On September 2, Kingston’s Common Council voted 6-2 not to rezone a portion of Montrepose Avenue to allow for high-density development, a precondition for a planned 15-unit apartment development. Explaining their votes, alderpersons in the majority cited the need to abide by a city-wide zoning plan (rather than change some areas on an ad-hoc basis). If rezoning were to be considered, there was some concern that a more stringent environmental review might be required.
The decision was cheered by a group of neighbors, the Hill Neighbors for Responsible Development, formed in opposition to the plan, which they feared would change the character of the neighborhood, lead to increased traffic, and cause possible environmental issues do the wooded, sloping terrain, which includes a stream.
Residents said they were not opposed to development in principle, but that it should be less dense. The developers said their project would make use of an unimproved parcel and said residents were exhibiting an unjustified not-in-my-back-yard (Nimby) attitude.
“It’s not necessarily a benefit when we are changing the zoning,” said Michele Hirsch, alderwoman for Ward 9, where the property is located, at the virtual meeting. “We need to look for the benefit of the community.”
“I’m glad the voices [of the neighbors] were heard,” said Hirsch after the meeting. “My takeaway is this process was done right.”
The proposal called for 2-16 Montrepose Avenue to be rezoning from RRR, which allows for single-family homes, to RT, which allows for high-density development. When propertyowner Andrew Wright, an architect, local landlord and resident, submitted his zoning-amendment application to the city on June 10, it was accompanied by a plan to construct an apartment complex with 13 two-bedroom market rate units, two one-bedroom affordable units, on-site parking for 23 cars, a community center, and a small park on the .81-acre property. (He downsized the project by two units shortly before the vote.)
While the RT zone is primarily geared “to permit and encourage the use, rehabilitation and adaptation of existing structures in this unique area in accord with their original character,” according to the code, it also allows for virtually any size development through a special permit.
The corner property, a sliver of sloping land that abuts the steep ridge behind West Chestnut, is forested and is traversed intermittently by a stream. The site, originally part of the estate at 194 West Chestnut, was deeded many years ago by the owner of that property to the school (now Ulster Academy Lofts) across the street for student parking. Wright purchased the abandoned school and sold the building to a developer who converted it into condos in 2001. Wright then subdivided the parcel across the street and sold it to himself for $1. The property had been mostly neglected until recently, when Wright removed some trees.
The neighbors respond
When West Chestnut resident Sam Newsome attended an informational meeting that introduced the public to the rezoning and proposed project on August 1, he said he was horrified. “When I saw the polished rendering for the project, which was supposed to be about rezoning, I thought, this is being done backwards,” he said. “It seemed like a done deal.”
“We’re not against development. We’re just against the rezoning,” said Gene Ballou, who has lived at 202 West Chestnut, which backs up to Wright’s property, with his wife Julie since 1988.
Next-door neighbor Joshua Unterbach, who bought his two-family house after moving to Kingston from Brooklyn five years ago, agreed: “We’re not saying don’t build anything on the land,” he said. “Everyone wants this parcel improved. We’re trying to show how you can improve it within the current zoning.”
Besides concerns about increased traffic and what they claim are the inappropriate scale and design of the project, neighbors were worried that excavating the underlying rock along the ridge and diverting the stream might cause damage to their properties and the surrounding environment. Of the speakers at a virtual public hearing on August 19 and the 34 written responses received and seven speakers who commented just prior to the Common Council’s vote at its September 2 meeting, none were in favor.
More environmental study?
Wright was required to fill out the short Environmental Assessment Form (EAF), provided under the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). Just prior to the Common Council vote, the Laws and Rules Committee met to decide whether the rezoning would have a significant environmental impact. To make that assessment, committee members had to fill out Part 2 of the EAF submitted by Wright, which Kingston assistant corporation counsel Dan Gartenstein said was a legal requirement. They were also advised by Gartenstein to answer “no or small impact will occur” instead of the other choice on the form, “moderate to large impact,” for each of the eleven questions. “Until the site plan is submitted to the planning board, this is just a potential proposal,” Gartenstein said.
What he did not say was that a positive declaration by the committee would prevent the Common Council from voting on the rezoning until an environmental assessment was done analyzing the potential impacts of Wright’s proposed development, as required under SEQR.
