A plan to tear down a funeral home in the center of Woodstock and build a 20-room hotel has prompted opposition from residents who feel that the profusion of development and short-term rentals is changing the character of the community for the worse.
Ryan Giuliani and Jesse Halliburton, owners of the Woodstock Way hotel, plan to purchase the 4.7-acre Lasher Funeral Home property that sits next to the Woodstock Public Library and between Tinker Street and a residential neighborhood on Orchard Street.
They plan to develop the property into 20 hotel rooms, a pool, a lobby bar, a common area and retail space. Their plans also included five 1500-square-foot homes on the field behind the funeral home, but those are off the table in response to previous meetings with the neighbors.
All buildings on the property except the funeral parlor will be refurbished in their current style. The building housing the parlor has several structural issues and will be demolished, Giuliani and Halliburton said.
The main building will house a lobby with a bar and four hotel rooms. The carriage house will contain a common area and retail space. Four two-story structures are proposed for the back field containing four hotel rooms each.
To date, nothing about this project has come before the Planning Board.
“I want everybody to understand,” Halliburton said to an often raucous gathering of neighbors and concerned citizens during a Friday, March 26 property walkthrough. “We invited you to talk to us. We wanted to hear from the community. We wanted to hear from the neighbors.”
Giuliani and Halliburton said they are active members of the community and have learned from the Woodstock Way project and are trying to be more transparent.
Despite their names, the partners have noted several times they have nothing to do with the infamous Trump lawyer and former NYC mayor nor the defense contractor. Ryan is a distant cousin of Rudy Giuliani and Jesse has no ties to the giant Halliburton corporation.
“We did do a development in town and we didn’t talk to the community first before we went for our approval and got the community’s input. Here we are. We’ve changed our direction.”
Terry Funk-Antman, who is one of the few remaining full-time residents on Neher Street, which abuts the Woodstock Way property, snapped back,
“You learned and so you’ll see the same thing again.”
“Right, so before we see the same thing again, we’d like to come to a middle ground,” Halliburton said. “And the middle ground is this. We are willing to eliminate what we wanted to build here, the five houses.
Instead of building the houses, the partners have said they’re open to selling the portion of the property leftover after the new buildings are erected.
Resident Dale Wise asked if the partners were willing to donate the field and they responded they were not in a financial position to do so.
“We are, however, open to discussing the purchase and the preservation of two acres of this property,” Halliburton said.
Giuliani and Halliburton released a statement on March 28 putting that commitment in writing.
They said if they move forward with their purchase of the property, “our current inclination is to sell off a portion of the property, to either a land trust or a private citizens group, both of which would endeavor to preserve the field as is. That means, Woodstock Way would NOT build homes on the open field.”
Giuliani reminded the crowd of what is legally possible on the property with current zoning and no variances.
“If a developer were to come in and take down the existing structures that are on this property and use the existing setbacks, they can build 84 (residential) units on this property. What we were proposing originally was five, plus the hotel in the front.”
Giuliani said if a group wants to keep the field open, but can’t afford to buy it from them, they will work something out that is agreeable to everyone.
“We are 100 percent motivated to figure out how to make it work,” he said.
Sans nous, le déluge
Thirty-year resident Alan Duffy believes the town is at its breaking point and isn’t convinced its needs another hotel.
“Our town already has Herwood, Millstream, Morning Glory, Twin Gables, Hotel Dylan, tons and tons of Airbnbs everywhere,” he said. “I don’t think the structure of Woodstock itself can sustain any more people coming to it. As a citizen I ask you to please consider withdrawing from the deal.”
To which, Halliburton replied, “From citizen to citizen, we walk away from this deal, then what happens? Who else comes here? What’s the alternative?”
Funk-Antman railed at Halliburton and Giuliani for buying up homes on Neher Street in a move she says is destroying neighborhoods. She said the community doesn’t need more short-term rentals and hotel development.
“I hear what you’re saying is there are some people in the community that don’t want another hotel,” said Halliburton. “I hear that. If it’s not us it’s going to be somebody. That’s the whole point. That’s it.”
Funk-Antman said threatening people is not the way.
“It’s not a threat; it’s a reality,” Halliburton and Giuliani countered, almost in unison.
Orchard Lane resident Erin Cadigan, who started the group Friends of the Field, observed there seems to be room for compromise with Giuliani and Halliburton.
“If they’re (the Petersons) not willing to sell to a funeral home because no funeral home can meet [the asking price], as the family that has owned this property for decades, then that’s not these gentlemen’s fault,” she said. “And what I’m hearing is these two are willing to put in writing that they’re going to preserve this field, which is what this meeting was about. What they do with those front buildings is not what this meeting was about.”
Though encouraged by Halliburton and Giuliani’s willingness to compromise, Cadigan has started a petition drive and letter to the Town Board urging the field behind the funeral home remain open.
“Woodstock, at risk for flash floods and major storm events due to development in a low-lying watershed area, cannot simply look the other way because a land is privately held,” states the letter. “I ask the Town Board to step in and hold true to its adopted environmental commitment found in the 2018 Comprehensive Plan. I ask you to save Lasher’s Meadow as open space in perpetuity.”
Why the town’s only funeral home is up for sale
It’s been a long journey for Janet Peterson. She’s been the sole owner of Lasher Funeral Home since her son, Ken, who was the director, died two years ago. Since then, Janet and her other son Carl have been trying to keep the business viable. They have gone through a few directors in that time, most recently Steve Williams, but the home not been operating for several months.
