By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
COXSACKIE — The village planning board has begun its review of an amended site plan for The Newbury hotel project in downtown Coxsackie.
The project has come under fire for not complying with the original site plan that was approved by the planning board in 2019, including exceeding village height requirements and building a fifth story when four were approved under the original site plan.
The new engineering firm hired this year for the multi-million-dollar construction project, Sterling Environmental Engineering, presented the amended site plan at a planning board meeting held in the auditorium of Coxsackie-Athens High School on Thursday.
In addition to the amended site plan, the firm also applied for an area variance with the village’s Zoning Board of Appeals.
Planning Board Chairman Robert Van Valkenburg said the documents submitted by Sterling and the developer, Aaron Flach and Empire Riverfront Ventures, are currently under review.
Andrew Millspaugh, vice president of Sterling Environmental Engineering, presented the amended plan to the planning board Thursday. Another engineering firm submitted the original site plan in 2019, Millspaugh said.
Among the changes in the amended site plan is the addition of a 2,000 square foot kitchen addition; a wrap-around deck on the north side of The Wire, the development’s event center; and a larger footprint and height increase, including the fifth story of the structure.
Under the original plan, an old building on the site was to remain, the roof removed and three additional stories built on top of it, for a total of four stories. But according to the amended site plan that was not feasible and a new, larger building was constructed instead.
“The original approval was for the 6,000 square foot existing footprint of the office space of the foundry that was there, with plans to add three stories above that,” Millspaugh said. “During the geotechnical and structural evaluation of that building, it was determined that it was unsuitable for reuse. The site plan amendment includes an increase in the footprint and an additional floor for five stories, which is what results in the need for the area variance with the ZBA.”
The amended plan also calls for an increase in the number of parking spaces that would be provided from 160 to 218. To accommodate this increase, the developer is in talks with a neighboring property owner to purchase or lease land on which the parking spaces would be sited.
Mary Beth Bianconi, of Delaware Engineering, which works for the village, said the materials submitted by the applicant for the amended site plan are currently under review.
The project appears to be classified as a Type 1 action under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA, which would require the long form environmental assessment — an extensive review of a project’s impact on the surrounding community and environment, and is required under New York state law, Bianconi said.
The planning board voted unanimously on a resolution declaring the project a Type 1 action under SEQRA and its intention to serve as lead agency for the review.
Attorney Robert Stout, of the Albany-based law firm Whiteman, Osterman and Hanna, who represents the village, explained the review of the amended site plan and the area variance come under the jurisdiction of two different village entities — the site plan will be reviewed by the planning board, but before that board can make a determination, the zoning board of appeals will first have to decide on whether the request for a height variance for the hotel should be approved.
Resident Kim McLean asked how a project of this scope could be partially built without conforming to the original plan — and how no one caught the discrepancy before now.
“During the past couple of years, something seems to have gone terribly awry,” McLean said. “I don’t think anybody wants to see a vacant building on the river in downtown Coxsackie that is too expensive to tear down and too expensive to complete. I think it is appropriate to ask how a project of this size got away from everybody.”
Speaker Michael Finnegan wanted clarification on what was actually approved by the village back in 2019.
“My opinion is that it is too large, too high and not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood or the town. That is an opinion and it doesn’t really matter at this point because duly elected folks and duly appointed people rendered a decision based on facts as they knew them at the time,” Finnegan said. “What matters is what are the facts with regard to what was approved.”
Finnegan inquired about several facets of the project, including how many hotel rooms were approved, the height of the building and the footprint.
Van Valkenburg responded that the planning board in 2019 approved 40 rooms and a building height of 45 feet. Millspaugh explained the increase in the footprint of the hotel.
“What was represented in the application was the footprint in the approved plan from 2019 for the hotel was 6,280 square feet and the footprint that is represented in the current submitted plan based on survey drawings is 8,460 square feet,” Millspaugh said.
Finnegan asked how many stories were approved for the hotel.
Bianconi read from the original site plan that was approved in 2019 which indicated a four-story building was approved.
The building that is now partially built is five stories.
Finnegan said he does not challenge what the planning board initially approved, and that the developer should be required to comply with the terms of the original site plan.
“What this board approved is what should be built there,” Finnegan said. “My personal opinion is that everything that exceeds that original approval should be removed. That includes the top floor, that includes additional square footage, whatever is in violation of the original approval should not be approved.”
Resident Nathan Tailleur asked if there was legal precedent to issue an area variance for a building that has already been constructed.
“It would appear that a variance granted retroactively would be legally dubious, or are there similar cases which have happened where a variance is granted after the fact, a town resident sues, and what do the courts tend to decide?” Tailleuer asked. “Do those variances stand up?”
Stout responded that the zoning board of appeals would have to make a determination using the same criteria that would apply to all such variances.
“It is possible to consider an area variance after the fact,” Stout said. “Certainly it is not ideal, it is not how a variance should be handled, but there is precedent that exists throughout the state where that has occurred in the past.”
The project remains under review at this time.