What’s the hurry?

By Sharyn Duffy

I would like to respond to Ted Universal’s commentary appearing in the April 24, 2008 edition of the Livingston County News, entitled “Build that Lowe’s already.”  What is the rush?!  With the national economy in distress as he says and the county population not growing, it does not seem like the best time for a Big Box Home Improvement Center to be successful here.

Since building my home in the early 1990s, many large suppliers, Standard Builders Supply, Grossman’s Lumber, Hechinger, Builders Square and more recently Chase Pitkin have gone out of business in Rochester.  We are fooling ourselves if we think Lowe’s is immune to these difficulties.  Home Depot just announced that it is closing 15 under-performing stores and has canceled plans for 50 new stores! An empty Big Box would be a real blight on our environment and economy as we all discovered when the first Wal-Mart was vacant for almost two years.

Mr. Universal says that Lowe’s is going to sell us refrigerators, stoves, lumber and hardware, but we already have three appliance stores, a lumber company and a hardware store right here in Geneseo and many more in nearby towns.  This seems like a good example of robbing Peter to pay Paul, Inc.

Unlike the national chains, these locally-owned businesses put much more of their revenue back into the local economy.  The owners live here paying personal taxes and contributing to our charities, community and county.  I wonder if Mr. Universal or our local politicians have ever shopped them.

When building my home, I got the best prices on appliances from Livingston County Appliance and lumber, windows and doors from Nunda Lumber not the chains.  They also deliver and set-up without any surprise add-on costs and they are here to provide service if any problems arise.

Conrad’s and Geneseo Hardware & Rental carry specialty items.  Conrad’s, for example, carries a full range of Eureka vacuum cleaner bags. At Geneseo Hardware & Rental you can find Orek vacuum cleaners bags and parts and you can probably find that one bolt you need without buying a whole package.  Geneseo Lumber also has all the standard items you might need at spur-of-the-moment and usually at better pricing –and you don’t have to fight your way up Rt. 20a and hike across a huge parking lot.

I agree with Mr. Universal that Lowe’s did not cause Geneseo’s traffic problems, but they could be the tipping point that puts traffic way past tolerable, not to mention all the retail business that will try to follow which would bring even more traffic.  Lowe’s wants more traffic as does the County.  They do not care if our quiet residential streets and peaceful country roads are altered.

The County wants the sales tax.  The percentage of that sales tax that comes back to the towns is only about 5% and that is shared by all 17 towns.  Yet the support services and infrastructure costs will fall mainly on the backs of Geneseo taxpayers and those will be substantial.  Lowe’s will also get property tax breaks for ten years.  The estimated net increase in school tax revenue from Lowe’s is around $123,000 in the first year.  This year’s proposed local school tax levy is $8,925,034 making Lowe’s share less than 1.5%.  Hardly a dent!

Mr. Universal indicates that much of the traffic problem lies within the village.  This is true, but we people who live in the country on Lima Road seem to be forgotten.  Most of us bought property to be in the country and pay substantial taxes for the privilege.  Since I built here traffic and accidents have more than doubled.

Like many of my neighbors I keep horses on my property. The equestrian industry, both for hobbyists like me and larger commercial operations is an important part of our local economy, but it requires open space and peace and quiet to survive. We are rapidly losing that on Lima Road and throughout Geneseo!

I do not have current data, but in 1995 there were 11 reported accidents on Lima Road and 24 reported in 2004. That is just the reported accidents. I have had vehicles drive through my fencing and leave. Just in the last few weeks there have been three accidents that I know of on the road. Recently, around 4:00 pm on a Wednesday, a resident of Groveland was visiting in my driveway.  With surprise they commented “Wow, you really do have a lot of traffic here!”

With the construction of the new Super Wal-Mart on Volunteer Road there has been a doubling  of traffic using Lima Road with more commercial vehicles and commuters using it to avoid NYS Route 20A’s traffic and construction.  Perhaps it is easy to be gung-ho about having a Lowe’s when you live in other parts of the town that will have no impacts.

