Category Archives: Big Box War

Desperate times?

It is said that “desperate times call for drastic measures,” and that is the only possible explanation for why the Geneseo Town Board would recklessly dive into the site plan business in an attempt to overturn their own Planning Board. (See yesterday’s Clarion News Blog.)

The town finally adopted the PDD zoning for the Gateway Town Centre last Thursday afternoon, but the vehicle, Local Law 2, also included a laundry list of directives about site plan that normally fall within the jurisdiction of the planning board. Even worse, a lot of the town board’s site plan ideas are in direct contradiction to the recommendations recently made by the Planning Board and the Town’s Architectural Review Committee.

Most controversial, perhaps, is the town’s concession that the proposed Lowe’s building can have a peak height of 45 feet. This is in contradiction to the 35 feet allowed by the town code and the 40 foot compromise approved by the Planning Board.

At the Planning Board meeting last Monday, where this matter was discussed with members of the Architectural Review Committee before a 4-2 vote to adopt the 40-foot limit, representatives of the developer claimed that they needed to have the 45 feet because having a big sign was part of Lowe’s “trademark.”

Having just finished a 5,000 mile road trip around the country, I can confirm that Lowe’s does have some of the most God-awful signs around. On the other hand, I have seen the beautiful stores in Dublin, Ohio and at Penn State, Pa. where there are no big ugly signs on the buildings at all, so it is clear that Lowe’s will make exceptions if a host town sticks to its guns.

Note: A reader sent in this picture of the Dublin Lowe’s. I never noticed the small sign, probably because I was distracted by the large atrium!

So, why did the town crumble? Contradicting and micromanaging your own planning board is not a good way to build warm and fuzzy feelings in the town government or the community. The town must know that and yet four of the town board members stuck their necks out for the developer.

For the answer, of course, we need to look no farther than the daily headlines. The economy, especially anything to do with housing and banking, is crumbling at an alarming rate. No one knows where the bottom is, but it has scared the Big Box Home Improvement stores enough that both Home Depot and Lowe’s have been furiously canceling construction of new planned stores, and in some cases, closing existing stores.

In this environment could a sign less than 45 feet high have been the “deal breaker?” Apparently the developer was successful at convincing the town board that it was. There doesn’t seem to be any other explanation for the political risk that the majority of the board has taken.

In the end, of course, Lowe’s will make its final decision on whether to build based on macro-economic factors and the state of the local economy, not the size of the sign. By blinking on the sign height, however, the town has sent the message that Geneseo is desperate for business no matter how ugly the building.

Whether the Planning Board, in its final site plan review, will obey the town’s directive is an interesting question. Hopefully the Planning Board will hold firm and protect its jurisdiction by rejecting this unwarranted intrusion.

Ironically, two of the votes for a 40 foot limit came from members appointed since the Lowe’s controversy started. When your own hand-picked appointees are trying to tell you something, perhaps it is time to listen.

P.S. I know my vacation from this column lasted longer than promised, but I’ve been having too much fun enjoying my new life as a tennis pro. I don’t promise to continue writing on a weekly basis, but will again when the spirit moves me.

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Slowing down

After 18 years of writing this column (the last 15 months online) I ‘m going to take a little break. It seems like a good time for a vacation to recharge my batteries. A lot of my energy for the past few months has gone into the construction of my new tennis court and the formation of the new Genesee Volley Tennis Club. (I have a blog for that too, but you have to be a club member to access it!)

In addition, the PDDG movement seems to have run its course. As predicted, the people with the big money and the expensive lawyers usually win these things, although I think we did accomplish a lot in encouraging the Planning Board to find a compromise and raising the community’s consciousness about the importance of supporting local business.

There may well yet be a lawsuit over the project, but if there is, it won’t be me leading the charge. I’m tired and looking to turn to a new chapter in my life: Tennis and also making my Genesee Graphics business successful.

In that regard, we will soon see the opening of our own category-killer in the form of a new Staples in town. They obviously provide many of the same services that are available at our copy center, however, our competitive advantage will still be our expertise in graphic design. That is something that only comes from years of experience that the average Staples employee will not have.

Actually, it will be a great convenience for us to have the Staples so close. We buy a lot of our paper and other supplies from them and have been making almost weekly trips to Henrietta to do so. That’s a lot of $4 a gallon gas we will save!

Now we will see if the sermon on supporting locally-owned business over the Big national Box will help us. I have a lot of confidence in our niche, so much so, that I just signed a one-year extension of our lease in the Scoville Building. I hope I won’t be disappointed.

I will probably resume this column in a month or so, sooner if events warrant or the spirit moves me. Until then, I’ll see you around town and on the court!

