DELMAR — Developers need not apply in Bethlehem — not for the next 12 months, that is.
The Town Board approved a 12-month moratorium that will affect applications for residential development. The move, which was subject to the town first passing a local law, passed with a 3 to 1 vote, with one abstention on Wednesday, Dec. 9.
With the law passed, none of the town boards will be allowed to review, hold a hearing, or render a decision on residential subdivision applications containing more than four units. This includes existing subdivisions proposing to expand. Also excluded are applications to establish a planned development district, and site plans containing units within residential care, nursing homes or senior citizen housing.
The moratorium is restrictive in that it will only allow plans to proceed if they’ve already reached final approval. Other plans still waiting for such approval would be held back through the duration of the moratorium. Whereas some proposals are cleared after a state environmental impact review, others such as a new subdivision still go through an additional plot review. Subdivisions still waiting upon a final plot approval won’t be able to proceed.
Like in 2004, the town is preparing an overall plan to direct future development and growth. The town is preparing to update its comprehensive plan, a task not expected to be completed for nearly a year.
Barring any exceptions, the moratorium will affect two dozen proposals, involving more than 800 housing units, many of which have been in front of the town for several years already. However, the town said any of those developers can apply for an exception should they prove the administrative pause causes them undue hardship.
“I think there should be a reasonable basis to allow developers to rely on the laws as they are,” said Joseph Castiglione, an attorney from Young/Sommer LLC representing Cardona Development Group.
Cardona has had a proposed 67-acre development in review since 2016. Since then, Castiglione said the developer has attended eight meetings and prepared numerous reports and tests in order to proceed with the residential project off of Kenwood Avenue.
Cardona was one of two developers who spoke before the town since board members started discussing the merits of a moratorium in October. Luke Michaels, of Michaels Group Homes, spoke against the moratorium last month. His development firm also has a proposed 80-plus unit development off Elm Avenue. Michaels first presented the plan before the town in November 2017.
“Three years later I can say that the approval process has taken a very long time and we’ve been navigating through an unpredictable path to achieve a plat approval or a SEQRA [negative declaration],” he said.
Michaels professed that his firm, and the nine other applicants waiting for town approval, have invested “significant time and hundreds of thousands of dollars” since first approaching the town. Should the town pass the moratorium, he asked that it excludes applications already under review and under the town’s current process.
Despite requests from developers, the majority of voices that spoke throughout the town’s three public hearings were in favor of law. Many of whom were longtime residents sharing concerns for climate, open space and an overall preservation of the town they moved into decades ago. A common thread bemoaning development ran through much of the discourse, and that concerned at least one town board member.
“On first impression, I think the moratorium sounds like nothing but a good thing. But, the more I thought about it and the more I heard from residents, the more I realized that the moratorium is a symbolic gesture that does little of what folks think it will,” said Jim Foster, town board member. “In fact, it has a real potential to do a great deal of harm.”
Foster was the lone vote against the town moratorium. He cited that many of the projects destined to be delayed have been under review for years, and that those developers have been following the guidelines of the present comprehensive plan.
“There is already a robust set of rules already in place. For the past 15 years, everyone has had to play by those rules. Now, at the eleventh hour, we propose flipping the script, hitting pause — pausing everybody — so we can update that rulebook. Fundamentally, that doesn’t seem fair to me. So, if we impose a moratorium, we better have a damn good reason for doing so.”
Foster, who is also the only Republican on the town board, chastised his colleagues for not having “the courage” to explain to residents that the moratorium will “not save the quiet pastures or patches of woodland we all love so much. It doesn’t do that…”
Town Supervisor David VanLuven rebuked Foster’s reprimand while seemingly ignoring that the town board member has voiced concerns over the moratorium since October.
“Thank you, Jim,” VanLuven said. “I wish you’d raised those issues over the last two months we’ve been discussing, but I appreciate you raising them now.”
Dan Coffey agreed with Foster that moratorium would not stop development, but he spoke in favor of it.
“If anyone thinks the moratorium is going to stop development, they are mistaken,” Coffey said. “This is just a pause, but I think it is a significant pause.”
Coffey later explained in an email to The Spotlight that he believed the moratorium would allow the town enough time to update the comprehensive plan “rather than approving projects under the current, outdated building code.”