Kingstonian Zoning Petition Back at Ulster County Planning Board

By Rebecca Martin

“When you read the negative declaration by the planning board (for the Kingstonian Project), they almost don’t seem to get the gist of that letter from the Office of Parks Recreation & Historic Preservation (OPRHP) relative to why there is an impact on the stockade district.”
Dennis Doyle, UCPB

On February 5, the Ulster County Planning Board reviewed the Kingstonian Group Development LLC zoning map amendment for a second time. According to Ulster County Planning Director Dennis Doyle, the letter was referred back because the city’s request had been submitted to the county during the project’s State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR). With a determination made, the Ulster County Planning Board (UCPB) would take another look including at the new affordable housing provision.

The following is video from the meeting filmed by The Kingston News and brought to you by KingstonCitizenes.org. The blog image captures the required modifications and UCPB advisory comments.

RESOURCES

VIEW: Adverse Impact Letter from Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP)
VIEW: City of Kingston Comprehensive Plan (CP)

2:26 (loosely transcribed) Kingston’s Comprehensive Plan and its affordable housing requirement is for any new or expanding building or development. It wants to abandon the Mixed Use Overlay District (MUOD) in favor of a citywide standard. The UCPB recommends it should be simplified and “a standard set of rules regarding the provision for all multifamily residential applications in the city should be promulgated regardless of location.

5:54 (loosely transcribed) Kingston’s City Zoning Enforcement Officer (CZO) rendered a ruling about whether or not the MUOD permitted new construction and if so, required affordable housing. The statutory language of adaptive reuse would require 20%. ZEO determined that it doesn’t apply. That if new construction is permitted, it does not require affordable housing. Really the city can’t rely on MUOD to provide affordable housing anywhere in the city because of that ruling. That’s a real problematic way to move forward if we are going to let the MUOD continue. The applicant has involuntary offered affordable housing in the project and if you do the math, it’s about 10% of the project.

7:41 (loosely transcribed) County recommendations. Overarching recommendations rest on the City of Kingston’s own planning documents. We find the map amendment to be inconsistent with the purposes of the MUOD and the CP. and therefore, it should not be implemented without clarification of the ability of the District to be used to issue special permits for new construction. Additionally, if such new construction is allowed by special permit, a provision of affordable housing shall also apply.

8:35 (loosely transcribed) Doyle outlines the county’s original recommendations: Option 1, To follow the recommendations of the CP and abandon the MUOD in favor of establishing City-wide affordable housing regulations for all multi-family development, etc. Option 2, To modify the existing MUOD by specifically allowing new construction under the special use section and add the applicability of the affordable housing provision to this use. This is more of a band-aid approach to achieving the goals of the CP for the more limited area of the MUOD. If you are going to amend the map, then you must amend the language in the statute.

9:53 (loosely transcribed) The negative declaration issued by the Kingston Planning Board addresses the issues of whether or not there is a material conflict with adopted plans or goals. The Kingston Planning Board said that they found no conflict. But they do specifically note the 14 affordable housing units is a welcome inclusion. The lead agency determination regarding the zoning petition and its lack of conflict with community plans and goals as officially approved is the critical question before the Common Council and before the County Planning Board. The Common Council is somewhat bound by the lead agency’s determination. But that bounding is in response to the voluntary inclusion of affordable housing as part of the project.

11:15 (loosely transcribed) The neg dec addresses something called community character and historic resources. OPRHP has issued an adverse effect for the project. “The lead agency determination regarding Community Character the zoning petition and its lack of conflict with community plans and goals as officially approved is the critical question before the common council.” When you read the negative declaration by the planning board, they almost don’t seem to get the gist of the letter from the OPRHP relative to why there is an impact on the stockade district….but they never succintinly address the tie in between moving the project elements down slope or cross slope to tie into the schwenk drive commercial area as compared with the traditional ending of that at the Montgomery Ward building or at the top of the hill.

13:16 (loosely transcribed) Required modifications: the place where we are as pertains to affordable housing. ZEO provision says affordable housing is not needed with new construction yet the applicant voluntarily provides it. If that’s the case, then the voluntary provision by the applicant should be enshrined in the city’s planning approvals – as it could be voluntary today and during planning approvals, disappear tomorrow. The UCPB all agreed.

