Engineer: Hotel 5th floor needed to make project viable

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By Melanie Lekocevic

Capital Region Independent Media

Mark Millspaugh, president of Sterling Environmental Engineering, presents the area variance application for the Newbury hotel project to the village Zoning Board of Appeals. Melanie Lekocevic/Capital Region Independent Media

COXSACKIE — The controversial fifth floor of the Newbury Hotel in downtown Coxsackie was needed to make the project economically viable, according to the engineering firm hired by developer Aaron Flach.

Flach and the new firm working on the South River Street project, Sterling Environmental Engineering, presented its request for an area variance for the project to the village’s zoning board of appeals at its May 2 meeting.

The Newbury Hotel, which is partially built, has drawn fire from local residents for being out of compliance with zoning height requirements and not adhering to its own site plan, which was approved by the planning board in 2019.

The developer submitted an amended site plan for the project to the planning board in April, along with a height variance application to the zoning board of appeals.

The constructed project veered from the original plans in several respects — including a larger footprint, taller hotel and a fifth floor where four were originally approved — necessitating the amended site plan and area variance request.

Mark Millspaugh, president of Sterling Environmental Engineering, outlined the criteria for the village to grant an area variance, which include analyzing whether the variance would result in an “undesirable change in the character of the neighborhood or detriment of nearby properties,” whether the relief sought by the variance can be achieved in another way, whether the requested variance is substantial, whether the need for the variance is self-created and whether it would have an adverse effect on the physical or environmental conditions of the neighborhood, Millspaugh said.

The variance request asks for permission to build the hotel to a height of 65 feet, an increase of about 30% over the 50-foot height permitted under the village code, Millspaugh said.

The height of the building, and the addition of a fifth floor, is among the components of the construction that has drawn the most ire from local residents.

Millspaugh told the zoning board of appeals the additional story of the hotel was needed to make the project economically feasible.

“There was a market analysis conducted of the hospitality experience in a hotel of this size — with or without a restaurant, with or without a wedding venue. The market analysis took into consideration specifics of Greene County, the Hudson River Valley, it even was refined to the point of taking into consideration the experience of the hospitality industry living through COVID,” Millspaugh said. “That was a significant driver towards the different elements of this overall development.”

The market analysis also considered what would be needed to attract visitors to Coxsackie, what experiences they were looking for, and how to meet the needs of local residents looking for a meal on the waterfront, Millspaugh said.

“The overall benefit of evaluating all these different concerns was to incorporate it into the Newbury structure, and the only way to do that was with a fifth floor,” he said.

The analysis also indicated the need to build 46 rooms, an addition of six guest rooms compared to the original 40-room hotel plan, he said.

Village resident Katie Higgins challenged that assertion.

“It feels strange that that analysis was done after a site building plan was approved,” she said. “It’s not clear to me why it was necessary to completely change the plan that was approved by the board.”

The developer should have conducted the market analysis prior to obtaining the original site plan approval in 2019, Higgins said.

“I can understand plans changing and opportunities to grow, but there is a process for that and the developer has built multiple projects in town and is very well aware of how these processes work, so it is not clear to me why he would present a non-viable project to the board for approval in 2019,” Higgins said.

The engineering firm also conducted a visual impact analysis to determine how the taller hotel would affect the neighborhood, Andrew Millspaugh, vice president of Sterling Environmental Engineering, said.

The added height of the hotel — 65 feet versus the permitted 50 feet — would not have a major impact on the viewshed, Andrew Millspaugh said.

“That increment between what the zone allows and what is being requested is very small,” he said.

Mark Millspaugh said that while the built project does veer from the original plans approved in 2019, there were multiple discussions between the developer and other involved agencies — including the village’s building inspector, who issued a building permit for the project — since that time.

Resident Mary McGuigan questioned why the project, with its accompanying changes, did not go to the planning board for a second look.

“Is it typical for a plan to veer so much from the original site plan that received approval and not have a second review from the planning board?” McGuigan asked.

Mark Millspaugh responded, “What would typically happen is that at some point in the process, the site plan that was approved would be amended. It didn’t happen in 2020 or 2021. The building permit was issued in 2021 and it has widely appeared before the planning board at the last meeting. On April 11, we submitted an application to formally amend the site plan and that was at the request of the village.”

But the amended site plan was submitted after the hotel had been partially built, McGuigan pointed out.

“That was after the fact — after most of the changes that did not comply with current zoning had taken place,” she said.

Resident Katie Higgins asked whether the project was being built in conjunction with Hilton Hotels & Resorts, claiming she spoke with an executive at the company who said they have been in contact with the Coxsackie developer over the past couple of years.

“I am curious if it is possible to confirm that there is an existing partnership, franchise or management agreement with Hilton,” Higgins said. “I have spoken with the VP of hotel development for the Northeast and Canada, who confirmed he has spoken with Aaron [Flach] over the past few years, but that Hilton ultimately decided that the partnership was not the right fit and they were not going to pursue a relationship with The James Newbury Hotel.”

Flach said he was in contact with Hilton Hotels with regard to how hotels can provide the best experience for their guests, but that the Newbury Hotel would remain locally owned.

“We used Hilton standards as the basis for design, meaning room sizes, bathroom sizes, that sort of thing, to make sure it works for the best guest experience, but we do not have a relationship with Hilton — it is not going to be a Hilton, it was never intended to be a Hilton,” Flach said. “It is going to be an independent hotel property.”

The zoning board of appeals will next review the details of the area variance request, ZBA chairman Sal Bevilacqua said.

A public hearing will be set at a future date to give the community a chance to have formal input into the process and ask questions, said attorney Robert Stout from Whiteman, Osterman and Hanna, who represents the village.

The zoning board of appeals will not be able to make a determination on the area variance request before the village planning board conducts the long-form State Environmental Quality Review, or SEQR, assessment, Stout added.

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