there’s the recent sale of The Bear Complex, from John Kirkpatrick and partners to local gallerist Tai Burnett, who is said to have numerous plans for the historic commercial property, from different restaurants to a working theater.

“It’s in flux,” the planning chair noted. “There’s bound to be pushback. I’m not looking forward to it.”

Yet Lavalle further noted that, challenges or not, he’s happy with the fellow planners his board is made up of now. He talked up the merits of each member, from veteran planner and former chair Paul Shultis Jr. through a top attorney and city planner to Conor Wenk, grandson of the late longstanding councilman, who’s “asking the cogent questions.”

“It’s a good board,” he summarized.

But then the returning planning board chair paused.

“The problem moving forward is that we will still have to draw upon people who live here all year for future members, which is becoming harder to do now,” he added. “I look at my neighbors, who all live in Manhattan or Brooklyn now. We’re the only ones here in winter.”

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