Category Archives: Livingston County

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.

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!

Sizing up the 26th

In a seismic political event, the shock waves of which were felt around the nation, our once-powerful local Republican Congressman Tom Reynolds announced last week that he will not be seeking re-election. As a certified political junkie, I have been watching the coverage of the scramble to find a replacement candidate, and although I do not have any inside information, here are a few of my educated guesses about what’s been going on.

First, why did Tom quit? Tom had been dogged by negative press in 2006 in the wake of allegations that he was involved in covering up the Foley scandal. Although he managed to narrowly win against eccentric industrialist Jack Davis, that election was a disaster for Republicans in general, as they lost control of the House.

The prospects for regaining a majority this year, with an unpopular war dragging into its sixth year and a record number of Republican retirements, look dim. Tom was also in danger of being tarnished by the investigation of missing funds from the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee that he headed through the 2006 disaster. Apparently a long-time employee that Tom promoted from within embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars (or maybe more!)

Although there is no implication that Tom knew, it doesn’t reflect well on his management of the organization. Even worse news, however, is that the NRCCC is practically broke. Apparently it is not as easy to raise money when you are in the minority, and with the country apparently headed into a recession, pocketbooks are tight.

Tom was actively raising money for re-election and reportedly had amassed a cool $1 million, but he may have realized that it was going to be difficult to raise the rest of the $5 million that he needed to win in 2006. On top of that, Democrat Jon Powers, an aggressive young Iraq War veteran, was starting to gain traction to challenge him. Tom probably took a hard look at his chances and decided to go out a winner.

What has happened on the Republican side in the week since has been fascinating. First, three incumbent state legislators whose districts are included in the sprawling 26th, all initially declared interest and then backed away from the race. Sen. George Maziarz of Niagara County, Assemblyman James Hayes of Erie County and our own Assemblyman Dan Burling all decided that they had important business that they wanted to stay with in Albany.

I had personally urged my friend Dan to make the race. As a Vietnam veteran of the Marine Corp and with soaring popularity in his own district, I thought he would be an ideal candidate to counter Powers. Dan took a hard look at it, and for reasons that I am not quite sure of, decided to stay where he was.

I suspect that, although there may have been personal factors, two of the major reasons were geography and again, money. Although the rural GLOW counties of Genesee, Livingston, Orleans and Wyoming make up close to 30 per cent of the district, the seat is generally considered to be a Buffalo (Erie County) seat, even though it sprawls into the western half of Monroe County for another 20 per cent.

This will also be a problem for the last remaining incumbent legislator who has expressed interest, Assemblyman Steve Hawley of Batavia. The feeling is that Erie County Republicans will not tolerate a candidate from anywhere east of the Buffalo suburbs.

This could also be a stumbling block for Iraq War hero David Bellavia of Batavia. Bellavia has a compelling personal story of his valor in fighting “House to House” (the title of his book) in Falluja. He received a Bronze Star and was nominated for a Medal of Honor. That’s a pretty good start, but his political experience is nil.

That lack of political know-how was demonstrated last night when it was announced on WHEC TV-10 in Rochester, where his wife Deanna King is a reporter, that he would be a candidate. The report said that he would be coming back to town soon to “file papers” in the race, and that next month he would be meeting with John McCain.

First of all, the only papers he would need to file to get into this race are nominating petitions with 1,250 signatures in July, and in the mean time, he might better spend his time talking to the seven county GOP Chairman and other Republicans who actually vote in the district.

Although new names (including former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly) keep getting thrown into the hopper, there is one Erie County candidate who appears to have the inside track. Buffalo attorney Michael Powers is also vice-chair of the Erie County Republican Committee.

As a partner in the powerful Phillips Lytle law firm and with a resume that bespeaks fundraising prowess, Powers looks like a tough competitor. Could we be looking at a Powers vs. Powers showdown in the fall? Not so fast!

Although Jon Powers had racked up four county endorsements, all bets are now officially off on the Democratic nomination, as Reynold’s withdrawal has scrambled the other side of the race as well. Jack Davis is reportedly willing to commit another $3 million of his own money if he decides to make a third attempt at the office, and Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul may be tempted into the race.

