Art Omi upgrade plans spark plaudits and pans

GHENT–On Wednesday, March 4 the Town of Ghent Planning Board held a public hearing in a crowded Town Hall meeting room regarding the proposed modification of a special use permit for Art Omi.

Art Omi, a not-for-profit arts center with a 120-acre sculpture and architecture park and gallery, operates under a special use permit issued in 2004, when the Benenson Visitor Center was first constructed. That permit did not limit the number of events sponsored by Art Omi or the number of attendees, and states: “In order to maintain our institutional mission of bringing arts to the community, the number of events related to Art Omi’s art and cultural programs should not be regulated.”

The Planning Board now seeks to modify the terms of the permit, potentially imposing limits because Art Omi seeks to improve its facilities.

At the hearing, engineer Pat Prendergast presented details of a proposal to expand the Benenson Center to include additional office and gallery space as well as a service entrance, and improvements to the current overflow parking area.

The need for additional space in the center was also outlined in an 18-page narrative, which says that five full-time staff members currently share two offices that also function as supply and overflow storage. Other staff members do not have dedicated office space and work primarily in the center’s public cafe, which also hosts staff meetings. The proposed expansion would include office and meeting space for existing staff. According to the narrative, there are no plans to hire additional full-time staff.

The proposed expansion would include a dedicated Education Center to host art workshops. In the narrative, Art Omi states that it does not intend to provide additional programming, but the space could accommodate an estimated 10-to-30 additional participants per week.

The Benenson Center houses a single 1,500 square foot gallery and a small lobby, and hosts up to six exhibitions per year. The proposed expansion would provide three separate galleries, allowing Art Omi to host long-term and larger exhibitions.

Mr. Prendergast said the project has already been approved by the county Highway and Health departments and the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Creighton Manning Engineering completed a traffic assessment for the proposed expansion. Based on the traffic assessment, Town Engineer Raymond Jurkowski, P.E. determined that “upon the completion of the project, the level of service at the nearby intersections will not diminish from the existing conditions” and that intersections can accommodate the anticipated traffic increase “with little to minor increase in vehicle delays.”

Traffic was a concern for several residents in attendance.

“The traffic is the biggest concern for me,” said Lorraine Massey of Connacher Road. “My neighbors and myself have horses. We have to walk our horses because the traffic is so dangerous. The problem that we are seeing is that a lot of traffic is not local people…. This is a rural farm community, and as such people who are not familiar with it don’t understand the impact they have on the residents there. It’s become dangerous to even be on [county Route] 22 for any kind of recreational activity.”

Lauren Mundy of Leggett Road countered, “I have lived here since 1990, I have never chosen to walk on 22, it’s always been dangerous.”

Town Councilman Mallory Mort, a Leggett Road resident, agreed. “I’ve lived here 40 years. I have a really difficult time placing a whole lot of the responsibility on Art Omi. The increase in traffic in this county has been tremendous since it has become a hub of agritourism. People have always driven too fast on 22.”

Lew Streeter, town Zoning Board of Appeals chair, asked, “How can a traffic study evaluate the impact? What the study has missed is the impact of the traffic on a residential agricultural neighborhood. I would ask the board to evaluate it similar to a Kinderhook Toyota or a Price Chopper. It’s a commercial use in a residential agricultural area.”

Resident Peter Coan disagreed. “I don’t think that’s a fair evaluation,” he said. “Art Omi gives back to the community.”

Melinda Macchiaroli of Link Road spoke to the value of Art Omi as a cultural experience for her children and the influence that it had on her family’s decision to move to the area, describing it as an asset that “you really can’t get in a lot of places. The whole property is free, and that’s a real rarity. It’s such a treasure.”

Planning Board Chair Geoffrey French stated, “We’ve received numerous emails in support of Art Omi. That’s great, but the issues we have to deal with are traffic and parking and things like that.”

In addition to traffic, there were concerns among residents about the number of events at Art Omi.

Nancy Ranft of Leggett Road said, “I would encourage the board to limit the number of high frequency events that are of large scale.”

In response board members said they were “evaluating every event on all of the parcels that have been included in Art Omi’s Special Permit.”

Jackie Dunbar of Talerico Road asked, “Who is going to monitor to know that they stay within that number? At what point do we say that expansion is enough in a residential area?”

Planning Board member Larry Machiz replied, “It is our job to find conditions that would help make a project like this fit within a neighborhood. We will be wrestling over the next meeting or so with the imposition of certain conditions that will try to keep it within bounds.”

The number of visitors at Art Omi has more than doubled in the last five years, from around 14,000 in 2015 to approximately 30,000 in 2019. The State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR) requires local government agencies to consider environmental impacts equally with social and economic factors during discretionary decision making. The Planning Board has asked Art Omi for detailed information about past events and attendance in an effort to determine what the impact of the proposal may be.

At the meeting, Omi Director Ruth Adams asked the board directly, “What does ‘event’ even mean? We’ve reduced our number of events as described in the [current] special use permit. We have always been in compliance.”

Planning Board member Dan Barufaldi stated, “When we say events, we mean workshops, everything that happens. Like I told you, if Price Chopper came in and told me that they were going to double the size, but that they’re not going to have any new customers, I would doubt that that would be the case. You’re doing the same thing.”

Ms. Adams replied, “This is the first time that I’ve ever heard from this board that an education workshop is the same as a special event.”

Planning Board member Jen Stoner said, “When we are looking at activities or events or workshops, if I look at the definition of what a cultural art center is, it specifically speaks to very certain activities. I don’t consider yoga to be part of a cultural arts center. So when you send out a flyer that shares information ‘come to us, we’re a dog park, you can ride your horses, you can go cross country skiing, you can go snow shoeing’, you’ve expanded beyond what the definition of a cultural arts center is. It is now, to me, a recreational facility. It is beyond what the definition of what a cultural arts center is according to our zoning.”

According to the Town of Ghent zoning code, an Artists Cultural Center is “Land and buildings used as a meeting place, retreat and/or exhibition center for the exchange of ideas between artists, members of the professional art community and the general public…. A cultural center or retreat may provide indoor and outdoor exhibition space, work space, meeting space, lecture halls, performance space and sculpture parks, as well as living and dining facilities for the staff, artists and participants in the center’s or retreat’s programs.”

Ms. Adams offered that “many, many cultural centers mix all kinds of activities to bring audiences to art. It is not unusual.”

After over an hour of discussion, the board made the decision to leave the public hearing open.

The hearing will resume at the regular Planning Board meeting April 1 at 7 p.m. at the Ghent Town Hall. In the meantime, residents may direct comments to the Town of Ghent Planning Board, P.O. Box 98, Ghent NY 12075, or email Board Chair Geoffrey French at .

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