Developer, not public, allowed to speak
Many questions asked during public hearing are left unaddressed
By Ginny Privitar
CHESTER — The public was not allowed to speak at an April 3 workshop held to discuss revisions to the Village of Chester's zoning code. But village trustees did allow a developer, the developer's attorney, and the developer's planner to speak several times.
At one point during the workshop, the village's planning consultant, Kristin O’Donnell, referred to the revisions as “BT zoning” before quickly correcting herself. Members of the public have long accused the village of listening only to Frank Nussbaum, developer of the proposed BT Holdings condominium project, and not to the public or even to the village's planning board.
Several members of the audience later said that prohibiting public comment, while allowing Nussbaum and his retainers to speak, violated New York's open meetings law.
O’Donnell, of the firm Turner Miller Associates, read from a four-page response to some comments raised by the public. The memo was dated March 11, the day after the public hearing but before the village had received all written comments, which were allowed up to 10 days after the hearing.
The village planning board has objected to the changes made in a late revision they didn’t get a chance to review before the public hearing. They said these changes would remove the planning board’s oversight of new projects and allow developers to do anything they wanted.
At the March 25 planning board meeting, Mayor Philip Valastro was asked who made the most recent changes to the planning board’s recommendations. He said they were made by a committee. When pressed, he said committee include himself; Trustee Phil Roggia; the village attorney; and O'Donnell, the village consultant.
Last week's Chronicle included a letter from the chair of the village's Zoning Board of Appeals, David Stevenson, that accused the village of rushing the changes through in an atmosphere of secrecy. He wrote that the village failed to give proper legal notice for its public hearing, ignored the planning board's recommendations, and drafted changes to accommodate one developer.
"The proposed changes are so tightly worded to conditions currently faced by the BT Holdings project that the connection cannot be considered a mere coincidence," he wrote. "It almost feels as if the BT attorneys drafted the measure, submitted it to the Board, and told them to pass their 'wish list.' A change with such wide-ranging implications, far beyond BT Holdings, should not be passed under such duress."
He said the village "needs to have a deeper conversation about the true need for this change, the parties with a vested interest in it, and the full ramifications of the measures. Frankly, I see no reason why this change needs to happen."
The village board was in such a rush to pass the changes, the vote was originally scheduled immediately after the March 10 public hearing. But two trustees refused to vote that night. The mayor later said the vote might take place in May.
Why so much revision?
Trustee Betty-Jo Bono asked Monday night why so much revision was needed.
“Why, when the planning board had put a lot of study and time into current code, why do we have to change the code completely?" she asked. "Isn’t there some variance (Nussbaum) could get for his project?”
The village's attorney, Ian Schlanger, said that with variances, the standards are stiff.
“You’d be potentially kissing away the senior portion of the project," he said.
BT Holdings’ most recent proposal includes 228 condos and 80 senior citizen rental units to be built on 68 acres behind the Shoprite plaza. The village recently annexed most of this land from the town to allow Nussbaum to build more intensively. The village has the water needed to supply the proposed new condos, while the town does not.
The village successfully sued the town, which did not want dense development in that area, for dragging its feet on the annexation.
Village lawyer Schlanger gave a brief overview of BT Holdings, including its four years of state environmental review and concessions made by the developer to bring down the number of residences. He said those who opposed the annexation eventually came together to bring the litigation to a close, and that the village and Nussbaum worked together on the latest proposals.
BT lawyer Larry Wolinsky said the revisions don't "do away" with village code but only add to it.
When the village was pushing for annexation, Mayor Valastro repeatedly argued that annexation would allow the village to tightly control development in that area.
“Now, with the proposed change, we seem to be giving away the very equity we have at stake," a resident said.
The village has posted the public’s written comments on its website, villageofchesterny.com.
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