CHATHAM–It came to a showdown last week between the town Zoning Board of Appeals and PS21, Performance Spaces for the 21st Century. Neither side blinked.
PS21 founder and President Judy Grunberg withdrew her application for a new, 8,700-square-foot building set into the landscape and intended to replace the architectural tent/amphitheater at the non-profit performance space for dance, theater, music and film. PS21 has operated in a tent at an old orchard just outside the village for the last eight years.
The ZBA had wanted to reopen the public hearing for the plan, but the withdrawal of the application means there’s no proposal for the public to discuss.
Beyond those obvious results, the story gets complicated.
To start with, a disclosure: Ms. Grunberg is The Columbia Paper’s landlord.
Next, both PS21 representatives and the ZBA agree that the now-withdrawn plans for a new, three-sided building and associated landscape features replacing the tent would have reduced the volume of sound from performances that neighbors can hear.
When it came to plans for mitigating sound audible from beyond the PS21 site, “The applicant has done a phenomenal job” said ZBA member Mitch Khosrova.
Then there’s the issue that led to the showdown, a proposal by the ZBA to reopen the public hearing to receive comments from the public, including anyone who wished to speak about the hours of operation at PS21. The site is just off Route 66 between Crellin Park and High Bridge Road, and not far from homes on White Mills Road. ZBA members who spoke at last week’s meeting said they wanted PS21 to shut down by 10:30 p.m. on weekends. Ms. Grunberg and her associates said that could cause cancellation of performances that were delayed in starting and would make it impossible for the space to operate effectively.
Several years ago the ZBA gave PS21 a permit to operate until 11 p.m. on weeknights and 11:30 p.m. on weekends. The withdrawal of the application means that PS21 will continue to be able to operate until 11:30 except that it will have to continue using the tent. But the tent allows more noise to escape than would have originated from the proposed building.
Ms. Grunberg’s lawyer, Scott P. Longstreet, informed ZBA Chairman David Everett by letter in late January that his client would not agree to hours more limited that those already agreed to by PS21 for the operation of the tent. He said the organization had already agreed to landscaping and building modifications that would cut sound levels at the property line and had also agreed to limit the volume of sound produced by the performances.
Mr. Longstreet said the board had, in effect, asked PS21 to make the sound from its stage “inaudible at the property line.” He said in his January 22 letter, “This is something the board can ask of the applicant but cannot insist upon.”
At the meeting last week, Mr. Khosrova told Mr. Longstreet, “It’s not about the sound, it’s about the hours.”
Mr. Khosrova said that Ms. Grunberg had agreed at a previous earlier hearing that she would accept the earlier closing times with allowances during the season for five “overages,” when performances could run late.
Mr. Longstreet said that his client had not had legal counsel at the hearing and had realized after the hearing that the new hours were incompatible with the performances PS21 offers. He said his client would not negotiate the issue and if the board insisted on an earlier closing time, Ms. Grunberg would withdraw the application.
At that point the board adjourned to executive session to discuss the matter with ZBA and Town Attorney Tal Rappelyea. Emerging from the session about 20 minutes later, Mr. Rappelyea advised the ZBA in open session that if it wanted to impose new restrictions on the hours of operation for PS21 it would have to establish a “rational basis” for that decision. He said the way to do that was to reopen the public hearing on the application.
During the debate that followed, Mr. Khosrova and fellow ZBA member J. P. Henkel expressed concern that the sleep of children in nearby homes would be disturbed by the sound of later performances. But Mr. Longstreet said in response that PS21 had operated for eight years at the site and had returned to the board for three modifications, none of which included requirements for a reduction of nighttime hours. He said there was no record of people complaining, though he referred to “a handful of malcontents” opposed to PS21.
Toward the end of the discussion, Ms. Grunberg spoke briefly. “I never betrayed the trust of this board,” she said. She said the organization needed later hours to ensure that performances could finish, and she called the effort to reduce the hours “ridiculous.”
“I absolutely trust your judgment,” said Mr. Henkel, but he said it was the job of the ZBA to “protect future generations.”
When Mr. Everett called for a vote to extend the hearing, five of the seven members voted for the measure. At that point Mr. Longstreet, checking first with Ms. Grunberg, withdrew the application.
Colleen Stafford, whose home is on White Mills Road, was the only opponent who attended the February 27 ZBA meeting. She did not speak at the ZBA session but said immediately afterward that what she and other neighbors opposed to PS21 fear is “mission creep,” with weddings and other “late night parties” held at the site to help support the organization.
Reached after the meeting Ms. Grunberg said that PS21 already had been granted permission by the ZBA to conduct weddings and other events at the site.
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