Saying they anticipate a lawsuit over the Kingstonian, city officials say they will no longer discuss the controversial proposed project with an activist group critical of the plan unless attorneys are present.
In response, a coalition of a number of city activist groups released a “group editorial” Wednesday accusing the administration of Mayor Steve Noble of intimidation and bullying.
The decision to limit communication with KingstonCitizens.org came after the group hired a lawyer to weigh in on a zoning issue related to the project. The move by Kingston Corporation Counsel Kevin Bryant signals that the city anticipates a lawsuit by Kingstoncitizens.org to block the ongoing review of the Kingstonian.
“These steps are necessary to protect the development of the record in a contested matter which will likely result in litigation,” wrote Bryant in a Sept. 12 letter to Poughkeepsie-based attorney Emily B. Svenson.
The proposed Kingstonian project would occupy two sites at the intersection of North Front Street and Fair Street extension. The $53 million project calls for the construction of 129 market-rate apartments and a 400-space garage at the site of the municipal parking lot. On the other side of Fair Street, a brick warehouse would be demolished to make way for a boutique hotel. The project would also include commercial space and a public plaza. The proposal is currently under review by the city’s planning board.
Kingstoncitizens.org is one of several local groups who have criticized aspects of the Kingstonian project. Concerns expressed have included the project’s lack of affordable housing and the impact of a large, newly constructed building on the character of a historic neighborhood.
At a recent hearing and elsewhere, several members of Kingstoncitizens.org claimed that the project violates the zoning code for the Mixed Use Overlay District where it would be located. In response, the city sought a formal determination of the issue from zoning officials. In a Sept. 9 letter to city officials, Svenson, working on behalf of Kingstoncitizens.org, argued that the zoning code prohibited any new construction — as opposed to adaptive reuse of existing structures — in the MUOD. Svenson’s opinion was submitted in response to an attorney for the Kingstonian’s developers own legal brief to the city’s zoning enforcement officer, Eric Kitchen, arguing that the project should be exempt from a provision in the overlay district’s code which requires at least 20 percent of new residential units be set aside for affordable housing.
In his letter to Svenson, Corporation Counsel Bryant indicated that her Sept. 9 letter constituted “notice of appearance as counsel.” Bryant went on to write that the Code of Professional Responsibility required all further communications between the city and Kingstoncitizens.org regarding the Kingstonian project to take place through counsel. Bryant went on to name several members of Kinsgtoncitizens.org, including the group’s founder, Rebecca Martin, County Legislator Lynn Eckert (D-Kingston), who’s also a former city alderwoman, and Marissa Marvelli. Earlier this year, Marvelli was replaced on the city’s Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission after she clashed with City Planner Suzanne Cahill and Assistant Corporation Counsel Dan Gartenstein over whether the commission could place on the record a recommendation that the Kingstonian undergo a more rigorous environmental review.
“As you are likely aware, the Kingstonian project is currently before numerous City Boards and Commissions and the Kingston Common Council,” Bryant wrote. “Your client has continued to assert an interest and a public position regarding each of the pending applications.”
In her Sept. 17 reply to Bryant’s letter, Svenson called the decision to cease informal communication with Kingstoncitizens.org on the Kingstonian project unwarranted. Svenson wrote that she was only hired to give an opinion on the zoning issue and does not currently represent the group. Svenson also noted that Kingstoncitizens.org is a grassroots, volunteer organization, not a corporation.
Svenson added that nothing in the Code of Professional Conduct bars parties in a potential legal action from communicating with each other. “My written comment on Kingstoncitizens.org’s behalf creates no rationale to limit contact between citizens and their elected and appointed officials,” Svenson wrote. “Particularly in the context of government, it is essential for citizens to be able to speak freely on matters of public interest pursuant to their rights under the First Amendment.”
‘Intimidated, bullied and mistreated’
Rebecca Martin did not return a phone call seeking comment. But in a “group editorial” posted on Kingstoncitizens.org on Wednesday, Sept. 25, the group accused the Noble administration of attempting to steer the Kingstonian review to a predetermined conclusion and using bullying tactics to silence dissenting voices. The post claims that the city’s decision to treat members of Kingstoncitizens.org as adversaries in a legal proceeding effectively singled out and sanctioned them for asking questions about the zoning code.
“From the beginning of the [environmental review] process residents — and specifically those outspoken women who are civically engaged — have been intimidated, bullied and mistreated by both members of the applicant’s team and city staff,” the editorial reads. “All the while our mayor … remains silent about this undemocratic and bullying behavior. We live in a democracy, not an authoritative regime, where citizens have First Amendment rights to play an active role in their government.”
The editorial was credited to the following: Martin, Eckert, Marvelli, Tanya Garment, Ted Griese, Laura Hartmann, Melinda McKnight, JoAnne Myers, Giovanna Righini, Rashida Tyler, Sarah Wenk and Theresa Lyn Widmann.
Martin, who founded Kingstoncitizens.org, was a strong supporter of Noble’s 2015 campaign. Since then, however, she has expressed frustration with some of his administration’s actions. Kingstoncitizens.org, meanwhile, has walked a fine line between seeking information and transparency on the Kingstonian project’s review process and expressing outright opposition to the plan. The group has steadfastly demanded that the project get a “positive declaration” under the state’s environmental review law. That would trigger a number of requirements for studies and public input that would likely take years — something that Dennis Larios, an engineer for the Kingstonian proposal, has indicated would likely mean the project’s demise.
This week, Noble downplayed the breach with the community group, saying that Bryant’s letter was standard procedure when litigation appears likely. Noble added that the gag rule on city officials speaking to the group only applied to the Kingstonian project and he remained open to discussing other issues of concern with Martin and her compatriots.
“Many issues are divisive, we’ve tried to be open and transparent, but when things get into litigation, it’s going out of our purview and we have to take the advice of counsel,” said Noble. “I still think we have done amazing things in this city, but people out there will disagree.”