New Paltz Village Board members held their regular July 20 meeting at the athletic center on campus, to allow for plenty of room should a large number of residents wish to attend. This was because it was the scoping session for the New Paltz Apartments project, a hearing to discuss exactly what must be studied in order to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). This is a proposal to build some 630 beds on 60 acres south of the college along Route 32; surrounding Belle Terre Apartments and abutting the Harvest Hills development. The reason this hearing stands out among the many that will be held for this project is because the developer is obligated to study what’s in the scope, and questions not raised may not be considered at all.
New Paltz Apartments is a very complex project. The land is adjacent to the village, but applicant Michael Moriello is seeking to get it annexed into the village because the municipal water, sewer and zoning is necessary to make it possible at all. The annexation must be approved before the project itself can be considered, but under state law an environmental review must happen before members of the town and village boards vote on the annexation. Environmental reviews are most often conducted at Planning Board meetings, and if this annexation is approved, it’s going to be the members of the village Planning Board that review the project. For these reasons, the village Planning Board is the lead agency for that review — even though this land isn’t in the village at all.
This project is to be comprised of cottage-like buildings with single bedrooms and bathrooms for each tenant. Those details, together with the location, mean that this will be largely or entirely student housing. It’s not legal to discriminate against potential renters due to their age (unless it’s housing built for senior citizens), but this is expected to be a place where a large number of students live. For that reason, nearly every resident of Harvest Hills is digging in their heels to resist building a simple bicycle and pedestrian connector path from this proposed complex into that large-lot single-family-home development, despite such a path being in keeping with local priorities such as reducing dependence on motor vehicles and reducing the carbon footprint of humans living in the area. Village resident Ariana Basco encouraged Planning Board members to study ways to create more connectivity, if this project is approved, rather than another auto-centric development.
One of the recurring themes heard in the testimony is a push for more affordable housing. This appeared to be orchestrated by members of Ulster Activists, a group that has a committee focused on housing issues. Village law calls for no less than ten percent of units be classified as “affordable,” with the actual rent price set using a formula based on income levels. For affordable units, landlords may only rent to people on a list of eligible tenants that’s maintained by members of an affordable housing board. That list is not available for inspection, but due to its nature it likely includes more long-term residents than people who recently moved to the community to attend college. The activists are asking that 20% or more of the units be designated as affordable.
Another group of people commenting was comprised of neighbors, largely those in the Hawk Hill development. These comments included a level of frustration about the lack of specifics around the project, which is the result of the complicated review process that’s required under law. Lacking those details, neighbors are unsure if there are environmental questions to be asked at this early juncture. It’s possible that issues that come from the final plans can be addressed during the site plan review, but that uncertainty seems to be creating some unease among these neighbors. There isn’t even a requirement to mail notices to nearby property owners at this point in the process. According to attorney Rick Golden, who is representing the village Planning Board, the town Planning Board and the Town Council in this process, some of these lingering questions might be asked when the time comes for a hearing on the annexation itself.
There will be other hearings as this review progresses, each with its own narrow focus. There will be public hearings on the subdivision of land (one each for the town and village planning boards), a hearing on the draft EIS and potentially hearings on the final statement and the site plan, too.
Nearby neighbors want to see the hydrology studied to ensure that there won’t be any impact on private wells, despite this project being intended for municipal water. Surface water — specifically impacts on the Saw Mill Creek and flooding — was also raised.
Having this important meeting occur during the awkward transition from virtual to hybrid meetings or — as in this case — gathering entirely in person may have dampened the amount of input. At least one person used the online link for the Planning Board’s virtual meetings, which is the same each time, instead of heading to campus; additionally, no members of the town Planning Board were in attendance at all. The town Planning Board is an involved agency, because several aspects of the project that will require approval will remain outside of the village line even if the annexation is approved. Those board members worked on comments for the scoping session during their July 12 meeting, the video of which was only released to the public July 21.
Michael Calimano, past chair of the town’s Planning Board, noted that the impacts of this project will be quite different depending on whether the people who come to live here move from other rental units in town, or if they are new residents. Calimano encouraged board members to carefully define the criteria for taking the mandated “hard look” at this project. On a related note, Elizabeth Lee asked why more dorms aren’t being built on campus, if there’s a need. However, that’s unlikely to be included in the scope, as it’s beyond the purview of this project.
Other questions that were raised but will likely not be studied include looking into the process of annexation more broadly, and understanding how attorney Golden might act should a conflict arise among the several clients being represented simultaneously. Village and town board members selected Golden for these several roles after considering the potential for a conflict to arise, and concluding that the risk was minimal.