2012-05-16 / Commentary

Bringing a Village to Heel

Cunningham’s Corner

Paul Guillaro speaking to the Philipstown Board some weeks ago about his project. Philipstown had hoped to move all of its town operations to the site. 
Douglas Cunningham Paul Guillaro speaking to the Philipstown Board some weeks ago about his project. Philipstown had hoped to move all of its town operations to the site. Douglas Cunningham Just over two weeks ago, the top Environmental Protection Agency administrator for the South and Southwest resigned after comments surfaced that shed an unwelcome – some would say unsavory – light on how this administration views oil and gas producers.

The official, Al Armendariz, said in a 2010 video that oil and gas producers were targets for enforcement, and likened them to villages conquered by the Romans:

“It was kind of like how the Romans used to, you know, conquer villages in the Mediterranean. They’d go in to a little Turkish town somewhere, they’d find the first five guys they saw, and they’d crucify them. And then, you know, that town was really easy to manage for the next few years.”

Douglas Cunningham is Editor-in-chief of The Putnam County News & Recorder. Douglas Cunningham is Editor-in-chief of The Putnam County News & Recorder. And then one comes to the Village of Cold Spring, where any project before the village’s many boards drags on, and then on, for months if not years. Perhaps the “village” comparison is apt.

In Cold Spring, the longawaited Butterfield project has been reviewed at length by the Planning Board. The Comprehensive Board weighed in, at the request of the Village Board. The Village Board declared itself lead agency for the environmental review. And, at the behest of the Planning Board, a community design forum was organized to talk about and surface views on Butterfield.

And in the end, after all this review by all these boards, the Planning Board – or at least a narrow majority of just three people – doesn’t seem to want to allow anything much to happen there. It wants open space, but refuses to acknowledge the impact on the rest of the project. It doesn’t want any marketrate senior housing at all, which was a key financial underpinning of the project.

And, not least, it didn’t want to give the developer any direction other than “no.”

He finally got the message last week, and said “I’m done.”

Meanwhile, poor Kenny Elmes continues to endure the machinations of the Planning Board and the Historic District Review Board. He runs a gas station and garage on Route 9D/Chestnut currently, on what is a commercial thoroughfare, and he’d like to keep the gas pumps and put in a Dunkin’ Donuts and convenience store. He’s a property owner in Cold Spring, and wants to invest in it.

To judge from the reaction, you’d think he was suggesting recycling lead batteries or making nuclear weapons.

Does a drive-through and its impacts merit review? Absolutely. The building’s facade? Absolutely. Whether the zoning fits? Of course.

But is it possible, as the hand-wringing grows ever more fevered, that Cold Spring’s view of its specialness is, perhaps, the slightest bit exaggerated?

Nah, couldn’t be.

Left in the dust behind the reviewing frenzy over these two projects is the Foodtown Plaza, and the on-again, off-again plans for shifting or moving the Post Office, and expanding the grocery. The future of the Post Office in Cold Spring is now endangered by Butterfield’s collapse. It, too, has been through months of debate and review, though some point to delays by the developer as a reason why it’s dragged out.

But if they occurred on the one project, they clearly haven’t occurred in the case of the Butterfield project and developer Paul Guillaro, a citizen of Philipstown who previously completed a wellregarded project near Cold Spring’s waterfront. In this case, he’s shown up at every meeting he’s been asked to, with a raft of consultants, maps and documents, ready to answer any question. He’s outlined the issues. He’s dealt with a host of government authorities – members of the Cold Spring Village Board, the mayor, members of the Philipstown Town Board, the supervisor, and others. He believed, reasonably, that they were the authorized community representatives.

And then, having acquiesced to most of their concerns, and having built in municipal space and retail space and senior space and open space and saved the great tree, he also identified which things he couldn’t do, and one was give up the market-rate senior housing. And the Planning Board’s majority told him, it’s our way or nothing. So Butterfield goes by the boards, and with it any conception of what private property means.

It’s true that planning review and historical review can help guide a community, ensuring that it reflects a certain visual character, and that disparate uses like industry and housing are separate. But, it’s also possible – and, in Cold Spring, some would argue likely – that this review can be used in the negative sense, to confiscate private property. At bottom, unduly restrictive zoning and its capricious application are merely additional ways to take property from citizens, just like taxes.

Regardless of the private property issue, each of these municipalities will now be compelled to engage in extensive, awkward and costly renovations, especially Philipstown. The western side of Putnam County will continue to be another country far, far away as it relates to services from Putnam County government.

And it appears that the Village of Cold Spring is unable or unwilling to bring reality to its Planning Board. Landowners, homeowners and potential investors, meanwhile, have been given the clear signal that private property in Cold Spring doesn’t mean much, because regardless of the zoning, you’re not going to get a project approved, ever.

Is this signal something akin to what the Romans intended in those small villages? Maybe so. Cold Spring’s view of private property and business investment is out there now, and it will only amplify in coming days. I think Cold Spring will rue the day.

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