We need to come up with creative solutions to our traffic problems before they get worse not afterwards as Mr. Universal suggests.  What good is it to close the barn door after the horse gets out? We need to be proactive and not reactive. If you care about the future of our community, please contact our town planning board members and urge them to vote “No” on this project at the important May 12 meeting next week!

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An open letter to the Geneseo Town Planning Board

By Jim Allen

Dear Planning Board Members:

I believe that each of you is honorable and sincere, and that each of you is trying to do what is best for Geneseo. While we may disagree on some things, we are all neighbors of good will who share a community. There are several things about your discussion of Newman Development’s proposal to build new retail space in the Gateway that I don’t understand. I am writing simply to get information so that I can better understand your thought processes. I hope that you will consider my questions and answer them publicly at your next meeting.

1. Several members of the Planning Board have stated in public meetings that the PDD law overrides earlier zoning and planning for that area. This is what the developer wants us all to believe because the land was not zoned for a large retail store. It was also not zoned for an open air garden center. But the PDD law does not give the developer the right to trample existing zoning.

Instead, the PDD law explicitly states that its purpose is to further the goals of the existing underlying zoning and the comprehensive master plan. Your own lawyer has told you this, and did so again at your most recent meeting. Yet when he says this no one on the Board responds or even seems to acknowledge what he says. How can you continue to consider this project when your own lawyer tells you that the existing zoning must be respected?

2. The elephants sitting in the chairs next to you that no one talks about are the orientation of the proposed building and the status of the “internal service road.” If the building is oriented toward Rt. 20A with curb cuts onto that highway, the proposal constitutes a clear invitation for more retail development to the east. Also, even if the building does roughly face Volunteer Road, but allows for an internal service road that parallels 20A, this also gives future developers the green light to plant more sprawl to the east.

If you approve the project in the form that Newman Development is requesting, you are not only saying yes to this project. You are also saying YES! to expansive future development along Rt. 20A. But this is never explicitly discussed at your meetings, and I don’t understand why. I would still disagree, but it is possible to approve a version of this project that greatly discourages future retail development along Rt. 20A. This is a crucial topic that is being ignored. Why isn’t this issue being discussed in your meetings?

3. At your last meeting, the Board discussed the project’s purported tax benefits for the Town of Geneseo. Someone correctly pointed out that the majority of the tax benefits will go to the County and not to Geneseo. One Board member then responded that “We are the County,” implying that increased county tax revenues will somehow benefit the citizens of Geneseo. Let’s assume for a moment that the project will produce significant new tax revenues.

Even given this assumption, this argument ignores the fact that while any tax benefits of the project will be shared with citizens throughout the County, every cent of the cost of the project (increased traffic, stress on infrastructure, etc.) will be placed on the backs of Geneseo taxpayers. The County has made no promises to help us with these costs, and has been amazingly vague when asked about the issue.
The State of New York has made it clear that solving Rt. 20 traffic problems is not a high priority for them. Does anyone believe that the developer will don a white hat and ride to our rescue when traffic grinds to a halt on 20A and even more cars careen through our Village neighborhoods trying to escape the traffic snarls in front of their strip mall?

How can anyone possibly think that this project will financially benefit Geneseo? It just defies logic. This is so important that it is worth repeating: The tax benefits will be shared with the entire County, but the citizens of Geneseo will bear every cent of the costs! So what is the economic rationale for supporting this project?

4. The project poses the real risk of severe damage to our community. There is also the risk that Geneseo will someday soon inherit an ugly and economically damaging empty box if the retailer decides to close its store. I’ve attended most Planning Board meetings over the last several years, but I’ve seen little concrete evidence that the Board is willing to force the developer to mitigate these risks.

Maybe it is not legally possible to do this. But even if this is the case, if the developer won’t voluntarily agree to share in the responsibility to protect our community from the damages that might result from its activities, is this someone we want as a neighbor? Are you obligated to approve a deal when the other side refuses to take responsibility for its actions? What plans are you making to protect Geneseo from these very real potential damages?

