The crowd inside the Town of Kingston offices’ meeting room, where the town’s planning board was continuing its fourth public hearing on an application to build a quarter million square foot manufacturing plant on a property surrounded by trails and the state’s Bluestone Wild Forest, was quick to notice how its ideological lines mirrored those splitting the nation.
The standing room only crowd that spread into hallways and had cars parked up and down Sawkill Road — which many said was the largest ever seen in the small rural town — was largely drawn by a call-to-action by the region’s leading environmental organizations. Speaker after speaker contended that the planning process, which declared the application of 850 Route 28 LLC didn’t need full environmental review because its potential impacts were minimal, was faulty and legally liable. The region’s environment was its key economic attribute, many said.
A large contingent of native- and longtime town of Kingston residents touted the 60 jobs the applicants’ lead, Thomas Auringer, had promised. Such promise would reverse the trend that had kids moving out of town for work, they said. It was just what the area needed.
Jobs versus the environment was a bad equation, replied those asking for a better review process. Lax environmental safety at the expense of the local economy was devastating the world that many in rural areas had grown up expecting to be part of.
In a handout made available to hearing participants, Auringer and 850 Route 28 LLC noted that they had applied “for approval to manufacture on a site previously left scarred and abandoned by prior mining operations in the 1950s-1970s. The development will operate only within an existing industrial zone, and through the process of site development, new property enhancements will be made that will benefit neighboring lands by protecting them for the foreseeable future.”
The handout added that Auringer, described in its three pages as an Ulster County native who was forced to leave the area for work, bought his property in June 2018 while the Open Space Institute only purchased its adjacent lands this past February. Planning board review of the manufacturing plans started in July, 2018. The location of 850 Route 28 LLC on Route 28 with “centrality in NYS” made it “ideal” for its proposed manufacturing use.
In their presentation to the planning board and assembled public, engineers for Auringer’s company spoke about ways the manufacturing site would serve to baffle noise during the five plus years it will take to construct the two 120,000 square foot manufacturing buildings, as well as during operations after. They said the number of vehicles entering and leaving the property would be 100 per day during the maximum construction period. And yes, it was added, those trucks would be able to make a left turn onto Route 28, crossing the center line.
Kingston Planning Board Chair John Konior reminded the audience that his board had determined, months earlier, that Auringer’s plans would not need a full environmental impact statement since they’d been determined to have non-significant impacts. He added that if anyone wanted to see that documentation, or Auringer’s application — which he admitted had been changing quite a bit in recent weeks — they could submit FOIL (Freedom of Information law) requests with the town clerk, in whose office they could then peruse the documents or copy them for a fee.
Neg dec challenged
Tom Gravel of the Open Space Institute, a New York City based environmental organization that helps purchase endangered lands for preservation by the state and other entities, stated that OSI “doesn’t believe the applicant has submitted the proper materials. We renew our request that the applicant do a full EIS.”
As several audience members tried to shout him down with loud comments about taxes and jobs, Gravel noted potential impacts on water, wildlife habitat, and noise levels before introducing an environmental specialist David Tompkins from CHA Consultants, and attorney John Privitera.
“Remarkably, the Planning Board’s March 18, 2019 Negative Declaration does not even mention the Bluestone Wild Forest, or the surrounding recreational uses or the Onteora Lake Addition in its analysis of environmental impacts of the proposed project,” Privitera noted in a letter accompanying his public statements, which were cut off by Konior after three minutes. “Since the Negative Declaration was issued, the Planning Board has received detailed comments from OSI, including the May 16, 2019 letter from OSI Executive Director, Kim Elliman, accompanied by the report of Dr. Eric Kiviat, a highly regarded professor of ecology; detailed comments from the Woodstock Land Conservancy; focused comments by Mr. Robert Leibowitz of the Ulster County Planning Board, with specific recommendations; and, a number of factual findings and environmental impact observations by CHA, delivered today to the Board, pointing out many environmental matters that have been overlooked. Of course, the Negative Declaration states, at the outset, that the finding is based on the Board’s “consideration of available information…In light of all of the additional, new information the Board now has, it has a legal obligation under New York State Law to rescind the Negative Declaration and to engage in a hard look and meaningful analysis of all of the potential environmental impacts that have been raised on the record before you.”
Summing up, Privitera noted that the Kingston planning board had made its SEQRA declaration “too early,” and would be facing legal action if they didn’t remedy their mistake.
A sense of the comments
Others took up the issues Open Space Institute, and then the Woodstock Land Conservancy, laid out. There was talk about the rising number of new residents moving into the area because of the local scenic splendor, the trails offered at a place like Bluestone Wild Forest, which was noted as “one of the only places in the region where people can hike that doesn’t have a 1200 foot rise.” Several people spoke about climate change and the toxicity of cement manufacturing industries.
“How is that important regarding this application,” Konior asked as the room erupted into shouts from the two sides.
“You keep moving the goal posts on us,” said one local man who refused to give his name to the crowd. “We shouldn’t allow non-residents and non-taxpayers to have a say in any of this.”
Hillary Smith, a planning consultant based in Shandaken, spoke about how the lands Auringer bought had been restricted to non-industrial uses as recently as 2015, but changed to accommodate the present application in 2018. She called that “spot zoning,” noting that such things are illegal.
Back and forth the discussion ran, with those for Auringer’s proposal talking up the jobs and tax income while raising issues with where speakers lived, and how long they’d been in the area. Those against the proposal spoke about the need to protect refuges for coming generations, and how such discussion shouldn’t be about money.
Konior noted that he was making sure all speakers gave their addresses to the board so he and other planning board members could get a sense of the comments.
One man brought up Auringer’s history of complaints from New York City unions and OSHA, which was raised in recent battles before industrial development agencies in Orange and Ulster counties regarding his crane company. Konior asked what relevancy such things had, to which several people yelled out how it mattered what sort of jobs were being offered. “Fake news,” came a cry from one of the project’s supporters.
Comments until July 1, next meeting is July 15
At meeting’s end, Konior said the planning board was closing comments. Did that mean the public hearing was over, initiating a timeline for its review of the 850 Route 28 LLC application? The chair corrected himself, saying the board would take written comments only until July 1 and then decide what would happen next. Did that mean there would be a public discussion or would the board meet in private?
Konior and the board went into a huddle after which it was announced that written comments would be taken until July 1 and then discussed at their next formal meeting on July 15. The public hearing would be recessed until then.
Leaving the gathering, OSI staff attorney Kevin Webb was asked what would be happening next, from his perspective.
“The legal question under SEQR is whether the Planning Board took the required ‘hard look’ at adverse environmental impacts before issuing its Negative Declaration,” he answered. “The short answer is that they didn’t.”