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!