Woodstock planners go back and forth on viewscapes in Scenic Overlay district

Use of drones and state-provided aerial photography and stiffer fines for violations are just some ideas for protecting viewscapes in Woodstock’s Scenic Overlay District, as discussed at a Planning Board workshop on December 16. “Obviously, we know that the people of Woodstock made a point when they created this code that they didn’t want our mountains and viewscapes to look like Rio de Janeiro or Hollywood with McMansions butting out all over the mountains,” said Planning Board Chair Peter Cross. “It’s my understanding that what precipitated this code was a clearing up on Overlook Mountain at the end of Day Road. That there was a house there that was so prominent, and the glass was reflecting and it could be seen by everybody, and so I believe that is what instigated the code.”

Cross went on to explain that the Planning Board cannot act if there hasn’t been a violation referred by the Building Department. “One of the issues that the Planning Board has been struggling with is citizens or members of committees have come to the Planning Board showing pictures or evidence of violations,” Cross said. “And it’s really important for you to understand that the Planning Board does not issue violations, nor can they remedy violations. The only one that can issue a violation is the zoning enforcement officer. Once that officer issues a violation, it is sent to the Planning Board for mediation or for finding ways to solve the issue.”

The issue at hand comes in trying to interpret what the Scenic Overlay code is meant to cover.

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“Obviously, if you read the code, it talks about prominent viewpoints, escarpments or scenic areas. Obviously, the tremendous amount of Woodstock is in the mountains and above 1200 feet. But the only areas that we’re concerned about are the viewscape from the village or from other hills and mountains that can be seen,” Cross said. “Specifically, what does the code cover in regarding tree cover? If you read the code, it’s not very clear. In terms of clear cutting and tree cutting, it says minimal, and it says to make the site as least visible as possible. Minimizing of tree cutting is a call. But we don’t have an exact way to to determine that.”

Cross called for the workshop amid mounting complaints about alleged Scenic Overlay violations, including one on Valley View Way in Lake Hill where a swath of trees were cut and the opening can be seen from Cooper Lake and across the valley.

Drone photography may help

“I think an endeavor by the town using drone photography and drone videography, to get a broader composite image of the town on and off season as it currently is, and start to kind of map out what we determined to be the viewshed we want to protect is also another way to kind of utilize that technology,” said planning board member Conor Wenk, who had videographer David Laks photograph his own property as a proof of concept. “This would be of course on the part of the town rather than the applicant, though I think going forward, that is something we should put to practice as a standard for this, that the applicant is responsible for.”

Planning Board member Judith Kerman said the state flyover for April 2021 is available and can be compared the to the last time it was conducted in 2016. “It doesn’t tell you what you can see from, say, Cooper Lake, but if you can look at a site and compare it with 2016 and say this is what it looked like in 2016. Here’s what it looks like now. Sometime in the last five years, this was cut.”

Wenk suggested that combined with state photos, the Planning Board should establish a standard format for applicant-provided drone photos, including a flight out of the tree canopy, and down to the roof level of the proposed structure.

“I think it’s a combination of things because the drone footage you’re talking about is actually of the site, which would show us which trees were there and so on. Then the other idea is taking pictures of the mountainside, not just of a site, so we see the whole mountain,” Cross said. “I think we shouldn’t lose sight of the utility of the drone technology to get not only the views that have been mentioned, but also from different altitudes, so that when you’re going to map with drone technology, the viewscapes of all the mountains, we ought to take them from diverse altitudes, as well as horizontal angles.”

Lack of oversight cited

Woodstock Environmental Commission Vice Chair David Gross said he was struck by how much authority the zoning enforcement officer (ZEO) has. “There’s no real review process. If the ZEO issues a permit that you later think, wow, that was a bad call, why did the ZEO issue that permit? And I’m not trying to put anyone down who’s been in the position of ZEO. I’m just saying it’s a huge responsibility. It’s not defined,” Gross said. “Really this this law needs to be ripped apart and redone from stem to stern.”

Councilwoman Laura Ricci said the word “minimal” needs to be clarified in the context of the Scenic Overlay District. “Does minimal need minimal to build your building? Or does minimal mean the minimal to get your view, because there’s a huge difference,” she said.

Planning Board member Wenk, who is also on the Zoning Revision Committee, said he has been working with Scenic Overlay District code author Ed Sanders to minimize non-essential tree removal. “That would be including but not limited to the topping and limbing of trees on any parcel located within the scenic overlay as it faces the viewshed,” Wenk said. “To clarify on nonessential, that would be defined to mean anything that does not have an imperative towards the safety of a site, including dangerous trees that need to be removed or are discovered near an existing site or in many cases where all other site plan modifications have been reviewed and exhausted.”

Cross said the code needs to clarify the definition of clearcutting.

“There’s two actually. One is the DEC, that says an acre of clearcutting needs to be permitted. And the reason for that, obviously, is to prevent soil erosion and runoff. And so they’re talking an acre of clear cutting,” Cross said. “And now we run into situations where people will clear an acre, but leave three or four trees in the middle, so it doesn’t qualify as clear cutting. The other definition is in the Scenic Overlay code, which says, within the site, not the property, not the lot, but in this site, is 50% of the trees six inches or over. That’s kind of vague within itself.”

New buyers not aware of restrictions

Planning Board member John LaValle said the technology is available to deal with the problem, but there is no process in place. “Because a lot of this process is going to go right back to purchase of the property,” he said, adding the building permit process is what has to change. “Whether that involves the entire real estate community, or a law that puts in place the notification that somebody is on notice when they purchase a property that they’re in the scenic overlay and there are particular rules and regulations for that scenic overlay,” LaValle said. “They don’t know that they’re in the scenic overlay and that’s the issue right now.”

LaValle stressed the importance of real estate agents explaining the regulations to potential buyers. “It all goes back to the beginning. It goes back to my fellow realtors who specialize in hyperbole. If you’re going to advertise the property has incredible views and this and that, they have bought it under a set of circumstances that was set out not by us, not by the Planning Board, not by the code enforcement officers, but by the realtors,” he said. “If you’re going to sell a property within that scenic overlay district, here are the rules and regs and we make it a town requirement that those rules and regs be handed to that person prior to buying the property. That’s it.”

Wenk pointed out that the fines for violations date back to 1989 and need to be updated. “These should be fines levied against the applicant, and additionally…not shared by, but additionally, to any professional who is found to have willfully or intentionally circumvented the law or misadvised their client and performed the illegal cutting.”

Wenk suggested the fines could be waived if mitigation is quick and effective. “These people have very deep pockets, and it’s not that I want to have a culture of punitive measures, but I think if word got around to all the arborists in town, to all of the realtors, that you could be fined, thousand dollars a week, a month or whatever until this is remediated, I think we’d see this practice start to wither and die very, very quickly.”

Cross suggested making site visits more involved and noted it may come to the Planing Board refusing permits. “We may end up saying no, you’re in a prominent view site and you can’t build there. I’m sorry you just spent $400,000 for the lot but you can’t build there.”

The Planning Board will issue a document summarizing what was discussed at the workshop and it will be up to the Town Board to make changes to the Scenic Overlay District code.