The Woodstock Town Board appears amenable to an agreement with library officials to allow them to move to an area otherwise excluded by zoning, but wants it to be narrower in scope. The board also expressed concern, at its March 22 meeting, about environmental issues that have come to light.
The Woodstock Library Board of Trustees has proposed moving the facility to 10 Dixon Avenue in Bearsville, the former Miller/Howard Investments headquarters. It has set a May 10 bond election hoping voters will approve borrowing $3.5 million to purchase and renovate the building. However, the Dixon Avenue site is in the Light Industrial zoning district, where libraries are prohibited. A proposed zoning change would allow such facilities, but library trustees say they are under time constraints.
Woodstock councilwoman Laura Ricci, the town board’s liaison to the library board proposed an addition to the formal agreement. “I think it will worry people less if we can add a caveat that says while the library does not by law have to, the library does intend to follow the zoning law with the exception of the prohibited library use in the LI district,” said Ricci. “I think people of Woodstock will feel more comfortable knowing that’s what the library intends. And if that’s in the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding), they’ll know we all agree the library does intend to follow zoning law with the exception of prohibited use of libraries in the LI,” Ricci said.
But there’s another concern the town board has. Recently, during required environmental review, the library’s consultant found contamination from former industrial uses that need to be further studied and addressed. These concerns are subject to state regulation and not part of the agreement the library board is seeking with the town. “The second thing is people do worry about the environment and contaminants,” said Ricci, “and I think [we need] a statement that just acknowledges that we all understand that the library district just like…every district in New York state, needs to follow New York state regulations.”
A hard deadline
Library board President Jeff Collins said the MOU is necessary in order to get a bond. The purchase and renovation cannot be financed if it is not an approved use.
“A municipal bond is somewhat analogous to a mortgage. I make this analogy because most of us are more familiar with mortgages than they are with bonds,” Collins said. “As with a mortgage, the company that issued the bond must go through a process of due diligence. One of these steps is to ensure that the use of the funds is for a legal purpose. In the case where the use of the fund is to acquire a building, it must be legal for a building to be used for in that case, a library,” Collins explained.
“Unfortunately, due to an obscure ‘X’ in the Woodstock town zoning code, it is not legal for 10 Dixon Avenue to be used as a library. This unfortunate — an obscure ‘X’ is in the use table of the zoning code.”
Collins further explained the library cannot wait for the zoning to be changed. “By the end of June, we’ll lose the opportunity to purchase the building. This is a hard deadline and we cannot extend that deadline.”
Collins explained the MOU states the project is exempt from zoning law, but all he is concerned with is the use in the Light Industrial district. “It also says the library does not need to obtain approvals, permits, variances or recommendations from the Planning Board, ZBA, wetland inspector, Commission for Civic Design or any of the boards or commissions. While this is true, I don’t really care about this being in the MOU, because the point that we’re trying to get this around the zoning law itself,” Collins said. “The next thing is an agreement that we will hold public hearings and we will definitely do this. And the last is that the [Building] Department will be the permitting agency, because again, we are subject to state building code. And the Building Department is the agency that monitors state building code.”
Collins said the MOU language is a draft prepared by lawyers and he is agreeable to changing it.
‘Just the use table…’
Supervisor Bill McKenna explained the MOU process exists because Monroe County took the City of Rochester to court over plans to expand Rochester International Airport. The city insisted the county had to follow city zoning regulations. “And so this went to court and the ruling that came about that’s stood the test of time these last 25 years or so indicated that municipalities do not have total exemption but limited immunity from local zoning laws. And that the test was that there are nine criteria that need to be met, which the library’s attorneys have have addressed and I feel they’ve done a good job in doing that,” McKenna said.
He noted the fire department went through a similar process when it built its headquarters on Route 212.
McKenna said he will schedule a vote in April on the MOU.
“And the MOU is limited to that one little ‘X.’ Any other projects, say the library wants to do a renovation, which includes exterior work, which would normally trigger a site plan, there would be another MOU process that we would go through and we would weigh the benefits versus the detriments and either agree or disagree on whether to issue an MOU at that time,” he said. “So this isn’t a blanket exemption forever and ever. This is a one-time part where we’re saying in this instance because they’re a municipality, they’re exempt from this little ‘X.’”
The library, since it is a separate taxing entity, has claimed it is exempt from town zoning regulations. In the County of Monroe v. City of Rochester case, the court said certain factors must be considered when determining if governmental entities are exempt from local zoning.
Those factors are:
1. the nature and scope of the instrumentality seeking immunity;
2. the encroaching government’s legislative grant of authority;
3. the kind of function or land use involved;
4. the effect local land use regulation would have upon the enterprise concerned;
5. alternative locations for the facility in less restrictive zoning areas;
6. the impact upon legitimate local interests;
7. alternative methods of providing the proposed improvement;
8. the extent of the public interest to be served by the improvements; and
9. intergovernmental participation in the project development process and an opportunity to be heard.
Councilman Bennet Ratcliff, while expressing appreciation for the library board’s work, said he is concerned the MOU as currently written is too broad. “And to that extent, I really want to try to understand is it not enough to say that we recognize that the library district is its own political subdivision and therefore, it has limited immunity from the town of Woodstock zoning laws. Is that not enough for the bonding agency?” he asked.
McKenna responded. “I would answer that by saying no, Bennett, because I think it’s known that as an entity they do have limited immunity; the question becomes from what? And so we could say they have limited immunity, but then turn around when the MOU came up and say, ‘Oh, well, you have limited immunity, but not for this.’”
“My take on that is, the only thing that matters is the use table,” Collins responded. “So if you acknowledge that we are not subject to the zoning code use table in the Light Industrial zone, that would be sufficient for the bonding agent, because that’s the only thing preventing us from being able to do this from a legal point of view.”
Resident Iris York asked McKenna if the Town Board has the authority to override the zoning law.
McKenna explained the courts have ruled government agencies have limited immunity, but the public benefit must be weighed against the detriment. “So it’s not like we could turn around and grant you immunity from the zoning law,” McKenna said. “This is a duly elected board. The library, have been entrusted by the public to spend taxpayer funds to do a mission. And the mission here is to operate a library,” McKenna said. “And it’s not proper for other municipalities to stand in the way of that. The taxpayers put their trust in this board to do so, and so that’s why they’re granted this limited immunity.”