What happened at the Planning Board?

Commentary by Bill Lofquist and Corrin Strong

Note: Over the past week it has become clear to me from comments posted on our blogs and heard on the street, that many people are confused about exactly what happened last week in the Geneseo Planning Board. Bill Lofquist and I sought to untangle the complex background of this process in this commentary which will also be published in this week’s Livingston County News.

It would not be surprising if the casual observer of the Lowe’s controversy were totally confused by the combined PDD and SEQR process currently coming to a climax in the Town of Geneseo Planning Board. For the past two years the board members have struggled to find their way through a very complicated state environmental review process (SEQR) while processing the first application under a new and equally complex local Planned Development District (PDD) zoning law.

Those who have tried to follow the process more closely have had to learn a whole new vocabulary, mainly composed of acronyms. In the SEQR process alone we’ve been through the EAF, the Positive Declaration, the Scope, the DEIS, the FEIS and now the Findings statement. At the local level we’ve seen the proposal be recommended by the Town Board, given Concept Approval by the Planning Board and go prematurely to the County Planning Board.

After the SEQR Findings are finally adopted by the Planning Board, possibly next Monday, the proposal will have to go back to the County Planning Board for further review, then to the Town Board for PDD zoning approval and then back to the Planning Board for final site plan review. Does anyone have a road map?

We at Please Don’t Destroy Geneseo have also been guilty of injecting the acronym PDDG into the local vocabulary. Depending on your point of view, PDDG is either a visionary group of local citizens who are trying to preserve what is best about our historic small town, or a group of anti-growth cranks and pointy-headed professors who are trying to take Geneseo back to the 19thcentury.

So, about now, you are probably wondering, what exactly did the planning board do, why did they do it, and is it legal? Since the planning board is not in a position to explain itself publicly, we thought we would give it a try.

In making its Findings under SEQR, the Planning Board was charged with taking a “hard look” at the potential environmental impacts of the project and making sure that they are mitigated to the maximum possible extent. The term environmental impact is very broad and can take in, not only standard pollution of our air and water, but also traffic problems and even community character.

Both SEQR and the PDD law also require the Planning Board to consider the impact of any action on the existing planning goals and zoning laws of the town. PDDG has gone to great lengths to document the history of the planning and zoning of the Gateway, and has shown that it has a clear intent to prohibit the sprawl of large retail boxes any further east on Rt. 20A.

Basically, the Planning Board, in voting last week to downsize the Lowe’s and turn it towards Volunteer Road, was recognizing the significance of that underlying zoning and planning. They found that allowing the developer to build too large a store facing Rt. 20A would have the environmental impact of eviscerating our well-planned zoning and further damaging our community character.

That decision, which is in the nature of a compromise, is sure to leave true believers on both sides unhappy. Project supporters, who think the developer should be given carte blanche, will be afraid that, in Planning Board Chairman Dwight Folts’ words, the applicant might “walk.” Project opponents would have preferred that the building be made even smaller or not be approved at all.

It is the sign of a good compromise when all sides are at least a little unhappy. Despite our own unhappiness, however, we believe that the process has worked well enough. The Planning Board has found a balance that gives some respect to the existing zoning, but allows a no-doubt popular project to go forward with some limitations for the public good.

We expect that the developer will huff and puff about not getting everything they want and perhaps even threaten litigation. We also expect to see members of the Town Board look for ways to overrule their own planning board. Neither of these efforts is likely to be successful. The developer has no legal right to demand a bigger building, and the town will ultimately have to accept the mitigations required by the lead agency under SEQR.

As for PDDG, we will continue to monitor the situation closely to see what further steps we may need to take. At this point it would be foolhardy to think that the battle is over or that it might not ultimately end up in court. We do believe, however, that the Planning Board has made an important first step in resolving this controversy and that its decision should be supported by fair-minded citizens on both sides.

Hold that line!

Members of PDDG were pleasantly surprised by the decision of the Planning Board last night to cut back the size of the proposed Lowe’s and orient the building towards Volunteer Road to make the project more in keeping with the existing zoning. (See news story on the Clarion News Blog). Although, in a perfect world we would have preferred a Negative Finding or an even smaller building, this was probably about as good a compromise as we were likely to get.

We also realize, of course, that the size reduction passed by the slimmest of margins, 3-2 with one abstention and with one very pro-Lowe’s member absent. When Chairman Folts suggested that it would be better to wait until the next meeting on May 27 to pass the Findings statement, however, some of us immediately smelled a rat.