5. Some local citizens have asked to see copies of meeting minutes and other documents related to conversations between the developer and the Town Planning Board that have taken place away from public view. All citizens have a legal right to timely access to these documents, and the individuals who have requested them have assiduously followed the legal procedures in making their requests. Yet the response that has been made gives the impression that the Planning Board is attempting to prevent timely citizen access to these documents.

Face to face meetings have apparently been held between the developer and agents of the town without a written record being made. The Board’s agents have also apparently relied heavily on phone communications with the developer because they leave no paper trail, and the board’s attorneys have used every means within the law to delay releasing the few documents it has shared with the community.

I don’t understand the board’s reluctance in sharing documents with the public. These are public documents that the citizens have a right to see. Why has the Board not responded to their neighbors and fellow citizens’ requests to view public documents in a timely and efficient manner?

6. The law clearly states that the Planning Board has the final responsibility for making all decisions, that it should not simply delegate decisions to lawyers, planners and other professional staff members, and that it should certainly not delegate these decisions to the developer. Yet, it appears that this is exactly what is happening.

The Board’s professional staff engages in private discussions with the developer in which citizens are excluded. The professional staff then issues conclusions that the Board appears reluctant to question. This might make sense if the discussions were about purely technical matters. But these conclusions do not concern technical matters. They are value judgments about whether design elements are “good” or “bad” for Geneseo, and they are deeply affected by the developer’s perspective because citizens are excluded from the discussions.

For instance, I had a conversation with the Chair of the Board about conclusions from a traffic study that accepted the developer’s views on traffic. His response to my questions was that he simply had to accept what his engineers told him. This is wrong. I don’t understand how anyone who has read the law can take this position. Why are these critical decisions being made away from public scrutiny by people who are not part of our representative government?

7. At several times during this process the Board has been pressured to vote on matters despite having very little time to read the relevant documents. This happened at your last meeting when the FEIS was considered. At that meeting at least one member of the Board admitted that she had not had time to read the entire document being considered.

Not only does this imply that these documents are being provided to the Board at the last minute, but also that the Board has had little or no input in writing the documents. Why is the Board in such a rush to vote? Doesn’t it make sense that Board members should have input into the formation of the documents, and should at least have an ample opportunity to read the document before voting on it?

8. There has only been one opportunity for official public comment on this project. At that time each member of the public had five minutes to comment on the entire scope of the project and the meeting still dragged on for over four hours. Surely that wasn’t a suitable format for anyone to meaningfully speak about the project as a whole. Since that time your Board has accepted additional documents from the developer, many of which the public has not even had a chance to see Why not provide the public an additional opportunity to comment on the project, particularly given the amount of new information that was not available during the first comment period?

9. Finally, I’d like you to consider one last series of questions. If you say no to this project, and we later realize that retail development benefits Geneseo, will later retail developers refuse the opportunity to profit from our community? Is this project the last and only hope for retail development in Geneseo? Does saying no to this particular project mean that we will forever be without retail development?

On the other hand, if you approve this project, and it turns out that it produces more harm than benefit to Geneseo, will there be any way to undo the damage to our community? If you approve this project and it produces more traffic with little or no tax benefits, will the last and only hope for preserving the unique character of Geneseo be destroyed? What is the prudent decision to make under these circumstances?

I’m presenting these questions in the spirit of a concerned local citizen who trusts that we all want what’s best for Geneseo. I believe these are critical issues to consider, and I just don’t understand why they haven’t been explicitly discussed. I would greatly appreciate hearing your responses to these questions.

Thank you very much.

Jim Allen
Geneseo

Not so sweet home Canandaigua

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By Ben Gajewski

Editor’s note: Last week Bill Lofquist mentioned development in Canandaigua in his column, which prompted a comment to be posted by Ben Gajewski, a native of that Ontario County city. We were so impressed with Ben’s comments that we asked him to expand his thoughts into a guest column.