It looks like the Democrats may be headed for a divisive primary in September, something Republicans traditionally try to avoid. This year, as has already been indicated by events in the last week, however, things may well be different. Stay tuned!

Collective amnesia

It is one of the great ironies of Geneseo that a community that enjoys the rare privilege of being designated a National Historic Landmark has such a poor memory of its own recent history. This is the inescapable conclusion drawn from reading Bill Lofquist’s four-part series on Gateway District Zoning which concludes later this week.

Bill has done a great service by digging through old minutes to remind us what really happened way back in 1994, and even found some embarrassing quotes from some of the leaders in the Gateway planning, many of whom are still holding positions of leadership in the town today. But how did this fit of collective amnesia occur?

In my experience, it is not that uncommon around here. In 2005 the Town and Village agreed to spend $35,000 on a traffic access management study of the Route 20A corridor. It was only by digging around on the web last year that I stumbled on the fact that Geneseo had already completed such a study just three years before in 2002!

True, the scope of the later study was expanded slightly (from Groveland Road down the hill to Main Street), but as one who served on the committee for the later study, I can tell you that there was absolutely no mention or use made of the previous study. Apparently it was put on the shelf and forgotten while the new consultants happily went about re-inventing the wheel.

A similar problem arose at the county with its institutional memory of the early Gateway development and funding. After combing through the paper trail, I reported that $300,000 of the money used to fund the construction of Volunteer Road and water and sewer service for the Gateway had come from the County’s Infrastructure Fund, tax money, which by both state enabling legislation and local county policy, was strictly prohibited from being used for retail development.

At a critical point in the County Planning Board’s deliberations on the Newman PDD application, however, the County Attorney wrote a letter saying that my conclusions were wrong and that no such funding had occurred. It was only after I provided documentary evidence including minutes of the Board of Supervisor’s and the County Administrator’s own Annual Message that the County Attorney made a half-hearted retraction of his claim. (Although the false story lives on in the developer’s Draft EIS!)

While it is perhaps understandable that consultants out to make a quick buck, or officials of the county, which has a lot to gain by making Geneseo into a sales-tax cash cow, might be tempted to put their thumbs on the scale, to what can we attribute the general public’s lack of memory?

I think its a combination of factors. For one Geneseo is a more transient community than many. The presence of the college as the main employer is one reason for that. Just as there is another class of new students arriving every fall, there is a constant flow of new professors, administrators and other employees. That seems to be the nature of academic life.

Secondly, there has been quite a bit of new development in the last 20 years, and not just in the village. The Open Space study recently presented by Prof. David Robertson showed that a lot of development has occurred along rural roads in the town, especially in areas that have easy access to I-390. What we are seeing is the continued conversion of Geneseo into a bedroom community for Rochester.

As one who campaigned throughout the town all summer, I can confirm that the concern about local development issues is much less intense among town residents than it is in the village. This makes sense since many of those residents do not have to fight the traffic problems on Rt. 20A every day, but also because many of these people are more recent residents of the town and may in part have been attracted here by the convenience of Geneseo’s more recent retail additions.

Finally, however, I think the biggest factor has been the leadership the town has had for the last 8 years. It is hard for the flock to stay on the path when its leaders are driving them into the Big Box wilderness.

In this regard, it is interesting to note that the two architects of Geneseo’s Big Box Bonanza, former Supervisor Wes Kennison and Town Board member Mike Tenalio had very limited involvement in Geneseo politics prior to taking office. Kennison is fond of telling the story of how he was drafted to run for Supervisor in 1999 even though he knew nothing about local politics. It showed.

Mr. Tenalio had plenty of experience in local politics, but all of it was in Livonia where he was on the village board and served a stint as mayor. Thus it was that the two key leaders in the rush for development were people who had not been involved in the first Big Box Battle in Geneseo just a decade earlier, and apparently did not know about all the careful planning that had been done to limit future retail sprawl.

The answer to this line of argument, of course, has been that times change and that our recent town board was just reacting to different market conditions and political realities. There may be some truth in that, but it would be more convincing if it were coming from people who understood a little more of how we got here in the first place.