Of course this followed Chairman Folts’s stunning admission of bias when he said that he was in favor of the Lowe’s project and didn’t want to add too much mitigation of the environmental impacts for fear that Newman would “walk away.” This comment portrayed a blatant disregard of the planning board’s legal duty to take a “hard look” at the project’s impacts and make sure they are mitigated to the maximum feasible degree.

It’s not hard to imagine that Newman’s minions will labor mightily to overturn the board’s recommendation in the coming two weeks before the next meeting. You can expect to hear threats that Lowe’s can’t possibly make money in a “tiny” 140,000 square foot store as well as thinly veiled threats of litigation and the usual back-door arm-twisting.

We hope the board will stand firm for what is really a very reasonable compromise of a very difficult problem. Kudos to board member Tom Curtin for joining with stalwarts Patti Lavigne and Marge Wilkie in upholding the spirit of the underlying planning and zoning. A tip of the hat also goes to new board member Hank Latorella for leading the charge on changing the orientation.

The cumulative effect of these decisions will be to make it much harder for sprawl to continue to the east down Rt. 20-A. Now the board just needs to hold the line against a reaction that is sure to be fierce.

F.E.I.S. = Faking Everything In Secret?

I am indebted to a comment posted by reader Phil Bracchi on my recent “Watching sausage made” column for the equation in the title above. Actually Phil is a former English teacher and he rightly pointed out that you can also substitute a number of other “F” verb participles to create even more accurate translations of F.E.I.S.

When I finally got a chance to read the Final Environmental Impact Statement last weekend, I discovered that it was a stunning monument to over three years of deceit and misrepresentation in our local government. It is said that behind every great fortune is a great crime, but I find that behind the small fortune that Lowe’s hopes to make in Geneseo is a whole series of petty crimes, adding up to a huge violation of truth, justice and the American Way.

Now before everybody gets their panties in a bunch, I do not mean to suggest that anybody has broken any criminal laws that they should be thrown in the hoosegow for. After all, lying in politics is as American as apple pie, and the Freedom of Information Act is unfortunately not part of our NYS penal code.

For those who our regular readers of the Clarion Call Blogs and The PDDG File website, none of what I am about to detail is news or surprising. For those who may be new to the sausage factory, however, the following catalogue of petty crimes may be instructive:

1. Thumbs on the scale. We will probably never know for sure exactly what role Newman Development played in the writing of the PDD law in the first place. This is because all the correspondence between Newman and our town attorneys at Underberg and Kessler on the subject has conveniently disappeared. Suffice is to say that the whole Lowe’s project could never have gotten started in the Gateway under the existing zoning without this legislative sleight of hand.

2. Murder in the cradle. In order for the Lowe’s project to live it was necessary for the new-born Master Plan to die. Despite the fact that volunteers had worked countless hours for over three years fashioning a proposed new Master Plan, these citizens made the mistake of not kowtowing to the new party line. Off with their heads!

3. Twisting in the wind. The Access Management Plan was a supposed 6-month study of the Rt. 20A corridor that began in the spring of 2005. It fell victim to the Lowe’s project after consultant Steve Ferranti made the mistake of telling the truth about 20A at a public meeting. As a result, all meetings of the Access Management Committee were suspended indefinitely while Steve was taken into the back room and beaten until he saw the light. Only after he recanted his heresy was he allowed to collect his $35,000 fee, but the final plan is so badly flawed that it will never be adopted.

4. He who pays the piper. Another hefty check was cut by the town to the Center for Governmental Research for their study of the potential economic impact of a Lowe’s. For this study, CGR appeared to become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Geneseo Town Board. The numbers were carefully massaged to show an unbelievably positive return of sales tax to Livingston County with minimal loss of business for existing stores. If you believe this I have some swamp land in the Conesus Lake inlet I want to sell you.

5. What infrastructure money? After careful research I established that the first $300,000 invested in building  Volunteer Road and the Gateway District infrastructure came from Livingston County’s Industrial Infrastructure Fund. These funds, by both state law and local county policy, were forbidden to be used for retail development. No problem! Just get the county attorney to issue a letter denying the source of the money, and even after he is forced to retract that letter, continue to use it as if it were the truth. Nobody will know the difference!

6. Bring in the muscle. When your local Planning Board strays off the reservation, quickly refer the matter to the County Planning Board to get things straightened out. The County Board can be counted on to see the wisdom of stoking up the county sales tax dollars by concentrating all the retail expansion in Geneseo. Home rule? We don’t need no stinking home rule!

7. When all else fails, gut the board. Don’t like an independent Planning Board that actually thinks for itself? Simple. Just appoint a new chairman and then fail to re-appoint members who will not toe the party line. A new board member comes up for appointment every year, so you can have the board eating out of your hand in no time!

