Woodstock planners will get a look at alleged clearcutting in Lake Hill

A family will get a second chance at approval for their dream home after three of the four Planning Board members who voted against a special use permit agreed to walk the property with an expert and discuss ways to build amid alleged illegal clearcutting in the Scenic Overlay District.

The property on Valley View Way in Lake Hill caught the attention of Van Hoagland Road resident James Monserrate, who spotted a large swath of trees that had been cleared and can be seen from his property as well as from across Cooper Lake. Town Board member Laura Ricci has taken notice and said the Planning Board should impose conditions to mitigate the cutting.

The owners, Marc and Hariette deSwaan Arons, say they have only cut three live trees and the rest were standing dead trees. They also said many trees had been cut before they purchased the property last year.

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“Please understand that no violation was cited by the CEO (code enforcement officer) and therefore no remedy or remediation can be imposed by the Planning Board,” Chairman Peter Cross said at the November 18 Planning Board meeting. “And there are no grounds on which to deny the applicant the right to build their house that complies with the scenic overlay codes.”

At the November 11 meeting, Planning Board members John LaValle, Conor Wenk, Brian Normoyle and James Conrad voted against the special use permit while Cross, vice chair Stuart Lipkind and member Judith Kerman voted to move forward with the approval.

LaValle, Conrad and Wenk agreed to the walk. Normoyle said no.

Wenk asked if Tree Committee Chair Michael Veitch could come but his request was denied.

“The answer is absolutely no. Michael Veitch has absolutely no authority outside of the town for trees. Number two, this is only for Planning Board members because they’re the only ones that have a vote,” Cross said.

Cross to dissenters: Find common ground

“Go to the site, meet with the applicant and try to come to a common ground and put a condition on the site plan that we could vote to approve,” he said. “Now I understand there could be one or two folks that are members that vote against it in principle. That’s fine. So we have to have enough to carry the motion forward.”

Wenk noted the Planning Board has invited Veitch on site walks in the past and said he would rescind his “Yes” if the applicants didn’t agree to it.

LaValle noted the Tree Committee has zero jurisdiction outside of the hamlet district, to which Wenk said this is just for an opinion. “I’m not asking for them to have some sort of seal of approval or for them to have the authority to approve it or sign off on it, but rather for them to be able to give us a considered opinion and whether or not it’s what we come to agree upon, they are a body that I respect and trust,” Wenk said.

Cross said the word came straight from Supervisor Bill McKenna that the Tree Committee is not authorized to go on the properties. The reason is it would set a bad precedent by allowing the committee in areas where it doesn’t have jurisdiction.

At Conrad’s suggestion, the board agreed to have forestry management consultant Laurie Raskin contact the owner and discuss payment for her services. Raskin consulted on a timber harvest application from the Highwood Sportsmen’s Club and the Planning Board was impressed with her work.

Owners have not been approached for a visit

“We have not ever been asked if someone could come to our property and we’ve never refused. We have zero to hide,” said owner Marc deSwaan Arons. “We absolutely would welcome anything to move beyond this. So if this lady (Raskin) is an expert that the board members trust, we would welcome her. I can’t tell you enough. We’ve been here 16 years, we thought we were following all the rules and we were told we were following all the rules. And this just hit us as a complete surprise.”

Wenk asked deSwaan Arons if he was amenable to bringing the Tree Committee onto his property. “I’m not hanging my hat on the tree committee. If we can have a neutral, professional arborist come in and help advise, that’s of course optimal,” Wenk said. 

“I don’t know, the tree committee. I’ve listened to the discussions in the last few sessions and all I have picked up from that, that there is a lot of contention around it. I don’t know why,” deSwaan Arons said. “Because I’m not party to the local politics. This is a family home. I don’t want to get involved in anything that might be controversial. If there’s an expert that everybody agrees on, and is not at all controversial, that would have my strong preference.”

Cross again stressed that since there has been no violation, the point of consulting with Raskin is to get the dissenting board members to agree to the permit.

Expert advice sought

“Since the driving objection that they have is the hole that exists in the view scape, they will be looking for some kind of solutions to that over time so that the hole gets reduced and the view scape is restore,” Lipkind said. 

Wenk agreed with Lipkind’s assessment.

“We can’t remedy anything that is perceived to be a violation. Everybody’s still talking there’s a violation to fix. There is not a violation. All we could do is ask to put a condition on the site plan that meets the acceptance of some more board members,” Cross said.

“Peter, I don’t think we need to use the V word anymore. But there is a condition existing at the premises that is of concern, and that drove people to vote no,” Lipkind said. “So I think that’s the condition that’s on the table, and we have to see with the best expertise we can find whether there’s any reasonable way of curing that over time such that the no votes might consider approving it with those conditions…And my my view is that we should use the best expert that we can find, who everyone seems to agree is Laurie Raskin. So I would suggest that we go down that road with her and see if she’s willing to help us and what it would cost and then we go the next step.”

Wenk said he is going to propose some expanded language at a December 16 meeting on the Scenic Overlay District that helps to define what it means to minimize tree cutting. “But part of that will also include a discussion on whether the Tree Committee needs to be given purview in the scenic overlay and perhaps financially ammunized [an ability to levy a fine] a little bit.”

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