Planning Board unanimously approves Hardwood Manor
With incumbent planning board member Neil Alhart serving as chairperson of the Village of Caledonia Planning Board and four additional alternate members appointed by the village board, the group reviewed the site plan application of Hardwood Properties, the Caledonia-based company of developer James Sickles, who was seeking approval for a 20-unit apartment building on a vacant lot at the corner of North and Church Streets. The company also owns the Hamilton House, a five-unit apartment building on the same property and currently occupied by tenants. On June 25, 2008, the planning handed down a unanimous 5-0 decision for site plan approval, thereby giving the developer the green light to finally move ahead with construction.
Sickles first brought the Hardwood Manor project to the planning board for approval in 2005 after the property where it would be built was rezoned from R-2 to R-3, permitting a multi-family dwelling. Laurence Schweichler, a Church Street resident whose private dental office is situated next to the corner lot where the apartment project would be constructed, challenged the local board’s decision to rezone and approve the apartment project. The Appellate Division of State Supreme Court heard the argument and returned a decision in November 2007 to send the developer’s site plan application back to the local board, mandating that four alternate members be appointed to conduct the site plan review process. Schweichler was in the meeting room as the planning board announced their decision.
"Though I disagree with the site plan approval that this is a corner lot, I wish Mr. Sickles well with his endeavor. I’ve never disagreed with the quality of work however, I do disagree that this is an appropriate site for the building," explained Schweichler, who added that he has not yet had an opportunity to discuss the outcome with his attorney. "At this point, I respect the decision and wish him well."
The lone incumbent planning board member, Neil Alhart, was appointed to chair the board as they made their way through the very lengthy review process.
Alhart called the board members, "very capable people who demonstrated a willingness to work hard in the process." Alhart, along with the village engineer and code enforcement officer and the developer, provided the board members with all of the information they would need to conduct a thorough review of the project. Alhart said he was impressed with their efforts to thoroughly study the details of the project and their ability to render a unanimous decision that reflected the local zoning laws.
The four residents have been permanently assigned as alternates to the planning board and will be called on to serve again in the future. At least one of them will replace Alhart who retired from the board this week after several years of dedicated service that included working on the Hardwood Manor project for the past three years. He was pleased to bring closure to the project that has been before the board for some time.
"I’m glad to see some new board members come on that will be meaningful to the community. I really think this is a positive thing for the community," Alhart commented.
After two separate village planning boards gave approval for the project over two years in time, Sickles says he is excited to get this project underway for the community.
"We did a thorough review again of this project and put a lot of information on the table for the board members to review. This group carefully reviewed all of it," Sickles commented.
The next step in the process is to complete the financial plans for the project and obtain a building permit, Sickles said.
Village Planning Board revisits Hardwood Manor project
Developer James Sickles was before the Village of Caledonia Planning Board again on June 11 seeking site plan approval for a 20-unit apartment building to be built by his company, Hardwood Properties, LLC at 261 North Street, Caledonia. The public hearing was held in the fire hall meeting room to accommodate the large number of concerned citizens who attended.
The planning board first received the project in 2004 and since then it has gone through numerous reviews. The developer completed all of the board’s recommendations including traffic, environmental, historic, zoning and health department studies. No variances are needed for the project. The site plan application also requests a subdivision of the two parcels included in the property: the historic Hamilton House, which contains five apartments and the adjacent parcel of vacant land bordering Church Street where the proposed apartment building would be built. The Livingston County planning board approved the subdivision, making the two parcels one corner lot. The village planning board will consider the subdivision as part of the developer’s site plan application.
The village board appointed four alternate members to the planning board to specifically consider the Hardwood Manor project. This was in response to appellate court decision issued in an Article 78 proceeding brought forth by Laurence Schweichler, a Church Street resident whose dental practice borders the property, arguing that three of the village planning board members had a conflict of interest with Hardwood Properties, LLC. The court upheld Schweichler’s argument and sent the project back to the village planning board for review but ordered that three alternate members and an alternate chairperson be appointed for this project’s application process.
"It’s optimized, we’ve touched on all the elements of concern in the past," Sickles told the planning board and the residents in attendance.
About 40 people attended the public hearing where they heard from several experts involved with the Hardwood Manor project. Bill Riley, project consultant for Hardwood Properties and Sickles Corp. gave an overview of the minor changes that have resulted from consultation with the village attorney, engineer and code enforcement officer. The developer reduced the number of units from 21 to 20 and parking spaces from 52 to 50, lowered the building’s height from 42 to 37 feet and slightly adjusted the position of the apartment building on the lot to address local zoning codes.
John Paul Schepp, PE, with Chatfield Engineers, the firm representing the Village of Caledonia, told the audience he’s been involved with the project since its inception and said the developer has addressed his minor concerns.
"The revised plan and subdivision includes very little engineering changes and I have no new concerns," Schepp said.
Riley introduced a line up of experts who gave their findings in the areas of traffic flow, historic and cultural impact and then the floor was opened to residents who requested time to speak to the planning board regarding the Hardwood Manor project. Planning board chairperson Neil Alhart allotted three minutes to each speaker. Five residents and one business owner who does not reside in the village but who does conduct business here, all spoke in favor of the apartment project, citing the need for rental housing in the village, increasing the tax base beyond the individual property owner and the enormous investment of time and money that the village has given to the project. Two of the respondents are contractors who spoke to the quality and integrity of the developer’s work.
Two residents opposing the apartment project gave the planning board their reasons for concern, which included the size of the project and its impact on their residential Church Street neighborhood: specifically in the areas of trash, parking and traffic safety.
