Can one zoom a public hearing? Could any of us have even imagined such a question three months ago?
Land-use issues have long been the key arena for news in Hudson Valley’s gentrified towns. Even before short-term rentals started changing the shape of our real estate markets a half decade past, planning board and zoning board of appeals meetings have been where town residents go to express concerns about the tonal shifts their home towns are facing. Housing developments, new restaurants and hotels, business expansions, and even driveways and swimming pools can provoke SRO crowds decrying the onslaught of outside forces.
But with public meetings halted during New York State’s current lockdown, and many municipal volunteer boards only just starting to meet again, either online or occasionally via socially-distanced in-person gatherings, we started to wonder whether the same forces pummeling our economy have also been riding havoc on our planning processes.
Not in Woodstock, according to those who should know.
“The ZBA had a quick meeting to vote on an outstanding variance request involving a shed, with three members in attendance sitting six feet apart,” said Woodstock supervisor Bill McKenna this week. “Now they’ve got only one other application on hold.”
We asked McKenna about the planning board, which has had no pending or past agenda posted for weeks now.
He said the secretary for the board was planning to sit in on the town board’s next meeting, to be held on Zoom the evening of April 21, and a planning board workshop session has been planned for April 30 “as a test run.”
McKenna said that there are no closed public hearings with timelines at present, and only one application – from Verizon for a proposed antenna change on the tower they utilize on Overlook Mountain, that has a deadline.
“Their attorney was quick to point out the Federal Communication Commission’s 60-day stop clock,” the supervisor noted. “I pointed out that I’d still need to sign whatever the planning board decided and wouldn’t be doing so until they were ready.”
McKenna added that the tower changes involved 4G and not 5G technology, which has proved controversial in Woodstock and other Hudson Valley communities. He further pointed out that some other high-profile planning issues of the past year, including the international lodging company Selina’s plans to create a new home at the former Lodge at Woodstock, as well as a proposed store/restaurant at the corner of Route 212 and Mink Hollow Road, were in the midst of changes on the applicants’ side.
“Beyond all that, our zoning changes and housing committees have been meeting on Zoom,” the supervisor added.
Woodstock Planning Board consultant Matthew Rudikoff, a noted veteran of land-use issues throughout the region, further clarified that “the whole issue of time frames in SEQRA (the State Environmental Quality Review Act) doesn’t really play much of a role,” delineating where time frames DO matter.
At the start of a coordinated review for a major project facing a full EIS review, he said, there is a 30-day timeline for interested parties to respond to an agency’s declaration of lead status in a pending review. If there’s no response, the declaring agency automatically becomes lead.
There’s also a 20-day requirement for a reviewing agency to declare a “determination of significance” on an application, although Rudikoff added that “usually extensions are permitted as information is gathered” and few pay attention to a requirement for a final determination 20 days after all information is in since more can always be requested.
Other timelines apply when project applications are determined to have a “positive declaration,” meaning they need full review. Mostly they have to do with the creation of “scoping documents” by an applicant, outlining their area of further review and final notices of completion.
“There really are no solid time-frame issues,” Rudikoff said as he spoke about the effects the long Belleayre Resort application process, and its many legal and political complications, had on local residents’ expectations.
He added, however, that “subdivisions can be a completely different matter,” although there are none pending in Woodstock or environs.
On another front, we checked in with Woodstock town attorney Rod Futerfas in regards to any pending lawsuits the town might be facing, including one from disgruntled home owner Thomas Auringer, who’s also got a complicated pending business application before the Town of Kingston planning and town boards that’s currently on hold awaiting further public hearings.
“All paperwork is in the judge’s hands awaiting a decision,” Futerfas pointed out. “But the courts are closed and there’s no access to any court files. So no idea when we’ll hear on any pending cases.”