Planning board asks for interim plan to keep branch open while Foodtown Plaza plans reviewed
by Kevin Foley
The two-year saga over the Foodtown supermarket expansion and the fate of the Cold Spring post office branch reached a critical stage at an orderly but tense meeting of the Cold Spring Planning Board on May 19. A U.S. Postal Service representative introduced the prospect of moving branch operations out of the village if the plans for accommodating the post office submitted by the Foodtown Plaza owner, Constantine Serroukas, are not approved. The post office lease expires on July 31, 2011. The Foodtown supermarket has lease rights to the post office space beginning Aug.1, a deal made when Foodtown first moved into the plaza.
Planning Board members raised several serious concerns about the Serroukas plans, which include construction for a new postal facility with a basement, and the takeover of the empty lot behind the post office on the other side of Marion Avenue. That lot is currently zoned R-1 for residential use, and the plans call for a variance to B-1 to allow for post office parking. “This is momentous for the village and for Philipstown,” said Joseph Barbaro, Planning Board chairman, as he opened the crowded meeting in the Village Hall.
Nearby residents—who were allowed to speak even though the meeting was not a formal public hearing— opposed any zoning variance as an unwarranted encroachment into their neighborhood and pressed their concerns for children’s safety amidst the likely increase in truck traffic. About seven children sat fidgeting in the audience for the first 30 minutes before resident Janice Hogan interrupted the meeting to ask that they be excused. “This is just a representation of the children who live on Benedict and about half the number who live on Marion. There are 18 children between the ages of 1-12,” she said, underscoring residents’ concern over safety.
Paul Tyburski, a postal service real estate specialist, told the board that after touring the village and speaking with officials and others, postal officials see no viable village alternative to a place in the plaza complex. There are no other suitable properties, he said, and the service is a not interested in setting up a temporary trailer site because it only wants to move once. He said the postal service was more likely to relocate the branch to a more regionally-based location outside the village if the plans were not approved. He said he had spoken to Foodtown owner, Dan Katz, and found him to be “a sharp businessman who told me interior square footage equals dollars and cents. We don’t want to be just a holdover sub-tenant of Foodtown. We could be evicted, or our rent could be tripled, and we would have unknown liability,” he added, emphasizing the postal service is very cost-conscious these days. Tyburski suggested Katz might be amenable to a reasonable short-term agreement if the proposed plans are likely to be addressed soon.
Temporary agreement sought
In light of the postal service’s position, Barbaro told Serroukas the board needed a written statement affirming that Serroukas and Katz were willing to execute some kind of standstill agreement allowing the post office to remain indefinitely in its current space, under mutually acceptable lease terms, pending the outcome of the review process. Barbaro said he saw no point in continuing with the board’s review without the statement because there was little prospect his or other involved boards could render final judgments before July 31. “We are trying to be sure we will have a post office on Aug. 1,” said Barbaro. Tyburski said the post office would stay put under the terms of the current lease or if Katz offered a reasonable and open-ended sub-tenant lease. Serroukas agreed to ask the owner of Foodtown if he was willing to do so but offered no reassurances.
Serroukas asked Barbaro how much more time was needed, and Barbaro explained the agreement had to be open-ended due to the need to obtain zoning variances from the village Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), a possible review by the Historic District Review Board for a certificate of appropriateness, as well as possible involvement by the state Department of Environmental Conservation and other state agencies before the planning board could rule on his plans. Even on an expedited basis the process seems likely take several more months, if not longer. Acknowledging the potential urgency of the situation, Barbaro told Serroukas he may want to consider going directly to the Cold Spring Village Board of Trustees to ask the village’s elected officials to rezone the vacant R-1 lot rather than go through a formal ZBA variance request, which could take months. It was not clear why Serroukas, who said next to nothing at the meeting, has not moved more quickly to obtain the variances the plan requires and to address the Planning Board’s concerns or why he and the post office have waited so long to make the final postal service position known.
What was clear is that Planning Board members have raised many questions at previous meetings, and they were frustrated by the plans they had before them. “We had a meeting almost a year ago and we discussed several things we would like to see and I don’t see any of them on this plan before us. I feel like we are starting from square one,” said board member Karen Doyle. She listed several matters she believed had to be thoroughly reviewed and resolved, among them: traffic, especially on Marion Avenue; pedestrian safety, garbage, haphazard loading and unloading, and truck parking. Doyle acknowledged there are more homes behind the plaza than when Foodtown first moved in. “Still it is zoned R-1 and there needs to be some consideration that that is a residential neighborhood back there,” she said. Doyle cited the need for traffic, environmental and storm-water studies to be conducted by outside consultants, and she recommended the board retain a planning consultant to assist them in evaluating the project overall. She also suggested that either the Planning Board or the Village Board declare itself lead agency as a way to establish order and make more progress toward a resolution of the issues.
Board member Arne Saari agreed with Doyle about hiring consultants and conducting studies especially for traffic and storm-water runoff. He expressed some optimism that Marion Avenue was wide enough to work out a solution.
Member Joseph Immorlica urged trying to get the various boards to act in sync to move the matter faster but emphasized it was up to the applicant to make that happen. He also suggested several fixes to storm water and parking issues and agreed that traffic and storm water had to be studied by the engineer routinely retained by the board. But he balked when Barbaro, with the support of Saari and Doyle, moved that they also hire an outside planning expert to assist the board. “Why do we need a total stranger to come here and tell us what to do?” he asked. Nevertheless the vote was 3-1 to go ahead. Member Placito Sgro was absent. Barbaro told Serroukas to deposit an additional $5,000 in the Planning Board escrow account to begin paying the retained consultants.
Residents voice concerns and objections
“I am wondering why the plans are the same as they were in the fall of 2009 and why none of what was asked for has been addressed. Are we running out the clock, pitting the community need for a post office against the neighborhood?” asked Janice Hogan. Displaying photos of trucks parked at various angles on Benedict and Marion Avenues, Hogan described the present situation as unworkable and predicted worse conditions if the plans were approved. “What is going to happen if you can’t get an emergency vehicle down Benedict Avenue?” She said the empty lot was where the village moved snow during the past harsh winter and wondered where the snow would go if the lot was taken away. “I live in paradise, I love Cold Spring, but we can’t let our kids walk to school now,” said Hogan. She declared the residents were opposed to any rezoning because of “safety, safety, safety.”
Hogan and fellow resident Tom Campanile both argued that the Foodtown plaza site should be analyzed in accordance with the special Comprehensive Plan process currently addressing other major sites such as Dockside and the Marathon property on Kemble Avenue. “Just the other day the community gathered to consider these other village sites,” said Campanile. “We looked at sketches out in the open and shared ideas. We have the feeling this [plaza] process is being done in back rooms through emails” he continued. “We are not against a better Foodtown or the post office, but the application must be looked at on the merits, not just to keep the post office in town,” he said. Campanile stressed that the area homeowners knew they would be living behind a business district when they purchased their homes, but they were opposed to any further encroachment into the residential district through zoning variances. “We are appealing to the Village Board to be with us on this,” he said looking over to three trustees, J. Ralph Falloon, Charles Hustis and Airinhos Serradas, who were in the audience but said nothing.
Chairman Barbaro closed the meeting saying the board would schedule its next meeting sometime in June after it received confirmation from either Serroukas or postal officials that a viable plan was in place to continue postal operation past July 31. And he warned Serroukas that the board, along with its consultants, would review the plans in great detail while considering the concerns of the board and the community.
Photos by K. Foley