I have been asked to expand on my comments on the growth of Canandaigua over the past several years and on the changes that I have seen in the community as a result. The majority of my comments and reflections are based upon my experience of living in the town of Canandaigua for 20 years. For your reference, Canandaigua lies 37 minutes from downtown Rochester.

During my time in Cdga. (ending in 2006) I was not particularly concerned with the development of the town. Either development was slower then or I was blinded by the fact that it was occurring around me every day.

The most noticeable changes evident to me have occurred since I moved to Geneseo two years ago. It seems as though every time I return to Cdga. (every two or three months), new chain stores, new Big Box stores, and new housing developments spring up.
Tops Supermarket built just north of the City. Wal-Mart abandoned its store in favor of building a SuperWal-Mart just 200 feet east (located in the town of Hopewell). And Lowes also built (in the town of Hopewell) right next to SuperWal-Mart.

These developments have created a string of large box stores with vast parking lots extending off of the main roads when entering Cdga. from the north and east. The curb cuts and stoplights that now exist for each box and mini-mall make the gateways truly unsightly and a hassle to drive through, especially when you are only passing through these box districts. Not only are these developments unsightly, but a path of empty warehouses and vast parking lots stand behind the new shiny stores.

The new SuperWal-Mart now stands next to the abandoned old Wal-Mart. Even if this abandoned store is filled with smaller retailers, the parking lot will never be fully utilized. The Lowe’s too has left the former medium size retail Chase Pitkins out of business.

The former Chase Pitkins is currently undergoing major renovations to become a strip mall. Wegmans too left a big box behind after it moved a few miles down the road to build a larger store. Now, the former Wegmans plaza is a strip mall with a parking lot that goes mostly unused.

Chains have been filling in the mini-malls left behind by the boxes and those chains that prefer not to fill empty space have created buildings in their own like, with their own parking lots and their own road access.

Walgreens (built own store) recently opened directly across from (one of) the Eckerd Pharmacy’s (built own store and in a strip mall), a Blockbuster (built own store in parking lot) opened within a mile of the Movie Gallery (has two locations both in strip malls), and AutoZone (built own store) is .1 miles from Advanced Auto Parts (strip mall). Starbucks (filled vacated Wendy’s), Applebees (built in parking lot), Tacobell (built in parking lot) and the list goes on. Currently, the Chase Pitkins plaza is the hot topic and the community is speculating on what chains will move in.

Of particular interest are the chains that have opened multiple stores. Today, two Tim Horton’s and two Eckerd Pharmacy’s lie less than 3 miles from their respective partner store.

While traffic is not impossible to navigate, it has gotten noticeably worse over the past few years. Route 332 (north of Cdga.) and Routes 5 and 20 (east of Cdga.) are both four lane roads feeding into and out of Main Street. These roads are constantly busy with traffic, so much so that I find it irritating to even drive on them.

It also has gotten noticeably worse for pedestrians. Several individuals have been hit trying to cross Main Street and even one death. Not all of these traffic problems are due to the development of chain stores and big boxes, but the stores certainly play a part. Housing development also plays a part in these traffic problems.

Housing developments have been springing up in Cdga. even faster than stores have. Throughout the Town, farm fields have been converted from crop production to housing. Strips of identical homes line private drives on nearly every country road.

My parents live four and a half miles from the center of Cdga. on what I consider a country road. The farm fields that used to exist on all four sides of their home are no longer; instead, there are homes on all four sides of their house. Three hundred homes now surround my parent’s property, all similar and close enough to be mistaken for a city block.

The reason for considering the recent housing growth in Cdga. is because of its link to the commercial development the Town is now wrestling with. Cdga.’s comprehensive plan explains that every dollar of taxes from residential areas cost more than a dollar in municipal services. As an area gains more residential units the difference between taxes paid and the expenses provided by the municipality diverge. The plan further states that local officials often hope that development will offset this tax problem caused by residential growth.

