CEA change not entirely welcome by planning board members
New Paltz Town Planning Board members returned to the question of Critical Environmental Areas (CEA) at their February 22 meeting. When designated in a town, CEAs send a signal when anyone is planning development in that area that there are environmental features that are nearby, and may impact that particular parcel. Board members are asked for their input since they manage the process that would be impacted. Some of them feel it would be unduly burdensome to applicants in a community where it’s already difficult and expensive to get a large project approved; others see it as providing developers clarity about the challenges before an application is ever filed, allowing for more responsive proposals and business decisions.
A scaled-back proposal being considered by the town council would designate three CEAs, which would include 496 parcels. There are only five of these areas in all of the county right now, and board member Jane Schanberg observed, “We all want to protect everything, but it seems out of scale” with how the areas are presently used.
Matt DiDonna noted that of the 172 affected parcels that could be subdivided at all, 143 include wetlands, steep slopes or other known environmental conditions that would be considered during the required “hard look” given during the review process. DiDonna sees that as redundant and Lyle Nolan agrees, saying that “rigorous scrutiny” is given to all applications.
On the other hand Amanda Gotto pointed out that creating CEAs was laid out in the 1995 comprehensive plan. “This is not new, or out of the blue.” Gotto rejects comparisons to other communities for “scale,” because the environmental features vary by community, as does the extent of data compiled about those features. Areas should be designated as critical because they are critical, without consideration of convenience. To Schanberg’s suggestion that perhaps only the Shawangunk Ridge be so designated, Gotto noted that board members will only get used to how this impacts projects if there are projects to review. “We can’t predict when a project will show up on the Ridge to see how it works.”
Both DiDonna and Gotto characterized their positions as “pragmatic.”
CEAs are not protection, Gotto said; it’s just a way to save time if there might be special attributes to consider.
Asked for an opinion, town engineer Andy Willingham expressed a preference for code — which is narrow and unambiguous by definition — over CEAs, which call on planning board members to exercise judgment.
David Brownstein, town board liaison to the planning board, seemed to echo Gotto’s position that CEAs are intended to provide information to applicants early in the process. When completing the environmental assessment form that is part of every application, checking the box that the parcel is in a CEA would automatically fill in all known environmental information about that area, allowing the developer to make decisions to avoid public concern or board scrutiny right away, rather than having to go through the expense of retooling plans months into the process.
What DiDonna heard from that explanation is that designating CEAs does not save developers money; what Gotto reflected is that “they won’t be surprised.”
Schanberg vaguely referenced a “public lobbying campaign” with “wrong information,” but provided no details.
Board chair Adele Ruger sees this as turning off developers. “We have so many things in place, we don’t need anything else. I think we have the tools. I think it’s enough.”
Cell tower report released
New Paltz Town Planning Board members have agreed to accept the draft environmental impact statement for the Homeland Towers project — a cell tower to be sited along Jansen Road — and release it to the public. A public hearing on the content of the DEIS was set for April 5. The entire document will be available at https://www.townofnewpaltz.org/planning-board in the left sidebar.
Mind the fees, please
New Paltz Town Planning Board members have learned that there is a limit to how much a particular project should be studied. As with many lessons in life, this one has to do with money. It turns out that there is a cap on how much in the way of consultant fees for an environmental review can be passed on to an applicant, and in the Homeland Towers project, that cap was blown off. This is a rare enough occurrence that even the most seasoned planning board members seemed unfamiliar with the limit because it’s set as a percentage of the value of the project. In terms of that number, this is a relatively small project because all that’s being built is a tower. In terms of consultant time, it’s a complex project because there is an environmental impact statement. The result was that the fees charged by town consultants — which are usually passed on to applicants as a matter of course — may be shouldered by taxpayers from here on out. The town supervisor is holding out hope that the applicant will pay the fees even though there is no legal obligation to do so.
It’s only because of this unusual confluence of factors that anyone involved in the planning process became familiar with this cap, and now the supervisor — Neil Bettez — wants to make sure that no one forgets this lesson. A planning board is independent and its members can’t be told how to proceed with any of their work, but they are being asked to “reach consensus” when deciding to ask for a non-standard review. That message came from David Brownstein, who serves as liaison between the two boards.
Adele Ruger, chair of the planning board, thinks it might take some money to save money. There is no budget for consultants to the planning board at all, Ruger pointed out, meaning that if it can’t be billed to the applicant, it’s going to exceed the budget. That’s a certainty anytime a positive declaration of environmental significance is made, as in the Homeland Towers case. The regulations laid out under the State Environmental Quality Review act specifically don’t allow fees to be passed on to applicants when they are connected to prepared the environmental assessment form or making the determination of significance — the decision that in this case led to an environmental impact statement. Down the line, board members will issue a findings statement; those fees, too, cannot be charged to the applicant. Therefore, Ruger’s point about the board having no money to spend means that simply following the law will always break the budget.
