VOORHEESVILLE — Late last year, Voorheesville officials, citing concerns about civic water wells positioned near railroad tracks, were debating a moratorium on the building of new gas stations in the village. Stewart’s Shops Corp., which was seeking site plan approval to build one on the former site of Smitty’s Pizza Tavern, opposed the idea, arguing that a moratorium would jeopardize the deal to purchase the property. That legislation was never voted on.
On June 27 of this year, however, the village Board of Trustees voted to approve a broader moratorium on all commercial development in the village until a comprehensive plan for guiding that development has been drafted. That plan is currently being developed — after a spirited public discourse that arose late last year in response to, essentially, two contentious commercial development proposals — and is expected to be unveiled at the end of the year. The moratorium calls for a six-month suspension of all commercial development activities, beginning on the day the legislation was passed, with the option to extend up to 18 months.
“I don’t know what the path away from this is,” said a perceptively agitated Chuck Marshall, real estate representative for Stewart’s, one of the developers responsible for provoking the public conversation last fall, which ultimately led to the defeat of a proposed 40-unit residential complex next to St. Matthew’s Church — and the continued frustration of more Stewart’s representatives than just Marshall.
After the village board declined to impose the gas station moratorium last fall, Stewart’s purchased the Smitty’s property earlier this year. Now, Marshall said, due in large part to a positive State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) declaration (identifying certain undesirable environmental impacts considered likely to be caused by the project) that was issued by the village Planning Commission on June 12, Stewart’s will have to simply sit on the property for the next six months before it knows whether it will even be able to proceed with the project in that location.
To proceed once the moratorium has been lifted, they will have to satisfy concerns identified by the SEQR decision, something that Marshall said Stewart’s has never had to do in the past, with any of their 300-plus locations. The approval process thus far, he noted, has already cost the company three times as much as it usually would.
The Village of Voorheesville, said Marshall, has the “worst approval process” he’s ever been involved in. He said repeatedly that Stewart’s has satisfied all the issues raised by C.T. Male Associates, the engineering firm hired by the village to review the proposal for conformance to zoning law and other site plan requirements. Now that the moratorium has been imposed, he said, they will have to wait at least six months before they know whether they will be able to satisfy the additional concerns that caused the Planning Commission to issue the positive declaration.
“We systematically satisfied the consultant’s requirements,” said Marshall, calling the commission’s divergent finding, “arbitrary.” “We’re uncertain what the Planning Commission will request. It’s a big unknown and we can’t go back for a period of six months to find out.”
“I get that [Marshall is] frustrated with the result,” said Voorheesville Attorney Richard Reilly. “But, quite frankly, I don’t think that the process is a bad one. He knew coming in that he was proposing something that, from the beginning, a lot of folks had a lot of different concerns about. And the Planning Commission really did a thorough job of taking a hard look at that.”
“He might not like the results,” he said, “but I find it hard to believe he was truly surprised.”
“We outlined five areas where we felt there would be a significant impact,” said Planning Commissioner Chair Georgia Gray of the SEQR decision. “And we gave those to Stewart’s and they have to address how they might mitigate those issues.”
She denied that the finding was intended to hobble the local chain, or that project specifically, saying, “Right now, the village is undergoing a comprehensive plan. So, right now, we don’t really have a way to decide which way we ought to go on things. One of the features of that is a total review of the zoning law.
“It’s not that people don’t want commercial development,” Gray said, “it’s a matter of what kind, and where, and what areas of the village are best suited for it.”
On the assessment form, village officials indicated that they believed the project has the potential to moderately or majorly impact: the way, and/or intensity with which, the land is used; the “character or quality” of the surrounding community; traffic levels and/or transit infrastructure; the potential for erosion, flooding or drainage problems; and increased hazard to environmental resources or human health.
“From our perspective,” said Gray, “there were some significant concerns.”
“They did the analysis they needed to do under SEQR,” said Reilly. “And those are the conclusions the commission reached.” Calling the Planning Commission’s environmental review process “thorough and thoughtful,” Reilly said it makes sense that village officials would interpret site plan proposals differently than technical engineers. “They’re really different things that are being looked at,” he said. “I don’t think they reached a different conclusion than the engineers, I think they were just looking at different aspects of the application that was before the village.”
Marshall said that, while Stewart’s had considered suing the village, its hands are essentially tied while the moratorium is in place. “Even if we took them to court, we wouldn’t be able to get a building permit,” he said.
While the legislation grants the village Board of Trustees the authority to issue a variance in the case that the moratorium imposes “practical difficulties or extraordinary hardships” on an applicant, assuming it “would not adversely affect the health, safety or welfare” of residents or “significantly conflict with the general purpose and intent” of the law, Marshall said he believes that the SEQR decision, until satisfied, would override the board’s authority to do so in this case, essentially creating a Catch-22.
As for the possibility of simply selling the property to another developer, he said, “We couldn’t sell because there’s no guarantee a buyer would get the variance and permit at minimum, not to mention potentially needing site plan review.”
Reilly said public opposition to the Stewart’s proposal played a significant part in the village’s decision to adopt a comprehensive plan, as well as to impose the moratorium until it has been completed. “That was a major project that would represent a fundamental change to a significant intersection and area in the village,” he said. “We think it’s prudent to let the comprehensive plan process run its course before it’s outpaced by one or another particular project.”
While she said she believes a comprehensive plan “would behoove” any community, Gray maintained that members of the Planning Commission see Stewart’s as “a legitimate commercial enterprise.” and said, “We have nothing against them, per se.”
Noting that the village already has a Stewart’s not far from her home, Gray added, “I go there all the time.”
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