New Paltz Town Planning Board members talked in depth about the complexities of annexation at their May 10 meeting, trying to get their heads around the New Paltz Apartments project and their role in reviewing it. This proposal, to build enough housing for 650 students on about 60 acres just south of the college along Route 32, will only be possible if the property is annexed into the village. A small portion that includes one of the access roads would remain outside of the village; that’s the only part that would be reviewed at town Planning Board meetings if the project moves forward.
Annexation goes to the core of what’s confusing about the interrelated town and village governments of New Paltz. This was evident in the fact that several board members, as well as the board’s attorney, used verbal shorthand that incorrectly suggests that if the annexation were to be approved, that this parcel would no longer be in the town. That is not true: every square inch of land that’s inside of the village is also in the town, because in New York all land is either in a town or a city. The relationship between the town and village of New Paltz is a complicated one, with every village property owner paying some town taxes, funding services that all town residents must support such as the assessor’s office. On the other hand, village residents don’t fund services for which there is a village equivalent, such as plowing of local roads. The town budget is actually divided into two portions, one for town-wide services and another for those that are only paid for by people whose properties aren’t inside the village. How those two funds are divided has occasionally been a bone of contention: when Terry Dungan was mayor, for example, it was a frequent subject of letters to the editor penned by Dungan.
In short, a successful annexation would leave this property in the town, but also make it part of the village. The advantages to developer Michael Moriello — who is also a veteran land-use attorney —include a zoning code that would support building far more housing, and the automatic right to tap into the village’s water and sewer systems to support those hundreds of new residents.
How Moriello has requested annexation also provides opportunity for confusion. State law requires an environmental review be performed, but because Moriello included a specific site plan application in the annexation petition, this shifts the review process considerably. Without the site plan application, a more cursory environmental review would have been performed by members of either the town council or — more likely — the village’s board of trustees. Now, the impacts of building out this massive project must be studied ahead of holding a hearing on the annexation itself. As they would be tasked with reviewing the full project if all falls into place, members of the village Planning Board have circulated notice of their intent to assume that lead agency role. Assuming that this is not contested, the town Planning Board would remain an involved agency, as its members will have the authority to grant approval to the access road that will remain outside of the village line. Anything town Planning Board members want included in the scope of study for the environmental impact statement must be included, according to Golden, who serves as attorney for both planning boards. The decision about the environmental impacts of the project — including those created by that road that won’t be inside of the village — will be made entirely by village Planning Board members, who won’t technically have any jurisdiction unless land is added to the village. It may be the best way to address a situation that creates something of a legal paradox.
Board member Jane Schanberg pressed Moriello on how this project has evolved. When the attorney applied for a subdivision of family lands in early 2019, it was described as “estate planning” and Schanberg asked, “Is this what you were thinking?”
Moriello claims that this project is instead the result of encouragement by public officials — such as Dennis Doyle, head of the county’s planning department — to try to put together a way to house students near the college. There is no will in Albany to pay for more dormitories on campus and no desire by university officials to limit admissions to however many could be housed in the facilities now available. A decade ago another housing project on Moriello land was rejected by town Planning Board members because the impacts of approved tax breaks were deemed too damaging. The fight to rein in or dismantle the county’s industrial development corporation — where these tax breaks are granted, often over local opposition — continues to this day. Moriello, however, has committed not to seek any relief for this project, as it doomed that prior attempt. The pressure for housing created by the presence of the college has not in any way abated since that project was scuttled.