“Why the SEQRA regulations forbid charges to the applicant for these critical decision-making points is beyond my comprehension,” board attorney Rick Golden wrote in response to questions about this process. “For most applications the applicants pay these fees without question.”
Golden went on to explain how the remainder of fees are limited. The cap is half of a percent of the value of the project, which is determined using a formula that factors in the assessed land value, along with the labor and material costs of the construction and bringing utilities to the site. “It has been estimated that with the value of the land, the total project value for Homeland Towers is approximately $1,000,000, resulting in a capped fee amount for all DEIS and FEIS of $5,000.”
“We often don’t know the value of the project,” pointed out board member Amanda Gotto, which makes it difficult to be mindful of the cap. On a similar note, board members don’t routinely ask how much it would cost to have a particular report prepared or reviewed by town consultants. “The financial component was never laid out in any training.” Gotto has served on the planning board since 2016.
Habitat, farmland needs considered in minor subdivision
Mark Albrecht is seeking to subdivide off a building lot from the property at 525 Albany Post Road in New Paltz, while preserving the fields that have been used as farmland at least during the 17 years Albrecht has lived there. To do that, however, would cut more deeply into habitat for non-humans, and it’s apparent that balancing the needs of humans against all other living things in the area will be a central discussion point as this application moves forward.
Albrecht is seeking this subdivision pursuant to an agreement dating back to the original land purchase in 2003, under which one, and only one, division of the land could take place. Albrecht is now ready to follow through with the action to make room for one additional house on land that is largely agricultural in use.
Rich Whitney, of the Town of New Paltz’s Environmental Conservation Board (EnCB), said that the proposal is a “pretty nice plan, overall,” but that bringing the house closer to the road would make it nicer. That’s because not only would it reduce the amount of non-human habitat chipped away for building the structure, it would also put the residence on flatter land, which would be superior for managing storm water runoff. That’s relevant because this project will already require a formal storm water pollution prevent plan. A shorter driveway also would reduce both disturbance and runoff issues, but EnCB members are also suggesting something more porous to build that, such as gravel.
New Paltz Town Planning board member Amanda Gotto shared the data from the county’s parcel viewer, which show that the parcel is farmland of statewide importance and also overlaps with core habitat; additionally, the hydric soils suggest the presence of wetlands and the contour lines — which slope down from the road — suggest that any wetlands would be toward the back of the property. Gotto concluded that these data point support the house being built closer to the road.
However, Albrecht sees things differently. Drawing upon experience as a designer, Albrecht explained that the location for the house was selected to retain the most possible farmland and to protect the scenic view roadside and from atop the Ridge. Asked about balancing aesthetics and habitat, Albrecht pointed to the town’s open space plan, explaining that the document demonstrates that community members place a higher value on the impact on visuals than on the impact on habitat.
Subdivision applications always include a public hearing, which would be when board members would learn if community sentiment has shifted from the perspective Albrecht described. No hearing has yet been scheduled for this application.
Clear the way
Keith H. Libolt owns some land on Lenape Lane in New Paltz and wants to get a better look to decide where to put a house for the family. To that end, Libolt has submitted a permit to clear trees and brush from just under an acre of the land, which comprises nearly 62 acres total. That should be enough to be able to walk around with an architect and decide on the exact location for the house.
A number of years ago, a housing development was proposed for this site that would have connected two neighborhoods; one of the objections to that project at the time was the increased vehicular traffic that would have resulted. That plan never reached fruition, and Libolt, the present owner, intends on ultimately building just one home according to the documents presented. Libolt explained that adding space for the proposed driveway to the clearing and grading permit arose from a conversation with the architect about a potential walking path.
Planning board member Lyle Nolan eyed the .97 acres of disturbance with some skepticism. Once it reaches a full acre, a basic storm water pollution prevention plan (SWPP) must be put into place. Nolan noted that the plan showed only a foot of clearance on either side of the proposed driveway; nowhere is shown any space for stockpiling materials. That leads Nolan to believe that the disturbed area will exceed an acre, and that a SWPP should be filed for that reason.
Rich Whitney, of the Town of New Paltz’s Environmental Conservation Board, agreed. Whitney noted that the trees on this property are part of a 480-acre area of forests and forested wetlands and that the proposed building site overlaps with that core habitat area. The recommendations to mitigate this issue is to first arrange for an updated delineation of wetlands and then to move the house closer to the road.
Board members agreed that more clarity is needed as to whether Libolt is seeking to make room for a walking path or for a driveway when this application is revisited at a later meeting.