Village of New Paltz Planning Board members got an idea what role they will be playing if the New Paltz Apartments project does come before them. This is a project to build apartments for 650 people just south of the SUNY New Paltz campus along Route 32 and Jansen Road, land that is not in the village at all. However, developer Michael Moriello has requested that it be annexed into the village specifically to build this project, which wouldn’t be possible without the zoning requirements, water and sewer available inside the village line. Due to the fact that the project is baked into the annexation, the environmental review that arguably planning board members are the best qualified to undertake will instead be handled by village trustees. That will leave plenty to discuss at planning board meetings, such as the subdivision and site plan requirements, but some of those considerations will be defined by how that environmental review is conducted.
Planning board members understand that they may be dealing with this project, but an application can’t even be made unless the property is annexed into the village. That would require votes by the village’s board of trustees along with the town council. If both groups vote the same way, the decision is final. If one board favors annexation and the other is against it, either group could theoretically bring it to court to settle the matter. Those rare cases are governed by unusual rules, Golden explained: these cases are brought directly in the appellate court, where a master is appointed to make the decision. The standard that’s applied is not what’s best for the people, but what’s best for the taxing jurisdictions.
Just like any legal changes, this annexation petition is subject to the State Environmental Quality Review act. Here, the request for annexation includes the New Paltz Apartments proposal in detail as part of the request, which according to Golden means that the environmental review won’t just cover the impacts of moving the village line, but also the impacts of the entire project as will be brought to the planning board. The planning board is entirely cut out of the environmental review because of the way the application is framed. There’s already been a town board decision agreeing that they will not seek to be the lead agency for the review; this means that trustees can assume lead agency status because no one else is eligible.
A review for this scale of project could easily include an environmental impact statement, a weighty document chock full of detailed reports addressing areas that are agreed upon in a scoping session, and which is supposed to demonstrate that all of the problems are being mitigated by adding or removing elements from the plan. For example, board members might look for paving stones that can help control runoff, or changes to the parking if it gets too close to a wetland or detailed plans on how to manage snow removal to avoid flooding. Golden is also familiar with an alternative path called the “expanded EAF” process, which refers to the environmental assessment form that’s used to identify the types of projects that require further study in the first place. Using this process, applicants try to avoid providing a full EIS by producing sufficient evidence and plan modifications to put board members’ minds at ease for all the potential issues. If they fall short, a formal EIS could be required anyway, making it a calculation on the applicant’s part.
It’s possible that planning board members might have some insight into this process, but their opinions won’t carry any more legal weight than that of any other town residents. Golden said that they might choose to make comments together as a board or individually, but that those comments must not express support or opposition to the project at all. That could be grounds for a legal challenge down the road, Golden said, and the best thing to do in that case is seek the recusal of that planning board member from reviewing this application at all. The attorney also agreed to review any individual comments voluntarily submitted, to check them for the necessary neutrality. Only once the application is filed will the board members safely be able to express opinions on its merits in public.
Board attorney Rick Golden is deeply involved in this process. Golden is also attorney for the town planning board, and when town attorney Joseph Moriello took a recusal by reason of being uncle to Michael Moriello, Golden was asked to represent the town council on this matter. This does not create a conflict of interest, but Golden secured a waiver of potential liability to guard against the perception of one.
The next step in this annexation process will be taken at a village board meeting, when trustees assume lead agency for the environmental review.