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Philmont Woods project gets Planning Board’s OK

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PHILMONT—On April 17, the Philmont Planning Board approved a 16 market-rate home development on a 22-acre site near Summit Lake. The vote was 4-1, but the planning process raised an array of questions about the future character of the Village of Philmont as well as what land use controls residents have and how land use issues should be decided.

As previously reported (November 17, 2022), Jock Winch and Andrew Personette, two long-time local residents and builders, formed Clover Reach Partners LLC to acquire the parcel, which had been on the market for at least seven years. Previously, the town had approved proposals for a 140-unit development and a 72-unit project. Both had been abandoned. In the interim, the zoning laws were tightened, but still permitted residential housing on ½-acre lots at the site.

The parcel sits on a wooded hillside across Summit Lake from the village, behind an 11-acre conservation area and below a larger, older development (Summit Heights), which is now seeing additional building.

The Woods project has taken a twisted path. It was originally proposed in November 2021. After modifications, a year later the Planning Board passed a resolution granting preliminary plat approval. A local group, formed in opposition, the Summit Lake Conservation Group (SLCG) sued to overturn the approval.

The court challenge resulted in a split decision, issued on January 13. State Supreme Court Judge Richard Mott dismissed a challenge under the state’s environmental law (SEQRA), finding that the project posed no significant environmental impacts.

However, the court also ruled that the board should: hold another public hearing, as its original hearing was premature; state its basis for accepting an access road narrower than that generally-required by village law; and record the language of proposed deed covenants that would restrict site homeowners as to tree-clearing and certain other matters.

On February 21 the Village Planning Board met again. The applicants declined to expand the access road to the generally required 50 feet, arguing that the narrower one-way loop they proposed had a lower environmental impact, minimizing both tree-cutting (no trees vs. 30 trees) and stormwater run-off. Clover Reach noted that the narrower roadway could be permitted by the board through a formal waiver and based on the already-provided approval of the fire department chief.

A public hearing was scheduled for March 20. The SLCG immediately redoubled its social media campaign.

Some of the postings were inflammatory and factually wrong: “Clover Reach to Planning Board: ‘We’ll do what we want,’” and, the project will result in “deforestation of 50-80% of the trees.”

Others were political and personal pieces written by village resident and poet Karen Schoemer.  She wrote, “We are fighting a system that views ‘undeveloped land’ as an exploitable resource.”

The two-plus-hour public hearing was a remarkable blend of opposing views passionately expressed, civility, community feeling and a wide array of views about the nature of property rights and future of Philmont.

Every speaker, whether for or against the proposal, was heartily applauded. There were only a few interruptions and only one heckler.

An anti-outsider theme was voiced by several residents who imagined that the homes would be bought by “weekenders” who would party loudly every weekend or use their properties for short-term rentals.

Many speakers, even while critical of the proposal, went out of their way to acknowledge that Mr. Personette, a Philmont resident and partner in Clover Reach, was a good person who intended well.

A number of speakers raised concerns about the effect of tree clearing on bald eagles that are known to fly over and hunt, but apparently not nest, in the lake area. Indeed, the Alan Devoe Bird Club and Mid-Hudson Sierra Club spoke to the need for a deeper environmental study of the proposal’s impact.

Many residents expressed their personal views of how the 22-acre parcel should be used: a “dream” project was proposed by one; another thought the land should be preserved as part of “the commons”; workforce housing should be built but on a smaller footprint; clustered affordable housing might be good.

Several speakers argued that “luxury” housing should not be built in Philmont at all, as inconsistent with the character of the village. One resident said that any development would be inconsistent with the character of the area, which people seek out “for the nature,” such as the High Falls conservation area.

The deed covenants that would prohibit the new homeowners from severe tree cutting were falsely decried as “creating a special class of homeowners with vested rights different from the rest of us,” and imposing the burden and expense of enforcement on the village.

But the covenants would not require—though they do permit—the village to enforce them and they provide for the enforcer to recover its legal expenses.

Many urged that more information was necessary as to the economic and environmental effects of the project.

A minority of those speaking supported the project, arguing that the village needs the tax revenue, that the zoning laws would have permitted more than double the number of proposed houses, that this project would bring jobs to the town and new residents will mean more customers for village businesses. They also noted that the village was already “overwhelmed with affordable housing.”

At the final April 17 hearing, a dozen or more of the opposition listened quietly as the developers answered some of the objections. Board members asked a few questions.

Board member Tom Paino, a planner and architect, spoke at length to explain the process and his opposition to the public. None of the other board members spoke, except to vote.

Afterwards, Karen Schoemer, one of the opponents, said she was not surprised but she was disappointed by the action, adding, “The views of the public were disregarded, as were the environmental concerns.”

Interviewed after the meeting, the developers, while excited to begin the work, expressed frustration and hurt that the project they had planned with an eye to environmental impacts was not understood as such by many. They felt “bullied” by the disinformation posted by SLCG—which Clover Reach lacked the time and resources to counter.

Mr. Personette mused: “maybe we should have started out proposing the 44 houses that zoning permits; then when we scaled back to 16, everyone would’ve been happy.” Mr. Winch added that the modest scale of the project undermined the public description of him as a “stereotypical developer rapacious for money.”

Both partners felt the project was an opportunity for Philmont. They said that in addition to the tax revenues the homes will bring in over time, Clover Reach will be paying permit, water and sewer fees of more than $175,000 and covering the costs of the sewer and water connections, ameliorating the runoff to the lake created by the prior, unrelated, larger uphill project, preserving a local nature trail that crosses the site and donating conservation land to the village beyond what local law requires.

Both developers bristled at the misinformation embedded in much of the social media posts, the facts as to tree clearing in particular. Village law contains no restrictions at all on clearing.

Clover Reach had the site surveyed. As is customary, only trees 12” diameter or larger were counted. There were 880 of them. After construction of the homes, roads, driveways, etc. 75% of them will remain. If every homeowner cut the maximum allowed under the deed covenants, 66% of the original stock would still be standing.

Mr. Personette noted that this cutting was a far cry from the “50-80% deforestation” claimed by the SLCG materials, from the prior, approved but abandoned plans for the area that would have cleared all the trees, and from the uphill development that clear-cut its site.

Mr. Winch also wished that, instead of spending money to stop the project, the opposition had used their “incredible talent, energy and money” to honor their own rallying cry to “Save the Lake” by actions to improve Summit Lake conditions and the village.

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