Category Archives: Big Box War

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.