“The Peterson family elected to leave the funeral home business prior to these gentlemen even knowing the property might be available,” said real estate agent Peter Cantine, who is negotiating the sale. “They hired a funeral home appraisal company that did a complete analysis. They were told because the only revenue stream for funeral homes is funerals, there aren’t enough in Woodstock to give them full market value for this property or anywhere near it.
“They then solicited nationwide funeral home concerns for the opportunity to purchase the property. That didn’t pan out.”
A local funeral home had expressed interest in purchasing the property, but it “did not come up with a number that was close to what these gentlemen have offered for the property,” said Mike Stock, who is representing the Petersons. (Two local funeral homes owned by the Wilsey family recently concluded an agreement with the Petersons to take over services for families who formerly used Lasher and to assume care of archived funeral records.)
Cantine said he was tasked by Janet Peterson to “quickly and quietly and privately” sell the property.
“The reason was twofold, to be quick and quiet and also because Mrs. Peterson has lived in Woodstock for 92 years. She wanted to exert some influence over whom the buyer was. She did not want to sell to the highest bidder for the maximum amount of development, which by one analysis is 83 multi-housing units,” Cantine said.
Giuliani and Halliburton were then invited to bid on the property.
“The Petersons liked them personally, liked what they had done here to date at Woodstock Way and liked the scope of their development versus highest and best use for a developer to fully maximize return on investment,” Cantine said.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re here, because Mrs. Peterson lost her son and it’s a harder thing for a parent to bury her son than it is the other way around,” said Stock.
“She had a great deal of thought who we were going to sell this property to. Fair market value as you put it? It’s below fair market value,” said Stock.
“In the past two years… it’s been two years since Mr. Peterson passed away… they’ve had several operators of this funeral home. It doesn’t yield enough money to pay the mortgage. They’ve tried, and they had to walk away. Mrs. Peterson can’t keep paying the bills. The taxes are tremendous on this property. A tremendous amount of money,” Stock added. “There’s no income coming in. It’s all going out right now. We’ve been maintaining this property and we’ve been getting it ready for sale by doing cleanup that is necessary.”
While Giuliani and Halliburton are under contract for purchase of the property, they have noted Cantine is under obligation to present any valid offer made to the Petersons. They are not willing to disclose the amount offered.
Affordable housing discussed
Some have suggested the field on the property would be a good location for affordable housing, which Woodstock badly needs. But neighbors who have weighed in thus far have made it clear that they feel it should remain as one of the town’s few existing open fields.
“We’ve had discussions (with the town),” Halliburton said about the need for housing. “But we’re here with the neighborhood now and the neighborhood wants it to be open. I think we’d like it to be open.
“What I will tell you is I have every intention of trying to work with the town and helping them to create more housing… somewhere where it will work for the town and it will work for the people that need it.”
Giuliani said it is not the job of a private developer to create affordable housing, but he’s open to working with the town on the issue in other ways.
“We as people who are a part of this community understand the need for affordable housing. It is not the private investors responsibility to do it,” Giuliani said.
Councilwoman Laura Ricci, who chairs the Zoning Revision Committee, said it is difficult to find sites for affordable housing that don’t create opposition.
“We don’t have a good answer yet because every answer has a downside,” Ricci said. “Wouldn’t it be great to put it walking distance to town right here? Well no it wouldn’t because all of you are here to say, no that’s a terrible place.”
“We understand that is a major issue here not only in Woodstock but in Ulster County and this whole upstate region,” Giuliani said.
He suggested an alternative site.
“The town of Woodstock owns 35 acres of land on Zena Road that is in a great position to be developed for affordable housing and if we as developers can help in any way, maybe our time and our labor, we’re there to do that,” he said.
“We’re not in the affordable housing business. We don’t understand that business. I think it’s the town’s responsibility to come out and figure out what that is,” Giuliani said. “We don’t want to have that fight with the neighbors about affordable housing.”
The project comes at a time when the town is working on a moratorium on all commercially developed residential projects, which may or may not have an impact on this proposal. The town is facing a housing crisis caused in part by commercial interests buying up homes and turning them into short-term rentals. The freeze on such development is expected to last 90 days, giving the town enough time to make changes to its zoning to provide a long-term fix. Since a moratorium is a local law, it takes time to make its way through the municipal process. It faces legal and county planning review, then a public reading and comment period before it can become law.
Commodity vs community
Cantine, the real estate agent, believes a false dichotomy has emerged in the debate over this type of development.
“There’s been a tagline quoted in the press and in the letter [Housing Committee co-chair] Susan Goldman wrote to the Town Board, that Woodstock is in a situation where it’s commodity vs community,” he said. “I object to use of that term as a blanket term out of hand, and here’s the reason why. I was an employer in Woodstock in hospitality for 25 years.”
Cantine ran the Bear Cafe and was a partner in the Bearsville Theater complex.
“I like to think that I contributed more to the community than just a business taking people’s money,” he said. “I like to think that I was part of the community as well. I think these gentlemen are in the same situation.
“They’ve increased the tax base to the community. That makes housing more affordable for all renters and payers of mortgages,” he added. “They have created legal hotel rooms. Ironically enough, they’re the ones in the community that have gone through the process to legally create hotel rooms, as opposed to hundreds of illegal short-term rentals in Woodstock that swallowed up a lot of the housing stock in Woodstock.”