Discussion over an agreement to allow the Woodstock Library to move to Bearsville turned heated at the Woodstock Town Board meeting April 12 when Councilman Bennet Ratcliff sought to make it more specific, over the objections of Supervisor Bill McKenna. However, it may be all for naught, as it seems the library will do without it.
The library has set May 10 for a townwide vote, asking Woodstockers for permission to borrow $3.95 million to purchase and renovate the former Miller/Howard Investments headquarters at 10 Dixon Avenue in Bearsville.
Library Board President Jeff Collins had asked the town for an agreement to satisfy bonding attorneys because Woodstock’s current zoning does not allow libraries in the area, which is designated ‘Light Industrial.’ Collins is now satisfied with moving forward on the promise of a future zoning change, which was already in the works.
“It would be easier for the library if the town passed a resolution and/or an MOU (memorandum of understanding),” Collins said at an April 14 information session about the library move. “It’s just not going to happen. We don’t want the controversy about that. We don’t want to have people think that we are doing something underhanded, which people have been accusing us of doing…All we need from the town, which they’ve committed to doing way before the library wanted to be in that zone, was to change the use table for the light industrial district to allow libraries. That’s been something that’s been in process for a year, before we even looked at that building.”
Collins said the zoning change can happen after the bond vote, and should the vote be successful, the library can still make the move.
McKenna said the resolution would not be discussed at the April 19 Town Board meeting as previously planned. He was not sure what action will be taken in the future, but noted nobody on the Town Board is against the general concept of facilitating the library’s ability to move to 10 Dixon Avenue.
During the heated discussion at the April 12 Town Board meeting, Ratcliff proclaimed he would not be bullied by McKenna.
The fiery exchanges happened as the town board worried that the MOU, as drafted by the library’s attorney, was too broad and that it exempted the library from other town regulations.
In response, McKenna changed the MOU to a resolution, which can be altered by majority vote of the town board at any time. An MOU is a binding contract.
McKenna’s resolution referred to planned interior renovations and addition of an elevator shaft as “The Project” and stated “the Project is exempt from the town’s zoning code.” He said any other changes to the property beyond interior renovations require site plan review or another resolution or agreement with the town.
But Ratcliff proposed a lesser scope and offered an amendment to narrow the exemption to only the schedule of use in the zoning code.
While McKenna’s resolution stated the project must conform to state and federal regulations, Ratcliff’s amendment added the word “local” to the sentence.
“You specifically refused to acknowledge a resolution written by the supervisor and you insisted that it be written by an attorney. The library’s attorney wrote another resolution, the town’s attorney confirmed the resolution and gave it his blessing. And yet now you’re offering your own resolution. So explain to me why your resolution is acceptable when you wouldn’t accept mine,” McKenna said.
Ratcliff started to explain what his amendment accomplishes, but McKenna interjected. “The question I asked was, explain to me why you would not entertain a motion written by me, but you would now offer your own resolution,” McKenna said.
Ratcliff said there was no communication indicating the resolution was reviewed by the town attorney, to which McKenna countered he sent the emails about it.
Ratcliff said that was the MOU, not the resolution. “I refuse to be bullied by you about this,” Ratcliff said. “I am offering this amendment because it is more responsible. It is more focused. It does not offer a project exemption to do interior renovations. Instead, it offers the library district an exemption to locate in the Light Industrial district. So that is all that is necessary for the bonding agency to agree for the bond.”
Ratcliff, concerned about process, said the Town Board members received word at 4 p.m. on April 12 that the resolution would be on that evening’s agenda. “It was not on the preliminary agenda. You said that you were sending this to the attorney. We have not heard that the attorney has looked at it or blessed it as you say,” Ratcliff said.
“If you want to oppose the project, then just oppose it,” McKenna said.
“I will not be bullied by you, Supervisor Bill McKenna. You cannot tell people what they are or are not thinking. This is abusive, Bill,” Ratcliff responded. “I am terribly sorry that you’re behaving like this, but it is abusive. I support the library project. I have always said that I do. I have a sign in front of my house right this very moment that says vote for the library bond. I believe that the strongest thing for the Town Board to do is to grant the exemption for the library district to locate in the Light Industrial district. I do not believe that offering project exemptions is what we should be doing.”
Ratcliff said McKenna’s resolution, as written, offers exemptions for interior work.
McKenna said they are entitled to do that if they move. “Our zoning law allows that, Bennet. Read the zoning law,” McKenna said. “If we permit them to be there, then they will be automatically entitled to do interior renovations. We’re stating that clearly in the resolution,” McKenna said.
“So you won’t have any problems supporting my amendment because you’re stating that that’s what it would allow. I believe it is wrong for the town of Woodstock’s board to offer specific amendments to zoning and that’s what this is doing in the resolution that you’re offering,” Ratcliff argued.
Councilwoman Laura Ricci said she supports the resolution without Ratcliff’s amendment.
“I feel the town is sufficiently protected. And I don’t see a reason to prolong this further, because we we’ve already prolonged this quite a while now with all this back-and-forth, going from one satisfactory solution looking for another satisfactory solution. We’ve been prolonging this. The library vote is May 10,” she said.
Councilwoman Maria-Elena Conte asked if the Town Board received a letter from the town attorney because she hadn’t seen one. Ratcliff said he hadn’t seen it either.
“Have you found that letter from the attorney yet?” Ratcliff asked later.
“I’m not looking for it. I don’t have my emails up,” McKenna replied.
“Does it exist?” Ratcliff asked.
After more discussion, Ratcliff moved to table the matter until the town attorney’s memo is found.
Councilman Reggie Earls seconded the motion.
“In the interest of transparency…I will second that, so there will be no question about that email and that we can do this next Tuesday,” Earls said. The resolution was tabled until April 19, though now it appears it may not be taken up at all.
The library has asserted that, as a separate taxing entity, it is exempt from local zoning regulations. It cites the 1988 N.Y. Court of Appeals case County of Monroe v. City of Rochester, in which the county wanted to expand the Rochester International Airport and claimed it was exempt from city zoning laws. The court agreed, but said certain criteria such as a benefit to the public must be weighed in granting such exemptions.