Court to Philmont: Wishing won’t make it so

Demonstrators gathered last November on the Columbia County Courthouse steps in Hudson in support of the Village of Philmont, when the village was responding to a civil lawsuit filed in state Supreme Court by the High Falls Property Owners Association. The association requested that the court block a lease for an unused village building awarded by the village to the arts organization Free Columbia. On February 19, Acting State Supreme Court Judge Richard Koweek ruled in favor of the property owners association. Photo by David Lee

PHILMONT—Acting State Supreme Court Judge Richard Koweek has issued a ruling in favor of a suit filed by the High Falls Property Owners Association against the village. Judge Koweek found that the Philmont Village Board did not properly award a lease for an old, empty factory building at the end of Canal Street to the arts organization called Free Columbia.

This type of suit, commonly known as an Article 78 action, allows citizens to appeal decisions made by state or local governments. In this case, the property owners group was formed to oppose the lease decision made by the board last summer. At that time the Village Board agreed to lease the “surplus” building, owned by the village, to Free Columbia for rehabilitation as a theater and arts center.

The ruling finds that Free Columbia was approved by the Village Board without proper consideration of a competing bid. The decision also says that the financial viability of Free Columbia was not demonstrated and that a required environmental review of the theater and arts center plan had not been conducted.

Judge Koweek said the only remedy was to start the bidding process over again.

“The record does not reveal any analysis by the village of how the development of this property as proposed by Free Columbia, would result in a significant benefit to the village,” the judge wrote. “More importantly, there is no evidence of what they would do with the property should Free Columbia fail to complete the project as proposed. This includes their financial ability as well as the possibility the Planning Board might deny its application for variances, special permits, building permits or Philmont’s refusal to change the zoning law, should a formal request be made of it. Philmont seems to have replaced hard analysis with wishing and hoping for a beneficial result.”

The judge’s ruling concludes that “the actions of Philmont in approving this lease under the terms set forth was arbitrary and capricious. The lease is invalidated and Respondent Philmont is directed to submit a new proposal to dispose of the surplus land and building.”

Nathaniel Williams of Free Columbia said he understood the judge’s ruling, but that it seemed like a “blunt instrument.”

“While there is an option for the Village of Philmont and Free Columbia to craft a new lease taking into account the objections raised in the lawsuit, we would like to make sure we take into consideration the totality of the HFPOA [High Falls Property Owners Association] concerns as we look to go back to the drawing board,” he said

Mr. Williams added, “I want to make clear that the village has not made any indication that they want to move forward with Free Columbia.”

“We are asking the HFPOA to meet with us and talk about how we can resolve the issues. We think it might be helpful to everyone to involve a mediator,” he said.

Sally Baker, director of Philmont Beautification, Inc., a not-for-profit community development organization, said, “I do believe the village was trying to do the right thing, and I hope they continue to look at the project.”

Chris Reed, a member and spokesperson for HFPOA, said, “There has been a lot of misrepresentation regarding this suit and I want to set the record straight. Last September our group met in executive session with Free Columbia and the Village Board. We proposed changes to the lease and then they stonewalled us. We had our opportunity to negotiate and now we are not interested. If the channels had been open before, we would not have had a lawsuit.”

Mr. Reed singled out one of his group’s concerns, saying, “We were very clear that Canal Street was designated as a professional space, not a magnet for people needing supervision. A theater would attract a lot of different people coming in and wandering around.”

“I think there are other places in Philmont for Free Columbia,” he said.

And though they are not interested in mediation with Free Columbia, Mr. Reed said that HFPOA would like to meet with the Village Board regarding the Canal Street building.

Attempts to reach the Village Board for comment were not successful prior to press deadline.

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