Tony Davis, alderman for Ward 6, said that rezoning the land would conflict with provisions of Kingston’s comprehensive plan, which specifically designates other areas as appropriate for high-density development and calls for protecting “physically constrained land … characterized by steep slopes and wetlands.” The use for such lands should be limited to “agriculture, open space, recreation and rural density residential.”
Gartenstein replied that “rezoning and conflicting with the comprehensive plan arguably would be minimal because [those issues] will be addressed in the [planning board] review process.”
Although the committee did ultimately make a negative declaration regarding the environmental impact of the rezoning, several committee members said they were confused. They noted the need for a comprehensive update of the city’s zoning code, which dates from 1963. “We need to look at the zoning for the entire city, rather than doing zoning here and there in a haphazard way,” said Jeffrey Morell, alderman for Ward 1 and the committee chair.
Such an initiative was underway last March, when a city zoning task force selected a consulting firm to work on developing a new zoning code. However, the pandemic and resulting budget crunch caused the Common Council to reject the funding for the firm.
There are legal precedents in which town boards have been found liable for ignoring SEQR in zoning changes, according to Ryan McLeod, an attorney residing on West Chestnut Street. McLeod cited two court cases in New York State that indicate a local legislative body must take into account the impacts from a potential project when considering a zoning change. “Had the [Common] Council voted to change the zoning, the city would have been exposed to a lawsuit on the basis of the erroneous advice given to the council,” McLeod opined in an email.
At the Laws and Rules Committee meeting on September 2, Wright and Sonia Lemus-Wright blamed the neighbors for the property’s negligent state and accused them of Nimbyism. “I’ve had the property for 20 years, and it’s been a place of garbage and abandoned cars. It’s been abused by the community,” Wright said. He intended to “improve the neighborhood.”
“It’s very evident at the public meeting [on August 1] that when we suggested we’re introducing affordable housing, I know now [the reaction was] not in my back yard,” said Lemus-Wright. She attributed the neighbors’ “negativity” to lack of knowledge and fear.
Neighbors pushed back in the public-comment period that followed. “This property was neglected. They are not here to improve the neighborhood,” said Julie Ballou, later sasying she had been upset at the Nimbyism charge. “I am for affordable housing and would much rather see a small affordable house built that can fit into that area,” she ssaid. “What they’re building is not affordable housing.”
Adriana Pericchi lives across the street on West Pierpont “If [Wright] had offered to do something, even build six units, especially if half of them were affordable, that had a significant impact on affordable housing in the area, we would support it,” said Pericchi. “We don’t buy into the argument that market-rate housing has a correlation with the availability of affordable housing by some kind of trickle-down. We’re not anti-development, and we have the housing crisis on our minds.”
Alderman Don Tallerman (Ward 5), who along with alderman Rennie Scott-Childress (Ward 3) voted in favor of the rezoning, remarked at the meeting that 2-16 Montrepose was “a little oasis and piece of nature. Was there ever anyone who said, let’s make something of this area to improve and make it better?”
Newsome responded in his public comment that the reason no one did was “because it was privately owned, and zoned residentially. No neighbor would ethically propose his neighbor’s land be stolen for a public park.”
What would the best use be?
Newsome likes the idea of taking up Tallerman’s gauntlet. “Maybe we should have some proposals for the land,” he said. “Maybe we should be more vocal about what we want for our neighborhood. There is no green space in Ward 9, and [making that property a park] is right in line with the open-space plan. What better way for Kingston to show it cares about attracting new neighbors?”
Two days after the vote, Lemus charged the property had been vandalized. She and Wright were considering putting a guard on the site. “Our objective is that the site is not vandalized any more and the runoff is controlled,” she said.
West Chestnut resident Andrea Staskowska, who is not a member of Hill Residents for Responsible Development, is lobbying to preserve the property as wild land. “In all the centuries since the Dutch founded Kingston, in 1657, no one has ever lived on this piece of land,” reads an email she’s been sending out to the community. “A primeval ecosystem, intact … Preserve those woods, that stream, and let Rondout Hill stand.”
Pericchi said the vote has left her feeling optimistic. “I hope the collateral benefit is we’re entering a new age of zoning discussions, where it happens more in the public eye, leaning away from haphazard change to more thoughtful integral changes,” she said. “Citizens feel particularly encouraged to just say. Whoa, this is not going to happen behind closed doors.”