Building permits for former Woodstock Lodge ruled illegal

Gordon Wemp

Selina Woodstock, formerly The Lodge, has started renovations prematurely according to a ruling from the Woodstock Zoning Board of Appeals, announced Thursday, June 27. More importantly, the ZBA decision written by member Gordon Wemp and okayed on a 4-1 vote of the board says that the town code enforcement officer, Ellen Casciaro, was in the wrong when she issued two new building permits for The Lodge/Selina in late March, when she said she had the right to revoke past stop work orders and orders to remedy at her own prerogative.

According to ZBA members, the town supervisor, and the town attorney, the ruling puts ongoing renovation work at Selina Woodstock on Country Club Lane — for which Casciaro granted further permits while the ZBA case was making its decision — in legal limbo, with no one assured of next steps. The ZBA decision noted that, “although the permits were issued in anticipation of the premises being brought into compliance, unless and until the entire site plan approval process was successfully completed, the issuance of building permits for work other than as required to remedy the existing violation was premature.”

The original violation that caused Casciaro to issue stop work orders and an order to remedy last summer had to do specifically with “a modification to existing site plan without Planning Board approval” and “landscaping and other exterior modifications to the property.” Both were issued after neighbors pressured town supervisor Bill McKenna to have town attorney Rod Futerfas look into work at The Lodge, which had been proceeding based on permits Casciaro was issuing after the property’s owners at the time, MHS Worldwide Holdings, had stepped back in the midst of a site plan review process. It has been reported that MHS Worldwide Holdings’ action was predicated by repeated meetings with their attorney, Casciaro and McKenna.

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MHS Withholding sold The Lodge to Selina, an international work/stay travel platform financed in the hundreds of millions over the past year, for $2.8 million. Selina has been advertising a series of events, including a major fundraising concert, on the property over the first two weeks of July.

When the matter first came before the ZBA on April 24, McKenna stepped forward in public hearing to read a resolution passed by the Woodstock Town Board in which he and the board agreed that Casciaro had wrongly issued the building permits in question, and noted that the stop work order and order to remedy was still in effect for the property.

“It is our belief that work should be halted,” McKenna said at the time, 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. He later reiterated his belief that the ZBA or town board could order such a “stay.”

‘Differences of opinion…’

In subsequent weeks, however, Casciaro continued issuing new building and demolition permits for The Lodge property, including the reopening of their swimming pool. Casciaro wrote a letter to the ZBA reiterating her right to make determinations without interference, which prompted town supervisor Bill McKenna to speak about their “differences of opinion,” as well as the fact that the building department worked under his discretion.

Concurrent with the Lodge/Selina case, brought by a neighbor of the property, Casciaro’s actions regarding the clearcutting of a property on Tonshi Mountain visible by many in town has also been before the ZBA, and other town departments, including the planning board, have also gone public with complaints about her practices and lack of allegiance to town zoning laws. To no avail.

Selina Woodstock’s sole appearance before the planning board to date, which occurred in early May, resulted in a belligerent stand-off as their attorney spoke about the need for fairness from the board, while the board raised questions regarding past review processes involving the property’s former owner, Michael Skurnick, whose MHS Worldwide Holdings was still serving as main contractor for all the renovations the new owners were seeking. No formal application has been made since then, with planning board members noting continuing renovation work on the site after several visits.

At last Thursday’s meeting, Wemp also mentioned site visits by ZBA members. 

Asked what would happen at the property now that the renovation work and other actions taken there have been declared illegal, none of the ZBA members had any official comment, although Wemp spoke after the meeting about why he didn’t declare a stay at the property as part of his interpretation, feeling such a move might “complicate matters.” Instead, he suggested that McKenna and the town board should take up such an action.

McKenna later said that, “technically, it’s in the building department’s purview to issue new stop work orders at the site.” He added that no certificates of occupancy or other permits should be granted at The Lodge. He was not certain if that included any events at the bar/restaurant or pool, where this week’s happenings had been scheduled.

“I don’t know where this leaves the folks at Selina,” he added. “There’s a lot of stuff torn apart up there.”

Town attorney Rod Futerfas, who aided in the writing of the interpretation Wemp read last week, said on Friday that, “what happens next is anyone’s guess.”

Information sharing, date confusion

A decision on the other case involving Casciaro that’s before the ZBA, wherein the town planning board has asked whether it can step in on situations where the building department has overlooked proper process, was recessed until the ZBA’s next meeting on July 11, pending legal advice from Futerfas.

But the way that advice reaches ZBA members came up at the end of the board’s June 27 meeting when new member Jude Sillato asked why she was not being allowed to share Futerfas’ legal opinions on sensitive cases. Sillato said that McKenna had told her she could read such correspondence but ZBA chair Maria Mendoza had refused to share recent information, explaining that it all had to do with timing.

Futerfas later said that “the process the board has always followed is that my work always goes to the chair who then distributes It to all the board members at the same time. Until I’m directed otherwise that will continue.”

While Wemp said he had no problem with sharing legal opinions, Mendoza said that she maintains a process that limits sharing of legal discussions before they’re final.

“We’re all equal here. I have an interest in this town,” Sillato reiterated, noting that she hadn’t run into any filtering of information on boards she’s served on previously.

Mendoza said that she didn’t see herself as a filter and had no malice, while also noting how “each case is different.” She promised to send all legal opinions to all members of the ZBA in the future.

She was then asked why the ZBA held no public discussion of their decisions, suggesting it might help town residents get a better sense of how their decisions are made. 

Wemp spoke about his time as a town board member, and his frustration at the endless meetings that resulted from open discussions. He said the ZBA was strict about never discussing a case with three or more members, but how the “behind the scenes” discussions between two ZBA members at a time were essential to the board’s adjudication.

“What you are insinuating is wrong,” Mendoza said to Sillato. “There’s a discussion if there’s a meaningful discussion.”

When Sillato finally asked about better advertising when the ZBA is making decisions, Wemp again objected, noting that they do the best they can and added that ZBA decisions didn’t involve the public. 

Asked about her statement to Woodstock Times that the ZBA decision on the Selina/Lodge case was to be announced on July 11, then was revealed on June 27, Mendoza replied that she simply “misspoke.”

She agreed to be more careful, and more open to the needs of town residents, in the future.

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