Court Rules In Favor Of Town Planning Board In Park Point Lawsuit

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On March 17, New York State Supreme Court of Ulster County Justice Michael Melkonian upheld the Town of New Paltz’s right to approve site plans based on financial impacts to the community, rejecting Wilmorite Incorporated — a real estate company which develops, finances and operates upon real estate — and their proposed 256-unit SUNY New Paltz dormitory project, Park Point, to be built on town land on Route 32.

The lawsuit began when the Ulster County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) granted Wilmorite a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement for their plans to build the dormitory at Park Point — prompting the New Paltz Town Planning Board to reject the plan on the basis that the tax-break the PILOT allowed was unfair to the town. Wilmorite, the SUNY New Paltz Foundation and Park Point New Paltz LLC then filed an Article 78 lawsuit against the New Paltz Planning Board for denying Wilmorite the right to build under the PILOT agreement. The New Paltz Planning Board in turn filed a lawsuit against the Ulster County IDA for the implementation of the Category 5 classified tax break.

According to the Decision and Order statement released by the Supreme Court of Ulster County, the project sponsor of the Park Point Project applied to the planning board for site plan and subdivision approval in 2010. The proposal itself was the result of SUNY New Paltz’s inability to fund construction of student housing within its budget, the statement said.

The IDA approved the 25-year-long PILOT plan last April. According to the Decision and Order, under the plan Wilmorite would only pay taxes costing between $450 and $750 for each of the 696 student housing beds at Park Point in the first year, a fraction of the amount of the property tax that would be paid to the town without the PILOT agreement.

“We are very pleased with the court ruling. The town board has been very clear about the impact the Wilmorite project would have to our community in regards to police, fire and rescue,” New Paltz Town Supervisor Susan Zimet said. “We support the findings of the judge. The decision was very thoughtful and the judge expressed a deep understanding of the impact on the local communities, especially in a tax cap environment.”

According to the New Paltz Times, Judge Melkonian said that the planning board is obligated under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) to determine the fiscal impact of the PILOT granted by the IDA upon the town, the village and the school district. The planning board concluded that the revenues coming to the town and school district under the PILOT were insufficient to maintain local services. Despite these findings, the IDA granted Wilmorite the PILOT agreement, prompting the town to file the lawsuit on the grounds that their findings were not justly taken into consideration.

“We understand that SUNY believes that they need more housing and we are not against the college growing in any means whatsoever. SUNY New Paltz is critically important to the community,” Zimet said. “However, it is not fair to do it on the backs of the taxpayers and the people who live in the community.”

According to The Daily Freeman, the New Paltz Town Board said that at the full $53.4 million assessment for Park Point, annual tax payments would be $237,013 to the county; $385,023 to the town; and $1,058,282 to the school district; but that under the PILOT deal, those figures would be only $73,629, $119,609 and $328,761, respectively.

SUNY New Paltz Media Relations Manager Melissa Kaczmarek said that the college remains committed to the critical need for safe, proximate, high-quality apartment-style housing for students, faculty and staff. According to Kaczmarek, SUNY New Paltz is at the bottom of SUNY comprehensive colleges in the number of beds per student and will continue to explore available options to address the shortage of housing in New Paltz that has been “longstanding and critical to the educational interests of current and future students.”

The planning board is currently in the midst of creating a “moratorium” on student dormitory housing projects that apply for a Category 5 tax break. The process calls for the planning board to review how they can create a law that will balance the need for student dormitory housing with the economic impact on the community. When asked if the college will be acting in conjunction with the planning board to find a solution, Kaczmarek said, “Until we learn more about the town’s plan, we are unable to comment.”

“The town board asked the planning board to invite the college to join with the town to review and study how we can come up with a plan to allow the college to build the housing they need, while respecting the needs of the taxpayers of New Paltz,” Zimet said.

In the SUNY New Paltz 2014 State of the College address, SUNY New Paltz President Donald P. Christian said that even with the tax break, Park Point will be the largest taxpaying unit in New Paltz. Christian said that this reinforces his view that the project is good for meeting the college’s critical housing needs as well as being beneficial for the community, compared to alternatives that could have been pursued. In the address, Christian described those in opposition of the project to have highly exaggerated the negative impacts Park Point would have on the community.

“We aren’t against the Wilmorite project, we are against the Wilmorite project getting tax breaks and not paying [the full amount of said] taxes. That is not being anti-student, that is being pro-taxpayers, of whom we are elected to represent in our community,” Zimet said.