COPAKE–A new local law allows the Town Board, the Planning Board or the Zoning Board of Appeals to close the file on a pending or future application because it is going nowhere.
Housing Resources of Columbia County’s pending application for a 138-unit senior and mixed-income housing development in the hamlet, called Copake Green, which has been inactive for about three years, could be affected by the new law. The proposal has generated controversy in the town.
The Town Board met in special session March 1 to conduct a public hearing on Local Law #2 of 2010, an addition to the Town Code that establishes an application abandonment procedure.
When Lindsay LeBrecht, a broker with the Copake Lake Realty Corporation, asked why such a law is necessary, Supervisor Reggie Crowley said that sometimes an applicant starts the application process and while things may progress for a while, later “nothing happens for three-four- or five-months. The applicant says they want to be on the agenda, but then they don’t show up.”
Ms. LeBrecht said it is the job of “town [government] to be here for the people,” and the new law “adds another layer of hardship” to the application process.
Town Attorney Tal Rappleyea told the dozen people present that boards often find it cumbersome to carry an open application for an extended period of time and that to do so creates timing issues with regard to state Environmental Quality Review Law. Boards have to meet benchmarks, said the attorney, noting that if an application is not able to move forward, a board may find itself in violation of the law.
Under the new law, the abandonment procedure happens gradually over eight months. If an applicant fails or refuses to take “any substantive or good faith action” to move the application forward toward completion for 6 months, and 60 days after the receipt of a written notice that the application will be considered abandoned, the board can close its file on the application.
The abandoned application will not be considered denied and an applicant is free to file a new application, pay a fee and start over.
The applicant may submit documents previously submitted, as long as they are still applicable and the board may, if shown “good cause,” waive the new filing fee.
Ms. LeBrecht asked the board not to enact the law, citing an ongoing project at Copake Lake, which is not moving forward because “it’s winter and nothing can be done.”
Councilwoman Linda Gabaccia noted that if an application is being held up “due to another agency” such as the state Department of Environmental Conservation, those circumstances will be taken into consideration.
Chris Quinby wanted to know whether the town can write a retroactive law.
Mr. Rappleyea said a law can be written to apply to pending applications. If the Town Board changes a law mid-application an applicant may have “to go back and comply” with the new law unless the law specifies otherwise.
Judith Breselor, executive director of the New York Planning Federation, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1937 that provides training to planning and zoning board members, agrees that it makes even more sense to have a the law apply to pending applications that are not moving forward.
Speaking by phone March 3, Ms. Breselor said abandonment procedures are in effect nationwide.
If an application is not moving forward, a board may consider it dead rather than having it clog up the board’s schedule because someone is “on a fishing expedition.”
If the board says, “okay, we need a site plan or a survey and the applicant doesn’t do it” in the prescribed time period, the board should be able to close the file, she said.
Most planning and zoning board members are volunteers who adjust their personal schedules to attend meetings at which applicants are supposed to appear.
Planning and zoning boards are required to act on applications in a reasonable amount of time, said Ms. Breselor, adding if an applicant fails to appear or to produce documents over an extended period and an application is tabled over and over again, an abandonment procedure makes sense.
In the case of the Copake Green project, Housing Resources Executive Director Kevin O’Neill last appeared before the Planning Board to give a project update in June 2009.
In a story about the monetary woes of Housing Resources in the July 9, 2009 issue of The Columbia Paper, Mr. O’Neill said he planned to be back on the Copake Planning Board agenda in August or certainly no later than September 2009, but that never happened.
Asked for an update of the status of Housing Resources’ overdue water and sewer bills on its Hudson properties, City Treasurer Eileen Halloran said in a March 2 phone call, that in July 2009, Housing Resources owed the city $34,000 on 8 different building parcels, some of the unpaid bills date back to 2006.
Now Housing Resources owes the city $44,000 in water and sewer bills on the properties. Some of the parcels have single-family dwellings on them, others have multiple dwelling units.
Ms. Halloran said she speaks to Mr. O’Neill from time to time, and most recently spoke with him two or three weeks ago, and he told her he was “awaiting some closing that was supposed to happen last fall.”
Reached for comment on Copake’s new law, Mr. O’Neill said March 2 that he has not seen the law, but “generally they can’t be retroactive.”
He said work on the Copake Green project “continues to be slow more as a function of what’s going on with the economy.”
Mr. O’Neill confirmed that he has been seeking investors to become partners on the Copake Green project, but said those conversations never move quickly. He said he has no definite date in mind for when he might pay a return visit to the Copake Planning Board.
Mr. O’Neill said he expected to receive approval on the Housing Resources affordable housing project in Millerton for 20 units on a 3.7-acre parcel at the next meeting or two and expects to break ground on that project this fall. He said the last two meetings there were canceled due to weather.
Weighing in on the abandonment law at the March 1 meeting, Copake Planning Board Chair Marcia Becker said she did not consider it burdensome to carry a project name on the agenda month after month. She said most big developers have engineers and attorneys working on their projects and there is “no slippage, no missing of deadlines.”
Diana Wilson of the Friends of Copake organization, which opposes the Copake Green project, spoke in favor of the new law, saying it would empower the Planning Board and Zoning Board, “give them [legal] backing” to deem a project abandoned.
The clock starts ticking on pending applications with regard to the abandonment law as soon as it is filed with the state.
Ms. Becker noted that the Planning Board only has one such application that fits in the category of inactivity.
The board voted unanimously to adopt the new law. Councilman Bob Sacks was absent.