Dr. Schweichler, who has opposed the project since it was first proposed, restated to the board that he has never questioned the quality of the developer’s construction but rather its conformity to the village zoning code.
"I challenge the interpretation of the zoning, it is not a corner lot." Schweichler asked the planning board to not approve the project because of its lack of conformity with zoning code.
Sickles said there is huge support for the Hardwood Manor project in the village and town. He’s openly offered to hear concerns from residents at his Caledonia office but says no one has called with any.
"I personally feel that this is an absolute great project for this town and village. We want to get this part behind us and move forward with our timeline and anticipate starting the project this fall," he said.
State Court of Appeals
rejects Caledonia resident’s
The petition of Laurence Schweichler opposing the Village of Caledonia’s action in 2006 to rezone a parcel of land on North Street, Caledonia, was denied by a state court of appeals. Alan Knauf, Schweichler’s attorney, petitioned a state court of appeals in Albany last month to have his client’s case heard. The attorney was notified of the rejection last week.
Knauf said about 95% of the requests made to the Court of Appeals are rejected. "We expected this but thought it was worth a try," he said.
The legal process to have the local action reversed is now complete and the court ruled that the zoning change was a legal action by the Village of Caledonia, says Ron Hull, the attorney with the firm Underberg and Kessler who represented the Village of Caledonia in the proceeding.
Schweichler argues that a 2006 zoning change approved by the Village of Caledonia at the request of property owner, James Sickles, constitutes spot zoning. The village rezoned the property from R-2 to R-3 (multi-family). Hardwood Properties, LLC, a Sickles owned company, plans to construct a 20 unit apartment complex there, named Hardwood Manor. An appeal in Livingston County Court and at the appellate division dismissed Schweichler’s argument and upheld the action of the Village of Caledonia.
Schweichler also argued in the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court that the site plan application filed by Hardwood Properties with the Village of Caledonia Planning Board did not meet some of the local zoning code requirements and should have been rejected. He further argued that some of the VPB members were bias in their handling of the project. In November 2007 decision, the appellate court agreed, reversing the local action and sent the site plan approval back to the VPB.
"The appellate division concluded that they weren’t satisfied that they (VPB) understood (all of the code specifications)," Hull commented.
Engineers for both Hardwood Properties and the Village of Caledonia have conferred on the code revisions to the site plan application and it is expected to be back before the VPB in the near future. The Hardwood Manor project does not require any zoning variances for approval.
Sickles said he strongly believes the community needs a high quality multi-family project like Hardwood Manor that allows long-time residents to transition from larger, maintenance-intensive housing to comfortable, no maintenance living.
"This is a great project with widespread support that needs to come to fruition. It’s important to the village for many reasons, but if for no other reason than to maintain the unique fabric of our beautiful community," Sickles commented. "It’s unfortunate that the taxpayers of Caledonia have had to bear the costs of defending several lawsuits brought forth by the local dentist," he added.
Knauf said that his client plans to oppose any revised site plan application submitted to the village planning board in the future.
The State Supreme Court Appellate Division is returning the site plan application for the proposed Hardwood Manor apartment project to the Village of Caledonia Planning Board for further review.
The appeal was brought by Dr. Laurence P. Schweichler, whose Church Street, Caledonia dental practice borders the North Street property where Sickles Corporation plans to construct the three-story, 20 unit apartment complex.
Schweichler filed the appeal in April 2007 after an unsuccessful Article 78 proceeding against the Village of Caledonia and Hardwood Properties, arguing that the village planning board's decision to rezone the property from R-2 to R-3 — thereby permitting multi-family housing to be built — constituted spot zoning.
The proceeding further argued that the planning board acted arbitrarily when it made a negative declaration of the State Environmental Quality Review. Neither of these arguments persuaded the court to overturn the PB decision.
However, it was Schweichler's argument that three of the PB members were biased in their decision making regarding the project after they had signed their name to a petition supporting the apartment project that led the appellate court to overturn the local board's site plan approval and return the Hardwood Manor project back to the village planning board for reconsideration.
In the court's decision dated November 9, 2007, it reads: "... three of the members of the Planning Board appeared to have impermissibly prejudged Hardwood's application for rezoning inasmuch as they signed a petition in favor of the rezoning and the project."
"In addition, the Planning Board's chairperson manifested actual bias when she wrote a letter to the Mayor supporting both the rezoning and the project, noting therein that she "would really like to see new housing available to (her) should (she) decide to sell (her) home and move into something maintenance free."
Additionally, the court determined that the board erred in approving the site plan application without requiring the actual evidence and measurements necessary to substantiate that it complied with local code.
The planning board must now repeat the site plan approval process for the Hardwood Manor project.
This time, however, the board must adhere to the appellate court recommendations to name alternate members to replace the three bias members.
"The Planning Board's chairperson is authorized to designate alternate members, if necessary, to replace the three biased members not eligible to participate in the review of the application for site plan approval," according to court documents.
"In the event that the chairperson of the Planning Board determined by this Court to be biased is presently the chairperson of the Planning Board, an acting chairperson pursuant to Village Law ... should perform the duties of the chairperson with respect to the application for site plan approval."
Village of Caledonia Mayor Joe Caluorie says the planning board is following the court recommendations and they are in the process of selecting alternate planning board members and naming an acting chairperson for the site plan review and approval process.
James Sickles, owner of Sickles Corp. and developer of the Hardwood Manor project, says they are cooperating with village engineers and the planning board.
The company expects to break ground on the project as soon as approval is given for the site plan, perhaps in June 2008.
Complete Memorandum and Order
click on images below to enlarge ...
Artist rendering of Hardwood Manor, the proposed 21 unit upscale apartment building that Hardwood Properties wants to build at 261 North Street.