Giving New Paltz the Business

Trans-Hudson Management has been waiting for the town of New Paltz to approve their project.

They want to build a CVS and a Five Guys near the Thruway, at the northeast corner of Route 299 and Putt Corners Road. They’ve wanted to since 2013, although back then they’d wanted a filling station instead of a burger joint. They‘ve spent that time fencing with board members, revising their designs, and facing near-unanimous opposition from residents in hopes of getting approval. And they’ve waited. They’ve been waiting for almost four years.

Now it seems they’ll have to wait longer.

On May 4, the town board voted on a development moratorium on the Thruway zoning district, freezing any approval of projects for the next nine months. Supervisor Neil Bettez, deputy supervisor Daniel Torres, and Julie Seyfert-Lillis voted in favor of it. Jeff Logan and Marty Irwin voted against. Their voting choices, and the arguments around the evening’s vote, mirrored previous decisions regarding Trans-Hudson’s project and the moratorium it sparked.

“The goal’s to let the town of New Paltz decide what zoning is there.”

Bettez was interviewed on May 6, 2017.

To Neil Bettez, the project’s issues would be best addressed through the moratorium, which would deny final approval to all projects in the Thruway corridor for a certain period. In the meantime, the town would have an opportunity to revise its zoning laws, which Bettez hopes to do through both a planning firm and public comment.

“This is democracy. People get to decide what they want their town to look like, and we’re just giving them the opportunity to do that,” he said. “That’s what [the Route 299 Gateway Committee] is for, and the reason you do a moratorium is to pause the applications and give this board time to make those changes.”

Planning boards tend to view each project individually without taking into account how they interact, said Bettez. Taking a step back would help the town “look at things holistically.”

Bettez said that public comment has supported the moratorium by a clear majority, and that most of those who spoke out against it tended to have money at stake in developing the area. Still, he said “hundreds” have commented in favor of the moratorium, and that “while the town government is mindful of that, in the end, the town gets to decide what their zoning looks like.”

“The world has changed. Planning has changed.”

Daniel Torres expressed a similar sentiment to Bettez, calling the moratorium’s consideration “a long, healthy dialogue that we’ve ensured the public has heard.” He views the moratorium as a chance to bring New Paltz’s gateway zoning into the present after remaining untouched for over twenty years.

The planning board voted against an environmental impact statement of the CVS project, but if one is done in the future, he said, any zoning changes done as part of the moratorium will affect the standards that Trans-Hudson is held to. Torres said that working off of current zoning guidelines, which he says date back to 1995, “is a mistake.”

While reluctant to address CVS and Trans-Hudson specifically, Torres posed a scenario he feels is common for small towns: a large business presents a project and secures tax breaks as part of the deal, then moves on within a few years, leaving behind a building that can’t be used by anyone else and depriving the town of tax revenue.

He feels the solution to that is a moratorium that doesn’t exempt present projects and gives New Paltz time to decide what’s acceptable.

“People look at it as anti-development,” he said. “I look at it as not letting them take advantage of our community.”

Torres and Jeff Logan have feuded over Trans-Hudson’s project and the moratorium for months. A meeting in February concluded with Logan hurling an obscene gesture at Torres and an invitation to engage in an anatomically unlikely act with himself. At the meeting which passed the moratorium, Torres joked with high school students present by derisively comparing Logan to a Parks and Recreation character.

“I think [Logan and Irwin] are looking at it from a litigation angle,” he said. “I think that their views on development for a community are not as progressive as the other members of the board.”

If Trans-Hudson’s project is eventually approved, the plaza’s tenants wouldn’t have to look far for competition.

A Five Guys would muscle in on the pre-existing rivalry between the town’s McDonald’s and Burger King restaurants, located across Route 299 from each other within sight of the project site.

Meanwhile, the CVS would face three competitors: Main Street’s Rite Aid, the pharmacy within Tops, and the locally-owned Dedrick’s Pharmacy, which has operated in New Paltz for 49 years. Bill Sheeley, the owner, has run the business for 43 of those years, long enough to remember competing with Rite Aid when it was still Eckerd. Sheeley declined to be interviewed, and instead referenced a 2015 New Paltz Times article as comment.

“They will offer to buy me out, and I will refuse,” he said. “We will remain independent. The community has been so good to us; how can I slap them in the face? We’ll keep independent as long as we can.”

In the same interview, Sheeley stated that his only concern about the project was Main Street’s traffic. Dedrick’s, at the corner of Route 32 and Main Street, is the closest of the town’s pharmacies to the small-business Main Street drag. The proposed CVS would be far out of Sheeley’s territory and unlikely to add to his traffic problems, which stem from the commuters and school buses that routinely lock down his intersection.

Sheeley, and pharmacy owners like him, have nothing to worry about, according to John Norton, public relations director at the National Community Pharmacist Association.

“We don’t try to compete with chain pharmacies,” he said. “We find niches to distinguish ourselves. We do things like free home delivery, and we focus on customer care. Chains are about volume, but for us it’s about retaining our customers.”

Norton says that local pharmacies, which tend to operate in rural or under-served markets, face bigger competition from mail-order pharmacies than they do from chains.

