The May 23 Woodstock zoning board of appeals meeting had two glaring pending issues among several on its agenda.
One, involving the property known as The Lodge, currently owned by Selina Woodstock, involves a neighbor’s request for a ZBA interpretation on whether the town’s building inspector and code enforcement officer can grant building permits on a property upon which she’s placed a stop work order. The other, involving a Tonshi Mountain property where clearcutting occurred in the town’s heavily-restricted scenic overlay, and a stainless steel roof installed that can be seen for miles around, asks whether the town planning board can mitigate a site that should have come before it for approvals but never did because the town building inspector/CEO never alerted the landowner what zone he was in, and hence what zoning restrictions he’d be facing.
While the ZBA had a quorum May 23, it deferred any decisions for now, stating only that member Gordon Wemp would be writing the decision on the situation involving The Lodge.
Both issues involve the town’s longstanding building department head, Ellen Casciaro, with whom the Woodstock town board and planning board have had tensions over recent years. Most recently, town supervisor Bill McKenna went so far as to read a statement from he and the town board at a ZBA meeting stating their belief that the building inspector had acted wrongly in granting permits for The Lodge last month, and suggesting a stay be put in place on further permits on the property until the ZBA could reach its decision.
When Casciaro then issued more permits for work at The Lodge, McKenna said that he did not see her actions as defiance but a “difference of opinions.” Similarly, he noted in regard to the Tonshi Mountain property that in his view, the matters weren’t even planning issues.
After the quick May 23 ZBA meeting, members of the public gathered in the Comeau property parking lot to discuss what they had just witnessed, and what they believed were underlying issues. Is there a problem with Woodstock zoning enforcement, they asked? Is this a continuation of problems that resulted in the mass exodus of an entire zoning board of appeals several years ago, growing commercial pressures on the town, and too much work for a short-staffed building department?
Two years ago the Woodstock planning board passed a motion to ask its attorney, John Lyons, whether they could bypass the building inspector/code enforcement officer in regards to perceived infractions of town zoning code. It was noted that Casciaro hadn’t answered the board’s questions about a matter where it seemed site plan requirements made a decade and a half ago were being ignored. Lyons said the ZEO was in her rights to make zoning decisions on her own…and not answer planners’ requests for information. The planning board could not supersede her authority.
The planning board’s request of their attorney, and his answer, came up at a meeting later in the summer of 2017 between Casciaro, planning board chairman John LaValle, then-planning board secretary Therese Fernandez, and town supervisor Bill McKenna. McKenna, it was reported, asked how departments could help each other face the number of new building applications coming before the town, especially from new or expanding businesses.
This past spring, the Woodstock town board added a new inspector to Casciaro’s department, Francis Hoffman Jr. of Ellenville, to report directly to McKenna, like Casciaro.
“They’ll be equals,” McKenna said at the time. “Ellen will now be focusing on building issues and building permits. Francis will focus on zoning, operating permits and fire inspections.”
Yet the complaints against Casciaro and the building department appear to have kept coming. The planning board’s former chairman Paul Shultis, son of a longstanding former building inspector/ZEO of the same name, has maintained a long list of cases where planners had asked the building department for opinions or information only to be rebuffed by Casciaro, as well as planning board opinions that differed with building department actions on cases involving local bed and breakfasts, tree removal on subdivisions, combined site uses on new commercial buildings, and situations (The Lodge, Silvia’s) where applicants shifted approved plans based on Casciaro’s recommendations.
“The planning board feels our role is to apply the zoning and subdivision regulations and set conditions and the ZEO is to enforce the conditions set during review and approval,” wrote Shultis two summers ago.
Repeated attempts by Woodstock Times to interview Casciaro directly have been denied over recent years, with McKenna taking the role as Woodstock’s official spokesperson to answer written questions for her. McKenna added, at one point in 2017, that the building inspector/ZEO was worried about a “witch hunt” involving former ZBA members and her former boss/mentor’s son.
We asked about decisions such as expansions at Sunfrost, fences and setbacks at Mud Club, The Lodge’s pull-back from planning board site plan review, and who the ZEO goes to for input. McKenna reiterated that Casciaro makes all decisions herself. He also has added that he differs with those, including planning board members, who have suggested splitting off the building inspection part of the department’s work from code enforcement. In his mind, everything’s interrelated.
“The same person should look at a project and make determinations based on whether there’s enough information in the plans being submitted, is it signed off on, does it comply, does it match setbacks,” said McKenna — a former ZBA member and full-time contractor — in 2017, before the most recent bout of building pressures and legal questions started emerging. “Ellen has incredible training through the state with building codes, and knows our code through and through. She has final decision but if someone differs with her, they can appeal. By law there’s only one person who can interpret and that’s Ellen.”
The ZBA decisions are now expected in early June.