Halfway through the April 24 public hearing on recent building permits granted The Lodge, Zoning Board of Appeals members yielded the floor to Woodstock supervisor Bill McKenna.
“I start by noting that I am here tonight on behalf of the Woodstock Town Board,” McKenna read from prepared notes after attorneys for a neighbor and Selina Woodstock, new owners of what was once The Pinecrest, the restaurant/bar/inn located behind the Woodstock Elementary School, spoke. “The Board has concerns with the issuance of a building permit to MHS Worldwide Holdings III, LLC (aka The Lodge). I am not here tonight to speak for or against the project but only to address the process by which it moves forward.”
The hearing had been called to interpret town zoning laws as they regard building permits granted by town code enforcement officer/building inspector Ellen Casciaro, which a neighbor has claimed (through attorney John Furst) were wrongly granted by ignoring never-formally-rescinded or fixed Orders to Remedy and a Stop Work Order.
McKenna, speaking for the entire Woodstock town board, said that Casciaro had wrongly issued the building permits in question, and noted that the stop work order was still in effect for the property.
“It is our belief that work should be halted,” McKenna added, before reading a section of town law that granted stays against acting around a stop work order or order-to-remedy in such situations, no matter whether new work involves other matters, projects, or owners.
The supervisor’s statement came after ZBA chairperson Maria Mendoza allowed attorneys Furst, representing Lodge neighbor James D. Cohen, and, representing Selina Woodstock (alongside architect Jess Walker) Victoria Polidoro, to address the board. She stressed that the case was a request for interpretation from Cohen.
Furst outlined a history of requested renovations at The Lodge in the years between its last purchase, by MHS Worldwide Holdings in 2016, and the March acquisition of the property by Selina, a global platform for work/stay vacations for “modern nomads.” He described a situation involving “pre-existing non-conforming use” that had gone before the Woodstock planning board and then had its applications there and before the town ZBA withdrawn.
The current situation involving stop work orders and orders to remedy started in spring, 2018, Furst added, when MHS Worldwide started outdoor work at The Lodge, including replacement of a rental cabin, and complaints were repeatedly filed with the town until the official orders were granted in July, 2018. Furst argued that according to town law, new building permits cannot be granted, or any new work begin, until former stop work orders are formally rescinded. He posited that even though such things have long been done informally in Woodstock, they shouldn’t be, and hence laws were broken when Casciaro granted two building permits in late March of this year.
Furst added that those permits were further issued before required application to the planning board for site plan review was made. He asked that the permits be nullified, which McKenna later backed up with his statement.
“You’ve been disregarding town rules for two years now,” Furst said. “At some point it has to stop.”
‘She made a mistake’
After McKenna followed the reading of the town board statement by noting that, “It is clear that the permits should not have been issued by the building inspector,” Polidoro pointed out how the speed of the ZBA’s inquiry had left her and her client unprepared. She said that Selina Woodstock was offering to remediate what had been done at The Lodge in the interest of focusing “energy towards getting site plan approval” for the property.
Neighbors and others from around town brought up aspects of noise tied to a planned recording studio, traffic, and other matters that Mendoza reminded everyone were not in the ZBA’s purview, but should be brought up before the planning board once its review process begins on Thursday, May 2.
Others spoke of the defiance shown by the former owners at The Lodge. Polidoro accused Furst of encouraging bias against her clients at Selina, the property’s new owners. Furst countered by speaking of procedural and substantive issues involving the property, and regaining a point where planning board site plan review can recommence once the ZBA has rendered a decision regarding its interpretation of Casciaro’s move granting permits.
At the end of the session, Mendoza recessed the public hearing, and her board’s interpretation — including whether to grant stays on any further actions at the property — until the ZBA’s next meeting on May 9.
Later, outside the town offices on the Comeau property, McKenna noted to ZBA members that they could grant a stay, with a quorum. He also said that he “wasn’t trying to throw Ellen under the bus,” referring CEO/building inspector Casciaro, but added that “we all make mistakes. She made a mistake.”