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Affordable housing environmental review is finally finished

MILLERTON — Wednesday, Nov. 10, brought to a conclusion the environmental review process for the affordable housing project, Millerton Overlook, that some thought might never end.

Applicant Housing Resources of Columbia County, Inc., was not present at the Millerton Planning Board meeting to witness the board unanimously vote on the SEQRA’s (State Environmental Quality Review Act) positive declaration, however. In fact, no one from Housing Resources has appeared before the village since  May 2010. The not-for-profit’s executive director, Stephanie Lane, has stated that until legal filings against the village are completed, it will not appear before the Planning Board. Housing Resources charges the village caused it financial harsdhips and abused the administrative process throughout the extensive review process.

Planning Board Chairman Lance Middlebrook said his  board has not received any notification about possible litigation, nor has its attorney, Michael Hayes.

“Nobody has been notified that they are being sued,” Middlebrook said. “We’ve not heard from them since they left in May.... I don’t believe we’ve ever gotten any correspondence from Stephanie Lane.”

The letter regarding Housing Resources’ legal intentions was dated Sept. 23, 2010, and it was addressed to the town of North East. However, it was directed to the village.

“Housing Resources is currently preparing legal filings against the village of Millerton and its Planning Board,” wrote Lane. “We cannot predict how long it will take to conclude the legal process. Once these legal proceedings are concluded though, we expect to have a viable development plan for the Millerton Overlook project. Until these legal proceedings are concluded, a detailed time line and development budget cannot be prepared. Housing Resources is not willing to appear at a public meeting while this litigation is underway.”

That is the extent of the letter. Middlebrook said for Housing Resources to reappear before the Planning Board it will have to pay back $5,000 to $6,000 it owes the village in unpaid bills, as well as replenish the $5,000 minimum required to maintain its escrow account.

“The ball is in their court at this point,” he said.

The review process

While the political and legal standing of the application remains in question, the status of the environmental review is clear. Last week parts two and three of the SEQRA process were completed, and a positive declaration was made. A positive declaration means the development of any given project will likely make a negative impact on the environment; its finding requires a subsequent scoping process to find ways to mitigate those environmental impacts.

According to Middlebrook, a few key points led the Planning Board toward making  the positive declaration. Number one on that list was the proximity of the proposed 20-unit affordable housing complex, comprised of nine senior apartments and 11 family apartments in a total of seven buildings, to the wetlands.

“It’s regarding the 300-foot buffer that the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife recommends, and basically all of that,” Middlebrook said of the large-scale environmental impacts. “The impact to the bog turtle habitat was, of course, large, and the impact on plants and animals, which was a small to moderate impact. The next large impact was on the growth and character to the community by setting important precedents for future projects.”

The village of Millerton is listed on the state and national registers of historical districts. The Planning Board had to wait for a report from the state regarding whether it could develop the project contiguous to a historic district, just as it had to wait for a report from the environmental research group, Hudsonia, about the wetlands’ buffer distance as well.

“I know people say we were dragging our feet, but these last two reports needed to come in before we could make a final determination. Now that they have come in, that’s what we did do,” Middlebrook said. “I always felt that this should have been a positive dec. It was too big of a project and there were too many issues regarding wetlands and bog turtles, and more information kept coming up. This should have been a positive declaration years ago as far as I was concerned. They could have moved forward from that point, but they didn’t and people on the board as well as the community, some wanted to just move ahead and some didn’t.”

A positive declaration

Last week’s vote for a positive declaration was unanimous. After the determination was made, part three of the Environmental Assessment Form (EAF) was completed, summarizing the findings in the first two parts of the SEQRA form.

“Our part is done. SEQRA is finished. It’s up to them to decide what they want to do,” Middlebrook said, adding the next step in the process is scoping, which will then lead to site plan review.

Because of the legal entanglements, there’s no telling if or  when Housing Resources will come before the Planning Board for the scoping process. Middlebrook said there’s no timetable the applicant needs to meet.

“No, this application can actually sit there indefinitely,” he said. “At a certain point in time, [Planning Board attorney] Michael Hayes did say if it takes too long the application may kick back and we will have to start the whole SEQRA process again, because if years go by, items we went over might have changes, like traffic, for example. We may not start again from square one, but we may have to start from a couple of steps back.

“It’s just a wait and see right now,” he added.

So what does all of this mean as far as the status of the application in light of the town of North East’s recent decision finding Housing Resources in default of their Compliance Agreement?

That agreement was between the town and Housing Resources to complete an affordable housing complex on North Elm Street, at the 3.7-acre site bought with the aid of a $108,000 Community Development Block Grant awarded to North East for that purpose back in 2004. Because that goal was never met, Housing Resources was found in default by the town, but that has no bearing on the village’s dealing with that organization.

“Our attorney pretty much said that’s not the Planning Board’s business, and we’ve got enough on our plate,” Middlebrook said. “It’s sort of like the federal government — nobody ever really passes information on to the other, and really what we hear is through the  grapevine or the paper.”

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