From the studies that I have seen this seems to be a major misconception of retail development. If municipalities want to gain tax revenue, open farm fields are perhaps the best solution, “cows don’t go to school.” While Cdga.’s recent commercial development is not solely due to recent increases in residential housing, there is likely a connection between the housing boom and the interest in Cdga. by national chains and box stores.

Cdga. has really changed in the past several years and it no longer holds the sense of place that it once had for me. I no longer look forward to trips to my hometown and I can barely stand traveling along the busy roads lined with parking lots, box and chain stores.

Everyone needs a place to live, and we all want economic prosperity, but sacrificing one’s sense of community seems an awful price to pay. These are complicated and interconnected issues with which I am attempting to grapple and expect to grapple for some time.

I hope this synopsis of Canandaigua might provide some insight for the reader. Please do comment and ask any questions if something is unclear.

Ben Gajewski is a recent graduate of SUNY Geneseo and is employed by the Genesee Valley Conservancy.

A double-standard for development

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By Howard Appell,
Livingston County News Commentary

When the Livingston County Planning Board gave its blessing to the Lima village/town Master Plan Thursday, it set a double-standard. In essence, the board said that it’s okay for any community in this county to ban big box retail stores, just so long as that community isn’t Geneseo.

Does the county planning board member who thought the board should “take the [Lima] plan as presented” because Lima citizens “had given a lot of time and thought” to their plan think any less effort went into the Geneseo plan? The county planning board turned down Geneseo’s plan because it felt the village doesn’t have the right to deny Livingston County the sales tax revenue a big box store can produce — and that’s fair. But somehow the planning board feels that it’s perfectly okay for Lima to deny county residents more sales tax revenue.

Make no mistake about it. A big box store on the Monroe-Livingston county line would be a bonanza, drawing unrealized revenue out of Monroe County — in fair trade for the thousands of dollars Henrietta and Rochester has taken from Livingston County over the years.

The notion that Geneseo’s proposed zoning would downgrade the commercial status of the Route 20A corridor is untrue. The proposed, new “Mixed” category accepts both existing and new retail stores, while allowing other uses to exist on vacant lots and lots where demolition has taken place.

On June 18 of last year, the county planning board wrote to the Village of Geneseo, explaining why it had disapproved its Master Plan. This letter cites Livingston County’s “vital interest” in Geneseo, the county’s “need for commerce and industry” and the importance of in-county shopping opportunities, especially for senior and lower income citizens.

Are we to think the county does not have a “vital interest” in Lima? That the “need for commerce and industry” has somehow ceased? That Lima’s senior and low income citizens somehow do not need local shopping opportunities?

In May and June, the county planning board meticulously critiqued the survey, which was the basis for the Geneseo Master Plan. Last week, no such scrutiny was applied to the Lima survey. In fact, the topic never even came up.

Robert Yull, the Village of Geneseo rep on the County planning Board, argues that the Lima approval is acceptible because anti-big box sentiment prevailed in Lima’s town election. His point is interesting, but flawed. Courts have ruled time and time again that planning boards should not be swayed by perceived public opinion.

If you are a Geneseo resident, county-level inconsistency should be of concern to you, whether your persuasion is for big boxes or against big boxes. For those against, it confirms your worst nightmare — that Geneseo is being systematically targeted to receive big retail development and all the traffic congestion that implies. If you are for big boxes, you should be concerned that the county is giving such substance to your opponents’ arguments.

It’s almost as if the county planning board is attempting to claim the same kind of jurisdictional power which the U.S. Congress has over the District of Columbia — with the implication that Geneseo’s elected village and town boards are somehow inadequate and inept at administering their community; that 26 strangers appointed by the Board of Supervisors can do a better job governing Geneseo.

Conclusion: Livingston County should be more careful about treating Geneseo as a “special case.” This applies to both slaps and perks.

