Daily Archives: April 17, 2008

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