8. Freedom to Stonewall Information? The FOIL law in this state is a joke and the lawyers know it. There are no effective penalties for violating the law and there is thus no way to force the government to disgorge public documents if they don’t feel like it. It is particularly difficult to uncover the large amount of public communications that are in the form of e-mails  Oops! My computer ate the record!

This listing is by no means complete. There are many more petty crimes surrounding this caper, but I grow weary of recounting them. Feel free to use the comment button to add a few of your own! See you next Monday night for the exciting conclusion!

Watching sausage made

Now we can add a third item to Bismarck’s famous list of the things you don’t want to watch being made. In addition to “sausage and legislation,” we can now add Environmental Impact Statements, at least in the Town of Geneseo.

Last night’s dismal meeting and approval of the FEIS was perhaps a fitting end to a process that has been a travesty and a farce from the beginning. With the board voting to push the process ahead despite very limited review of what their consultants had cooked up for them, they kept their record of mediocrity perfect.

Of course, its not that the board’s counsel didn’t labor mightily to keep the sausage-making hidden from public view. For the past few months an iron curtain has been thrown down on all communications in the delicate negotiations between the board’s consultants and the developer.

Despite repeated FOIL requests filed by PDDG, the public (and the board) has only been allowed a few hazy glimpses of what has been going on behind the scenes. In fact, it appears that major policy decisions were made at private meetings at which no written records were kept at all. It just wouldn’t do for the public to know what deals were being cut in their name.

Despite a standing-room only expression of interest from the public last night, the process ended not with a bang but a whimper. Board member Patti Lavigne made some good points but then admitted that she had had only limited time to review the document and had not had a chance to read all of it. While this should have been an obvious clue that more time was needed for the board to consider the FEIS, nothing was going to interfere with Chairman Folts demand that the railroad keep running on time.

The bottom line is that the fix has clearly been in ever since the Town Board gutted the opposition on the Planning Board by failing to reappoint former members Craig Macauley and John Zmich. Supporters of the project now have a clear majority on the board and they are going to move this along as fast as they can, environmental impacts and proper SEQR procedures be damned.

So what else is new? The developer has been pushing for such a result for the last two years and the stacked board is now finally in a position to give it to them. Ironically, however, the board’s haste will probably have the opposite effect.

By failing to require the applicant to do an honest assessment of the Environmental Impacts, and by running roughshod over SEQR procedure and the board’s obligation to take a “hard look” at the evidence, the board has planted the seeds for a successful lawsuit. Although the board could yet salvage the situation by adopting a strong findings statement later this month, don’t bet the farm on that. It will probably just be more sausage!

I hate to say “I told you so,” but . . .

Today’s news, that Neuman Development is pulling out of the Geneseo Gateway project, was a surprise to many people, but not to me. Bill Lofquist and I have been saying for years that the whole concept of the PDD law was a poor fit for this project. I’m glad that Neuman finally realized that we were right, but I do wonder why it took them so long.

After all, as anybody who has been paying attention around here could have told them, I am almost never wrong about things like this! I know that sounds conceited, but as Dizzy Dean said, “It ain’t bragging if you can do it!”

Typical people (as Barack would say) might think it would be a great boon to be right about everything, but I can tell you from bitter personal experience that it is really a great disadvantage. People generally don’t appreciate you for being right, instead they resent you and are always looking for ways to trip you up and prove you wrong. This can be a big pain, (and not very helpful in politics) as eventually people come to doubt almost everything you say.

Not that I’m expecting any sympathy for my plight. I know that’s not in the cards. Over the years, I’ve come to accept that being consistently right is just my cross to bear.

If I could figure out a way to be wrong more often, I would, but I’ve tried it, and somehow I always end up being right despite myself. For example back in the old Blarion days I used to write the most outlandish stories that I thought could not possibly come true. Guess what?

In this way I predicted that the Red Wings would consider coming to Avon for their Field of Dreams about six months before it actually happened and I predicted the collapse of the old Retsof Salt Mine. O.K. Maybe I was off a little on the location and the reason for the collapse, but the fact is I predicted it about a year before it happened. You could look it up!

It got so bad that I actually became afraid to make predictions because they had such an uncanny way of coming true. It seems that, in my case at least, fact follows fiction. In the present case, however, I have no qualms about this year’s Blarion coming true. In fact, I hope it does, and the sooner the better!

The end result is going to be the same anyway. Either Newman can pull out now and save themselves a lot of time and trouble, or they can wait for a court to confirm that their project and their procedures are all goofed up. Either way their project is dead in the water. And about that, I know I’m right, although I don’t expect anybody to believe me! Happy April Fools!