GHENT–The town Planning Board held its regular meeting remotely, using the Zoom internet platform, Wednesday, May 6 with about 70 people video conferencing or calling in. There were three public hearings on the agenda but the project that drew the virtual crowd was the proposal to expand Art Omi.
The board closed the public hearing on that project but did not vote since Planning Board members had more questions about the size of the events Art Omi plans to hold. The plan will be back on the agenda of future meetings.
The arts center, on county Route 22, wants to increase the size of the Benenson Visitors Center to include an educational center, a second art gallery and more office space for existing employees.
Art Omi Executive Director Ruth Adams stressed during the meeting that the expansion addresses existing programming. “The narrative has been that we’re really not expanding programming,” she said. Already in the Benenson Center are a gallery and cafe. Education programs are held in the gallery space. The large summer camp program is held in the sculpture park at the Education Pavilion.
According to the narrative provided to the Planning Board by Art Omi and posted on the Ghent Town website, the Art Omi site is 300 acres, with 120 acres for the Sculpture & Architecture Park open to the public for free “from dawn until dusk every day.” The 4,200 sq. ft. Benenson Center, which opened in 2008, “serves as the public and administrative hub for the majority of Art Omi’s programs and operations.” The proposed site plans for the expansion are also on the town website.
Art Omi applied to modify the organization’s special use permit, granted in 2005 by the town, in March of 2019. The application first came before the board in April of that year. The minutes from the April 2019 meeting said that an 8,900 sq. ft. addition was proposed for the center and some improvements to the event parking area and a service road.
‘We’ll take another swing at it.’
Ruth Adams, exec. director
At last week’s May 6 meeting, Art Omi’s site engineer Pat Prendergast reviewed the proposed plans with the board and talked about the many permits and reviews Art Omi had received from state and local agencies for the project, including the review by the county Planning Board. In February the county Planning Board found that the plan “has no significant county-wide or inter-community impacts” and therefore the town Planning Board “may take final action,” according to a letter from the county posted on the town’s website.
Also at the meeting was Ken Werstad, from Creighton Manning, to discuss the traffic study his company conducted for Art Omi on the roads around the site. And Art Omi was represented attorneys John Lyons and Kimberly Garrison, from the firm of Grant and Lyons LLP, who recently joined the team on the project.
Before opening the public hearing, Planning Board Member Jen Stoner, whose property abuts Art Omi’s property, said she would not recuse herself from reviewing and voting on the proposal. Planning Board Attorney Mitchell Khosrova said he talked with Ms. Stoner and Planning Board Chair Geoffrey French before the meeting.
Ms. Stoner said that neither she nor any of her family members would benefit financially from the project, nor had they every attended an Art Omi sponsored fundraiser or event, other than visiting the outdoor sculpture fields. She said that she takes her job on the board “seriously.”
The board opened the public hearing and several people spoke in support of Art Omi’s expansion.
One town resident, Craig Simmons, said he was worried about the traffic on the roads the expansion would bring and that since Art Omi is a tax exempt institution, the town would not see any revenue. Others talked about the value that Art Omi brings to the county, including Ghent Town Board member Mallory Mort and Chatham Village business owner Chris Knable. Sean Sawyer, the Washburn and Susan Oberwager president of the Olana Partnership, said that Omi’s outdoor sculpture field is an “incredible resource at this moment.”
Ghent Town Board member Koethi Zan said that it was important to keep in the mind the scope of the project, which would expand for the programs that are already happening at the site, like the education programs. She said the board should look at what the plan is “and not make it bigger than it is.”
But the Planning Board had some concerns about the numbers of people Art Omi Executive Director Adams included in her new narrative about the project.
Ms. Adams said that she was confused from the last meeting about projecting the numbers for future programs and stressed she did not think the site would have any other large events like the Trick-or-Treating in the Fields day, which draws about 1,000 people. She said that mostly there would be more smaller events, like artist talks.
Mr. Lyons, of the Art Omi legal team, said that there will be “no wedding events going forward.”
Planning Board member Dan Barufaldi pressed Ms. Adams on the numbers, saying that the number of events and visitors in the narrative gave him pause. “This is a much different message then we’ve heard for a year,” he said of the plans for the expansion.
“These numbers are big for me too,” said Ms. Adams, and later she added, “I went big so we didn’t have to come back to the board.” She also said she wanted room for the possibility of rentals since Omi is a non-profit that has to raise money.
“We’ll take another swing at it,” Ms. Adams said of the attendance numbers.
Planning Board Chairman Geoffrey French said he has posted letters online from residents about the plan. The board talked about time lines for receiving information.
The board expects to meet again Wednesday, June 3 at 7 p.m. Information will be posted at https://townofghent.org/boardscommittees/planning-board/
To contact reporter Emilia Teasdale email