16:47 (loosely transcribed) Advisory comments. As stated previously, the UCPB’s overarching goal was to provide for inclusion of affordable housing. The voluntary provision offered by the developer is offset by the ruling of the ZEO that none is needed. While the board will not require a specific change, the required modification is to ensure that the affordable housing element as offered is not voluntary and is enshrined in the City’s planning approvals in a manner that defines affordability. The UCPB’s advisory comments are to strongly urge the city to abandon the MUOD district and adopt a city-wide solution to affordable housing and its design; Address more fully the adverse effects letter from OPRHP regarding their concerns about district impacts associated with the project tying the historic stockade area to the commercial area along Schwenk Drive as part of any map amendment; Note the need to clarify or include lower Fair Street in the rezoning depending on its ownership/interpretation; Note: the inclusion of a deviated PILOT by the Ulster County IDA in a Neg Dec. No discussion of a PILOT appears in the economic data released to date; Appreciation for the referral by the city to the amendment and inclusion of the affordable housing.

The UCPB said that the rezoning offers the city a clearer recommendation or response to the adverse effect letter. As part of the re-zoning they should look at this, understand and reexamine and clarify the negative declaration in terms of why it’s not an adverse effect in regards to zoning….there are state monies involved here. The state monies will require that they clear up that adverse effect letter otherwise, they’ll run into issues with the state funding. Discussion regarding Fair Street ensued. SHPO calls Fair street historic in some instances.

24:33 (loosely transcribed) On the project being a public/private partnership. We’ve seen a lot of positive economic data put out by the applicant. The negative declaration indicates a deviated PILOT by the UCIDA, meaning that it’s not a standard PILOT under the unified tax exemption policy and we don’t know what it will be. No discussion of the PILOT appears as the economic data released to date. We want transparency here – what the applicant is asking the public to participate in as the project goes forward. The IDA has a matrix, and they are going to propose that the IDA goes outside of the Matrix. In a public/private partnership, you should put everything on the table to fund your garage. The board agreed that it should be included in their comments as it’s in the Neg Dec determination and therefore a part of the SEQR process after discussion.

30:54 (loosely transcribed) Why was this matter sent back to us? Because they completed the SEQR process and we asked that they do so once the SEQR process was done. We asked to resubmit with the affordable housing provision. One of the UCPB members felt the language needed to be stronger. Dennis was concerned about changing the language from before. Public/Private partnerships should be much more up front about what they are asking the public to participate in. So far, we have seen no indication of what the public is being asked to participate in. It’s like traffic or anything else. There should be more transparency as a recommendation.

The UCPB approved the items.

City Government is not a Mayor’s Oyster: The Restructuring of DPW, Parks & Recreation and Nepotism.

By Rebecca Martin

On January 25th, Kevin Gilfeather announced his retirement as Superintendent of Kingston’s Parks & Recreation Department after 23 ½ years in the position.  Just six days later, Mayor Steve Noble, who for many years worked under Gilfeather as one of two environmental educators, submitted the following communication to the President of the Common Council with the hope of getting special business added to its February agenda. It read:

Dear President Shaut, 

With the impending retirement of Kevin Gilfeather, Superintendent of Parks and Recreation, I have been working with my staff to develop a long-term plan that supports the continued operations of our incredible parks and programming and identifies opportunities for improvement. As part of this process, I have been in discussion with not only the leadership of Parks and Recreation, but also of the Department of Public Works. While each Department serves critical and unique functions, I believe wholeheartedly that these departments can and should work closer together for the benefit of our community. By collaborating together, we have the opportunity to improve our system so that the services to our community and taxpayers are delivered in an economical, efficient and sustainable manner. I am respectfully requesting that this matter be referred to both the Finance and Laws and Rules Committees. I will be in attendance at both of these meetings to present my proposal and answer any questions the Council may have. Additional documents supporting this proposal will be sent under separate cover, prior to these meetings, so that the Council members may familiarize themselves.  