A less charitable interpretation, and one that I, as a close observer of the situation, hold, is that our recent Supervisor suffered from a bad case of Edifice Complex. He seemed driven, for whatever reason, to leave his mark on the world in the form of big retail boxes. One had only to witness his grandstanding over the Super Wal-Mart, which was not even in his jurisdiction, to know that he had developed a messianic zeal to spread the Gospel of Low Cost Uber Alles!

Now that we have new leadership, is it too much to think that our long town nightmare is coming to an end? Did the voters finally see that Emperor Wes had no clothes? And did they choose Will, not for his promise to bring Lowe’s, but more for the promise they saw of restoring sanity and balance to our local government?

One can hope. And if not, it is important to remember the caution of historian George Santayana. No, not the familiar one about learning from history, but in light of recent developments, this one seems more appropriate: “History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.”

Share the wealth!

Last week’s 14-2 vote of the Livingston County Planning Board to give a thumbs down to the proposed new Village of Geneseo Master Plan may have come as a surprise to some, but only if they were not paying attention. The village’s plan was only the latest casualty in the ever-widening Big Box War that has raged through the northern part of the county for going on two years now in the wake of the Geneseo Lowes and the Lima Super Wal-Mart proposals.

A village Master Plan is not usually something that draws a lot of public interest. I daresay that there are very few people, aside from the professional planners who actually draft them, who have ever read one all the way through. In the heightened environment of political struggle that has engulfed Geneseo recently, however, there is precious little neutral ground left on any issue at all related to development.

Tensions are increasingly frayed between local advocates of Smart Growth and those around the county who are quite happy with Geneseo’s role as the sales tax Cash Cow for the county. This was a view expressed by many of the County Planning Board member’s who voted against the plan.

The clear message is that residents of other towns want to have more, not less, large-scale retail development in Geneseo. They like the convenience of not having to travel to the city, the selection and low prices that are brought by Big Box competition, and most of all, they like the increased sales tax revenue that they believe will be captured by Livingston County. (Whether there will, in fact, be much of an increase, rather than just a shift of collection from small retailers to large and from outlying towns to Geneseo, is also the subject of fierce debate.)

The dirty little secret of this debate is that, if there is any increase in county sales tax collections, 95 per cent of it goes directly to the county government. While the municipality that hosts the store does get some increased property tax revenue, the remaining 5 per cent of the sales tax is distributed around the county according to a formula based on population and assessed value, regardless of where the store collecting the tax is located.

This is a great boon for the county, which after all, has lots of Medicaid and other state-mandated bills to pay, and good for residents of outlying towns, who hope to see at least a stabilization of their county property tax bills, but what exactly is in it for Geneseo? Residents of Geneseo are the ones left to deal with all the nasty side effects of having their Historic Landmark Village turned into a traffic-clogged retail center.

While residents of surrounding towns will make the occasional trip to Geneseo to shop, they can always escape back to their quiet little country homes or villages the rest of the week. In contrast, residents of Geneseo, particularly those of us who live in the village, are forced to suffer with the traffic and other harmful effects of sprawl every day of the week. Is it any wonder that the proposed new Master Plan seeks to put some restraints on the type of development that can come into our village?

In the fullness of time, of course, the only reasonable outcome to all this is compromise. I believe Geneseo citizens are willing to bear their fair share of retail development for the good of the county, but it has to be a two way street.

If more Big Boxes are to come, then other communities need to be willing to consider hosting some of them. There also needs to be a recognition that not every dollar of retail sales in the county needs to or should take place in Geneseo.

Finally, to the extent that some of the new development does take place in Geneseo, county leaders need to be willing to share some of the new wealth generated, by helping build the infrastructure needed to handle the increased traffic that surely will come. If a serious cooperative proposal were to be offered on funding the needed improvements on Geneseo’s already over-burdened road system, the Big Box War could probably begin to be settled.

As of yet, however, no such discussions have taken place, and leaders on both sides seem content to just dig in and lob grenades across the lines. Keep your head down!