This commentary appeared in the Jan. 17 issue of the Livingston County News and is reprinted here courtesy of Johnson Newspaper Corporation

The Planning Board Must Remain Independent

zmich-01.jpg By John Zmich

It’s been an honor and a privilege to be a member of the Geneseo Town Planning Board for the last fourteen years. It’s a unique and important part of local government and it’s been my pleasure to serve with many talented and thoughtful individuals who believe in the importance of serving their community.

As has been well documented on this web site, the past few years of my service have been marked by acrimony and contention, as members of the town board have sought to manipulate the planning board and the larger planning and zoning processes in favor of Newman Development Group’s Lowe’s proposal.

There are a number of safeguards designed to protect the independence of town planning boards. Two examples are the seven-year terms for planning board members and the rules and customs that limit contact between town board and planning board members regarding any projects before the planning board.

These safeguards are important because they insure that planning board members will do the people’s work of enforcing the town’s zoning regulations without political interference. A planning board member’s job is not to decide what businesses come into town but rather to meticulously examine an application and see that the applicant follows the letter and intent of the law.

Up until recently, planning board members in Geneseo have traditionally been reappointed. Beginning with the town board’s failure to reappoint Craig MacCauley and my removal as chair last year and now with my removal from the board this year, the town board has taken an aggressive stand to remove all differences of opinion on the board regarding a single issue (Lowe’s).

I was fired (not reappointed) and replaced with a vocal Lowe’s supporter at the recommendation of the newly elected supervisor without so much as a word of explanation. I hope this lack of professionalism and common courtesy does not become a hallmark of his tenure in office. This kind of personnel shuffling for a specific agenda is a scary reminder of how easily the process can be subverted and the independence of the planning board destroyed.

While I was serving on the planning board, I felt it was inappropriate for me to comment publicly on the “Battle of the Boards”. Now that I have been “liberated” from these constraints, I feel it is my duty to speak out about what has really been going on.

It has been suggested that civility has been a casualty of this entire Lowe’s controversy. If so, the former supervisor bears the responsibility for the climate that was created. In his rush to put the interests of a large out-of-town developer before the interests of the town, he continually tried to vilify those who held a different opinion.

In his most recent interview in this paper there were numerous examples of a complete disconnect between what the former supervisor says and what actually happened. I am particularly offended by his hostile remarks about members of the community who have participated in the process in an open and honorable way.

I know for a fact that no offer to “debate and resolve differences” was ever made to me. His continued cynical and mean-spirited attacks on the many conscientious citizens engaged in the Master Plan process is an example of how he deals with those who hold a different opinion.

In addition, throughout our consideration of the Lowe’s issue, there were constant baseless threats of litigation designed to intimidate or mislead planning board members and the general public regarding the real issues.

Members of the town planning board are charged with helping create a vision of what our community should look like. The careful examination of an application by the planning board, particularly one so large, precedent-setting, and at odds with our existing zoning, is not akin to “staring at our navels for the next five years.” This kind of language is an example of how the former supervisor attempted to denigrate the legal responsibility of the planning board.

I recognize that economic development doesn’t come easy in upstate New York. However, I disagree with the former supervisor’s claim that “light industrial and office development are pie in the sky.” In reality, the new Empire Zone in Geneseo, which was just awarded in 2006, has never been given a fair opportunity to work. Further, I don’t believe transforming the town into a super-sized retail plaza is the way to achieve economic prosperity and maintain what we all love about Geneseo. Surely we are capable of imagining and achieving a brighter future for ourselves and our children.

The next few years in Geneseo are critical. We only get one chance to protect our town from inappropriate development. If you haven’t been involved in this issue, I urge you to do so. Attend meetings, study the issues and hold our local officials accountable. The last few years have shown me how easily we can lose what we have.

I value the many friends I’ve made over the past 14 years, even the ones I might disagree with on a particular issue. I plan to stay involved and support efforts to bring real economic opportunity and jobs to our community, and most importantly, to help keep the planning board independent.