A pair of lawsuits have been filed against the town’s volunteer land use boards and building department in recent weeks, one seeking damages for an alleged jumbled process that resulted in clearcutting of trees and the installation of a highly reflective roof in Woodstock’s cherished scenic overlay district, and the other a “placeholder” involving ongoing planning controversies at the former site of the Woodstock Lodge, now owned by the international work/stay company Selina.
Woodstock building inspector and code enforcement officer Ellen Casciaro, along with members of the Woodstock Zoning Board of Appeals and Planning Board, were served with an Article 78 lawsuit from Woodstock resident Thomas Auringer last week, based on papers filed through state Supreme Court, with the Ulster County Clerk, on August 12.
The Article 78 proceeding from Auringer, filed by his attorney Timothy McColgan for a hearing on or soon after September 26, seeks to annul the ZBA’s unanimous July 11 decision upholding the building department’s December, 2018 refusal to grant Auringer a certificate of occupancy based on his need to deal with a clearcutting violation and shift in roofing materials. Auringer’s suit claims that the actions taken against him denied him due process and demonstrated the planning board overstepping its bounds.
In its July 11 decision, the ZBA said that it had no jurisdiction over planning board decisions, and that certificates of occupancy cannot be issued where an existing violation has not been corrected.
“The clear cutting issue which remains outstanding and which requires the issuance of a site plan not yet granted represents a condition which does not permit the issuance of the requested Certificate of Occupancy,” the ZBA’s decision read.
The Auringer case came forward when his home renovations on Tonshi Mountain resulted in clearcutting visible from much of the town, and the installation of a highly reflective stainless steel roof on his expanded home there. Planning board members pointed out that the property was within the town’s scenic overlay district, which requires special use permit review for most actions, and especially clearcutting or the use of reflective surfaces on highly visible roofs. Furthermore, they noted that Casciaro, the town’s building inspector and code enforcement officer — who serves as the gateway for all building permit applications coming before the town — failed to notify the applicant in this case, Auringer, that his property was within the scenic overlay and needing special reviews.
Auringer, in his Article 78 lawsuit, notes that his plans for renovation at the property he purchased in late September of 2016 were all approved by Casciaro, including a zinc roof, and later signed off on by her throughout the building process. The first time any problems arose were a year later, in November of 2017, when Casciaro issued an Order to Remedy Violation to “stabilize the site, create an erosion plan, submit a plan to remediate site to the building department.” His lawsuit notes that Casciaro’s order failed to mention numbers of trees cut, or anything regarding his shiny new roof, in place a full year at that point.
Auringer’s lawsuit further notes that references to the planning board’s need for special use permit review were added into documents after the fact, and documents how the planning board brought up the matter of the roof only after receiving complaints from other town residents, and Auringer had spent what he claims to be $2 million in renovation costs (he further notes that the cost of replacing the roof would be in the $300,000 range.) The lawsuit also notes how the planning board’s remediation review regarding both the clearcutting and the roof kept failing to take into account the fact that the town’s building inspector had granted building permits before their process started.
Auringer is also the principal of 850 Route 28 LLC, a company which has an application before the Town of Kingston Planning Board for construction of a manufacturing plant on lands it owns in the midst of the state-owned Bluestone Wild Forest and adjacent to the Onteora Lake recreation area, and a new system of trails being built on 200 plus acres of forested lands recently bought by the Open State Institute for eventual transfer to the state. A meeting on whether a negative declaration under state environmental laws was properly arrived at takes place at 7 p.m. Thursday, August 29, at the M. Clifford Miller Middle School located at 65 Fording Place in Lake Katrine.
Auringer had an appeal of an Ulster County Industrial development Agency decision turned down by the Appellate Division of the NYS Supreme Court earlier this year, the second time in less two years his attempts to get IDA help for a business storing and renting out large cranes failed. Those cranes and other equipment, originally pegged for a Town of Ulster site, are currently being stored on Auringer’s Town of Kingston property.
Selina keeping options open
As for the Selina action, the company’s corporate counsel Steven Barshoz — who attended the planning board’s August 15 meeting where the possibility of allowing the organization a rare temporary building permit was discussed and rejected — said that he simply filed an Article 78 questioning another recent ZBA decision that negated earlier building permits issued by Casciaro on the basis that they’d been issued before another building issue had been rectified.
“We were retained just when the statute of limitations would have been running out for challenging that ZBA decision,” Barshoz said of what had been described as a “placeholder’ lawsuit. “I couldn’t take a chance at letting the chance for litigating the issue run out. It was a very simple Article 78 with a return date at the end of October so the town wouldn’t necessarily have to pay anything. We don’t really know if the litigation is necessary.”
Selina is seeking to renovate what once was The Lodge, and several other businesses before that, on Country Club Lane in the neighborhood located directly behind the Woodstock Elementary School. The company wants to transform what had been a bar/restaurant with pool and a number of cabin rentals (and which it paid nearly $3 million for) into “not just accommodation” but a destination that “combines boutique accommodation with coworking, wellness and experiences…designed to help people of all backgrounds and budgets come together to live, work and explore.”
Litigation regarding Selina, which has just started moving forward with a planning board permitting review stopped by The Lodge’s previous owners several years back, could be avoided, the attorney added, “if we’re able to work together and satisfy everybody. We’re working together to move this thing forward in a productive way…We’re looking to work with the town to continue our work-in-progress, and are also working hard to get materials into the planning board as quickly as possible.”
“I’m probably going to keep my mouth shut,” Woodstock supervisor Bill McKenna said of the two lawsuits this week, when asked. “I believe the Selina placeholder was filed in case things bog down at the planning board…as of now we haven’t been served on that one.”
McKenna added that he believes “our boards made good decisions and we’re going to defend them.” He added that rumors of building inspector/code officer Casciaro possibly facing censure for her actions or mistakes were “nonsense.”
“I don’t see either one of these as a big deal,” he added.