John Oleske no longer chairs the New Paltz village planning board, although he remains a member of that body. He laid out his reasons for stepping down over the course of an hour-long board meeting, held virtually on June 2.
Oleske wants to advocate for policy changes in the village, he said, and to do so while chairing the planning board could run afoul of rules he must follow because he works in the state attorney general’s office. He traced a number of instances of what he perceived as governmental error to personal relationships.
That doesn’t often happen at local planning-board meetings, especially at the level of detail of Oleske’s charges.
Oleske touched upon his concerns about a variety of topics now or previously before the village board, framing some in terms of racial justice, and questioning whether trustees were getting good legal advice. He laid out similar concerns in his resignation letter, and the village board promptly publicly responded to his criticism.
Much of what’s recently been occupying Oleske’s mind falls under the umbrella of historic preservation. He sees the plan to grant the Historic Preservation Commission wide latitude to review projects in the village as an overreach intended to aid someone close to mayor Tim Rogers. He thinks that would be plain to see in court and the law would be thrown out.
The new rules would require an HPC-granted certificate of compliance for many projects with changes visible from the street. Might that apply to changes as minor as adding a flagpole? Oleske expressed skepticism about the governmental response had been to express trust in the current HPC not to do that.
Propertyowners are supposed to have the right to a hearing before land is included in an historic district, and Oleske said that this new plan didn’t provide that outlet. Districts could be created for nearly every neighborhood in the village, When he raised that point with mayor Tim Rogers, he said he learned that Rogers’ former spouse lives in the Bonticou neighborhood. According to Oleske, Rogers wants a tool to stop his ex-wife’s neighbor from doing “this crazy thing with his driveway.”
HPC chair Tom Olson would also prefer designated districts, Oleske explained at the meeting.
The now-former planning board chair has discovered what he sees as racial inequities in how sites significant to black history in the community are preserved. He noted that the Elting burying ground has been taken over by the village and is now being maintained with tax money, while the slave cemetery on Huguenot Street is just given signage. Trustees believe they were required to take over that private cemetery, but Oleske doesn’t believe that is the case.
He’s also discovered that none of the homes constructed by Jacob Wynkoop for his fellow black residents in the 19th century have been declared landmarks. One of them is on Pencil Hill Road, adjacent to a lot recently approved for a new house by the planning board. Oleske is of the opinion that landmark designation may have resulted in a different outcome, and he intends to ask that the building permit be rescinded to allow for an archaeological survey.
Favoritism toward Steffens?
Oleske also only recently became aware of a lawsuit over whether former planning-board member Rich Steffens owes a recreation fee for building 56 Elting Avenue. Steffens recused himself from that review process, but his colleagues didn’t go through the process of formally determining that putting in appropriate recreation on that site was not possible, and assess the fee in lieu of recreation facilities. The Zero Place application review had required the full process, Oleske noted.
Steffens maintains in court documents that he does not owe the money because the process was not followed in his case. After reviewing an unsigned copy of the complaint, Oleske called the village position that Steffens should have known better as a planning-board “ludicrous.”
He believes elected officials have received bad legal advice, and will lose this case.
Neighbors will recall the application as controversial. Steffens originally wanted to subdivide and add two more homes to the property, but then compromised with one more home. Rogers, who lives on the street, purportedly told Oleske that Steffens was “a scumbag” during a conversation about that issue, said Olesker. During the planning board meeting, Oleske said that he couldn’t even find out whether the suit against Steffens was ever authorized. He was contradicted in a rebuke issued by Rogers and other trustees.
Steffens declined comment.
Oleske advised his colleagues that they should expect to be asked for comment on a zoning change to introduce a definition for “boutique hotel” that would benefit the Jamal family, which owns 184 Main Street.
He also anticipates a new proposal to develop the so-called pit next to village hall and the Mountain Laurel school will soon be submitted by owner Luis Martinez on behalf of his Lalo Group. Acquainting himself with the history of that project, Oleske said he learned of charges against Martinez’s brother, Sergio Raymundo, as principal of Lalo Drywall for shorting workers some $800,000.
In a 2015 New Paltz Times interview, Martinez said that matter was being settled. However, Oleske told his colleagues that Martinez and Lalo Group have more recently been subjected to a similar prosecution. The corroborating documents for this story he agreed to provide were not available at press time.
Martinez was invited to comment for this story, and declined.
Oleske recounted an email exchange with his predecessor, Eve Walter, about the passage of an extensive series of zoning revisions reviewed when she was planning board chair. According to Oleske, deputy mayor KT Tobin told Walter that trustees have only been focusing on pandemic-related issues of late. In light of the discussions about adding a definition for boutique hotels and expanding powers for the historic preservation commissioners, Oleske does not believe this to be the case.
Elected officials see things quite differently. In a public response to his resignation letter, the village board called Oleske’s efforts to seek protection for historically black homes “commendable,” but added that those efforts had been overshadowed by “a manufactured narrative” that includes “intentionally altered” conversations. They disagreed with his views on the legal advice the village government has been getting, writing, “Criticism of the village’s legal counsel on various topics has been constant and then qualified by you with the comment, ‘I cannot, of course, actually give you legal advice as your attorney, because my only legal client is and must be the attorney general.’”
The village board completely rejected the idea that it has acted in a less-than-transparent fashion. It has “repeatedly stated publicly that we will be patient and host numerous workshop conversations with the Historic Preservation Commission on the idea of design standards for as long as it takes.” It said it has been “committed to not changing code during this challenging time” without public notice and in-person meetings.
“You may certainly hold differing legal opinions from our board and attorney with regard to litigation strategy and local-law drafting, but that does not give you the right to publish demonstrably false accusations against our board and attorney with respect to taking duly authorized actions,” the board told Oleske. “Such accusations should be withdrawn immediately.”
Oleske had to get permission from his boss to even serve on the planning board, as the attorney general does investigate local government. Oleske does not work on local-government issues for the state attorney general at this time. However, he said he would recuse himself from policy discussions going forward, and since the chair sets the agenda and cannot avoid such discussions he has resigned that position. He also said he does not wish to put the mayor in the position of asking for that resignation. He will continue his advocacy “as a private citizen.”
Planning board attorney Rick Golden agreed to schedule an attorney-client meeting to discuss Oleske’s concerns.