Mayors and citizens alike can submit communications, by letter or email, to the Common Council requesting that it take up a certain issue. From stop signs to Department requests, the Council President will assign the matter to whichever Council Committee she deems appropriate.  In Kingston, these communications are made publicly available as hyperlinks in the online agenda for the Council’s regular monthly meeting. This helps the public to anticipate forthcoming issues that may be taken up by the Common Council. 

In this case, the Mayor’s communication arrived without any detail as to what he had in mind, only the promise that “additional documents supporting this proposal will be sent under separate cover, prior to these meetings, so that the Council members may familiarize themselves” and a request to be added to both the Finance and Laws & Rules Committee agendas. 

Then, late in the afternoon of the following day,  the Mayor got more specific in a press release, announcing his plans to “integrate leadership teams” of the Department of Public Works (DPW) and Parks & Recreation Department by creating two new positions and expanding the role of the current Superintendent of DPW.  Serving as the new Deputy Superintendent of Environmental Services would be his wife, Julie Noble, who would be “provisionally selected” until she sits for a New York State civil service examination. According to a recent news article,  Julie Noble’s new salary would rise by as much as $23,000. The Mayor’s plan also calls for the creation of a new Recreation Director position, which would be filled by his former Confidential Secretary.  (Please see clarification below)

The Mayor’s announcement occurred before the Council knew the details of his proposal. His press release was likely news to most of them, as it was to the public. 

The Mayor’s rush to accomplish his desired Department restructuring creates a messy situation for everyone. It might very well jeopardize a possibly sensible idea. Examining its merit is the responsibility of the Common Council, beginning with its Laws & Rules Committee and later, the Finance Committee. According to Kingston’s Charter, reorganizing Departments calls for a local law process.  

The most perplexing part of this whole thing is the Mayor’s intention to fill the new positions with a family member and a friend—the very definition of nepotism. The Deputy Superintendent of Environmental Services, a position intended for Julie Noble, would report to the Superintendent of Public Works, who serves at the pleasure of the Mayor without any protections in place for his own job. If he takes issue with the Mayor’s wife down the road, who is more likely to have the Mayor’s ear?  Needless to say, this structure creates a conflict of interest and could violate the City of Kingston’s ethics law (see 49-3 Standards of Conduct).

We reached out to Council President Shaut today to ask if the Council had received any more information outside of the posted agenda packet from last evening’s Council meeting on the Mayor’s proposal and whether or not the item would be sent to two Council Committees at once. 

“The Mayor has not submitted any more detail to the Council at this time. The Mayor did request the communication to be sent to both the Finance Committee and Laws & Rules Committee for February,”  wrote Shaut.  “Originally, I did assign it to both Committees for the month; however, after learning more about his request and the fact that it does need to be a local law process,  I have determined it would be inappropriate to discuss at Finance before it is vetted by Laws & Rules.”  

Shaut also included her response to the Mayor’s communication.  “After gathering more information on the specific process that will need to take place with the Council regarding your communication of a collaboration between DPW and Parks & Rec, I am taking off the communication to the Finance & Audit Committee for the month of February. According to our Charter, restructuring departments can only happen through a local law by the Common Council. The appropriate Committee to address your proposal first would be Laws & Rules. The Finance Committee’s decisions will happen only once, and if, the Local Law is shaped.”  

The Council President’s clarity in these communications helps to outline the proper process that should be followed. 

City government is not a Mayor’s oyster. It belongs to the public, and a good government has a strong system of checks and balances to protect the public interest.  In this case, the merging of Departments, the immediate creation and filling of new positions, and the reorganization of current DPW staff should be placed on hold until after the Common Council has had the opportunity to weigh the Mayor’s proposal and hear from the public.

Clarification:  Although the executive branch has not provided more detail about plans to restructure the DPW and Parks & Recreation, we have learned in the meantime that Lynsey Timbrouck who would be hired as the Director of Recreation took the civil service exam in 2018, prior to any knowledge of Gilfeather’s plans to retire. On the exam, she scored a 90, making her 2nd on the list.