On the initial proposal, Trans-Hudson Management’s address is listed as Fort Lee, NJ, a borough that’s considered a part of the New York City metropolitan area. The professional consultant listed, Maser Consulting P.A., is located in Chestnut Ridge, a small village in Rockland County that’s on the New York-New Jersey border. Neither of their websites mention the CVS/Five Guys project.

Maser and Trans-Hudson Management declined to comment on the project.

“More development is always good for your community.”

For Jeff Logan, the project put forth by Trans-Hudson Management would help New Paltz in a few ways: more opportunities for employment, a greater selection of retail items, installing pedestrian infrastructure on Trans-Hudson’s dime, and turning an inert piece of land into a CVS and a Five Guys — “fine additions to the town.”

A moratorium would invite lawsuits, he said, not just from Trans-Hudson but from any developer interested in developing gateway land, and from the parcel’s owner.

“They could file them any time now. The law got passed. It’s up to each landowner what they want to do, but if the zoning changes what’s legal, they could file the litigation then,” he said, referring to the moratorium’s end. “That would be very long and expensive for our taxpayers, and we would most likely lose that litigation.”

The best-case scenario would’ve been to not do a moratorium, according to Logan. “It would’ve been to do what the county planning board had suggested and work with the people developing land in that district, and with our community members, to rewrite zoning without a moratorium.”

“Anyone can sue you at any time, and you have to defend it.”

More often than not, Marty Irwin argues his position during board meetings by citing documents and laws word-for-word. Yet Irwin believes that the spirit of the moratorium law, not the letter, is meant to stop development in the Thruway corridor cold, even on paper.

“It doesn’t stop them from continuing,” he says. “But it does state explicitly that if you don’t stop until we’re done, anything and everything you’re doing is at risk of being useless… If I were making that judgment, I’d say it’s more prudent for me to stop. But the law doesn’t mandate that they stop.”

Irwin referenced a past attempt to develop in the gateway area, by Wal-Mart in the 1990s, which was thwarted when the store was outright denied permission to use the village’s water system. “There was a grassroots effort to stop them, which was successful, but they didn’t seek a moratorium to do it,” he said.

Economic costs were also of concern to Irwin. When asked about the possibility of litigation against the town, he presented a spreadsheet that claimed a maximum of over $200,000 should local developers choose to sue in response to the moratorium.

“The town could be sued, and the cost to defend those actions could be over $200,000. That has nothing to do with any damages that the court might find,” he said. “As long as you have standing, you can sue.”

The 5.6-acre parcel at stake in this debate lies on the west side of the Thruway, closer to the town’s gas stations and chain supermarkets than to the village’s Main Street drag of small businesses. To the west is Putt Corners Road, and to the south is Route 299. Southbound commuters on the Thruway get a glimpse of the land before they’re offered a chance to get off at New Paltz.

At the western edge of the parcel.

On the outside of the parcel, crabgrass, weeds, fallen leaves, and scabs of silty, infertile soil run a ring around thick trees and brush at the center. Everywhere in the site, the land rises and dips; not enough to be impassable, but more than enough to test anything on wheels and keep pedestrians watching their step.

For Trans-Hudson Management to use this land, it would have to be trimmed and tempered first.

The CVS designs submitted by Maser Consulting to the town planning board on May 11, 2015, September 2, 2015, and February 17, 2017. The first two submitted were architectural renderings, while the third was simply a photo of a CVS identical to the proposed design. Taken from the Town of New Paltz website.

When Trans-Hudson submitted their original proposal, they wanted to truck in 1,600 loads of fill to even the terrain and keep them up high. Now, after years of negotiations, that figure is down to 900, and both the public and the planning board still show concern — for storm water, for the site’s proximity to the road, for the trees, and especially for the elevation.

Trans-Hudson has tried to hold firm. They answered the town engineer’s request for a four-foot fill reduction with the argument that only one foot could be removed. When the planning board asked Trans-Hudson’s attorney, Charles Bazydlo, about elevation with no engineers around to back him up, his justification used a different angle.

“Retailers don’t want to be down in a hole,” he said simply.

At the same planning board meeting, the attorney fended off a host of complaints and grievances about the proposal’s design. It looked corporate, board members said. Its large red logos and awnings were eye-catching. These comments were on revised architecture, which now featured stucco and stone in tan tones, designed to mimic the approved and under-construction Hampton Inn on the other side of Route 299.

Bazydlo appears at 44 minutes and 50 seconds into the video. Source: New Paltz Public Access, YouTube.

The positive comments he got from the planning board weren’t glowing, and they weren’t many, but they were better than nothing.

No specific plans for the Thruway district’s zoning have been announced since the moratorium was passed. However, meetings for every relevant board and committee are approaching, and rezoning the area is a likely agenda issue.

The town board meets next on Thursday, May 18; the town planning board meets next on Monday, May 22; and the Route 299 Gateway Committee will have its first meeting on Tuesday, May 23.

All town government meetings begin with an open call for public comment.

(Julie Seyfert-Lillis could not be reached for an interview.)

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