By Nathan Mayberg
WURTSBORO November 08, 2005 For the Town of Mamakating Zoning Board of Appeals, granting three variance requests for a mushroom plant building that will rise 35 feet higher than town code allows was simply a matter of boosting economic development.
Despite the fact that the plant did not meet three of the towns building codes, the board members believed its potential positive economic impacts were more important.
By a vote of 4-1 on Thursday evening, the board approved the variances in principle.
Board Chairman Jim Barnett capped an effort to do so, which sped up in August, when he stopped ZBA attorney Ira Cohen from handling the matter after Cohen advised the board to reject the height variance request.
Voting along with Barnett were board members Cliff Asdale, William Fedun and Andrew Lewis. The lone dissenter was Fern Laks, the former chairperson of the ZBA, who spent a great deal of the night arguing against the height approval.
The official vote will occur at a future special meeting, after the boards new attorney, Stephen Gaba, writes out the specific language.
The hiring of Gaba is a focus of controversy for several reasons.
The power of the ZBA to hire him in the first place has been under question by Supervisor Charles Penna, who has stated the board does not have the authority to change lawyers.
Cohen said Barnett informed him that he would be retaining Gabas firm (Drake, Sommers, Loeb, Tarshis and Catania of Orange County) in August, more than two months before he was actually approved by the ZBA.
The ZBA never voted to remove Cohen, and Gabas firm was formerly the employer of the Yukuguni Maitake Manufacturing Corporation of Americas attorney, Charles Bazydlow.
Barnett said the board concurred that it was in the interests of the town to replace Cohen, and the vote to hire Gaba was unanimous. Gaba and Barnett would not answer questions.
Opponents of the plant, who have been fighting the plan for more than two years, were outraged, and threatened to file a lawsuit against the ZBA, as the Basha Kill Area Association has already done against the planning board for their review of the plant.
The other two variances were unanimously approved.
Those variances will allow for a 10 percent increase in the lot coverage allowed by town code, as well as a reduction in the required amount of loading docks from 21 to 7. The property consists of approximately 47.8 acres, where a 925,000 square foot facility would be built along with several smaller buildings.
Laks contended that the companys assertions that 15 feet of the plants height would be a utility accessory were incorrect but that it was part of a utility structure, and in violation of the town code.
As she and opponents of the plant have been pointing out, the top section being referred to is not just a 15 foot utility, but would expand more than 39,000 square feet.
With a crowd of more than 100 people in the town hall, the atmosphere grew tense as the company gave a presentation.
Cohen interrupted the proceeding by calling into question the legality of the applicant providing new information into the record, after the public hearing had already been closed.
Several other citizens spoke out and were threatened with being thrown out by Barnett. Some actually ended up being asked to leave by Bob Hawks, who handled security. At one point, Barnett stated he would clear the room if the outbursts continued.
Other confrontations during the course of the evening related to a balloon test the company reported to assess the visual impact of the plant. There appeared to be little evidence of the test, aside from the written report by the company. Laks asked why the board was never notified about the test ahead of time.
Opponents of the plant have pointed to the plants use of up to 425,000 gallons a day (of which up to 308,000 would evaporate into the air), and its impact on area vegetation and wildlife as part of the reasons they oppose the plant.
But Asdale said the location of the plant, next to Kohls and the airport, made it a suitable destination for such a project.
In addition, he said that hydrologists hired by the company and the town have both said there is enough water to satisfy the plants demands.
He said the prospect of more than 200 full-time jobs being created with a salary range of between $20,000 and $55,000 also made it desirable as did the tax dollars it will generate for the town and the Ellenville School District.
Those taxes, along with its county payments, have been estimated to total over one million dollars. The company is expected to apply to the Sullivan County Industrial Development Agency for tax breaks, as it began work with the agency two years ago.
Asdale said the plant would be surrounded by tall trees on all sides to limit the visual impact from Route 209 and the Shawangunk Ridge. He also lauded the mushroom producing process as natural, devoid of chemicals or fertilizer.
Barnett called the project a 2005 state of the art facility.
He noted the reports that showed there was enough water in the aquifer to accommodate the plant, and said the company was taking the risk.
He asked Bazydlow what the company will do to mitigate traffic concerns. Bazydlow responded that a traffic cop might be hired. The chairman stated his concern for those making a left turn from the plant on McDonald Road onto Route 209.
Barnett and Lewis said they wanted McDonald Road to be widened to allow for two emergency vehicles to pass each other. Bazydlow pledged to make such improvements.
The move by the ZBA, once finalized, will give the planning board the authority it needs to consider granting a special use permit and site plan approval, notwithstanding the lawsuit. The Delaware Water Basin Commission will also have to sign off.
Despite the obvious enormity of the moment, the crowd was lighter than previous hot-boiled public hearings. In-town, out-of town and out-of county construction workers and representatives of local unions, including the Hudson Valley Building and Trades Council, were well represented and showed their support of the project with their applause of the board.
Opponents of the plant issued two terse statements following the vote.
The Democratic candidates in todays election, Carl Bonitz, Richard Morris and Jodi Rubenstein released a joint statement, which read: The town board is responsible for this injustice, this violation of our town code. Nothing in the code allows for the substantial variance just approved . . . The ZBA has overstepped its bounds. It is not in its jurisdiction to change code.
Residents are now forced to file another Article 78, and this will put additional stress on the community. It is an outrage. The town board has persistently turned a deaf ear to residents concerns about the review process for Yukigunis project. Both the Planning Board and ZBA have violated the law during the review process.
Its obvious Penna, Salomone and Young are not strong leaders. Mamakating residents want their elected officials to oversee the people they appoint.
Paula Medley of the BKAA, stated Tonight, by approving Yukiguni Maitakes variance requests, Mamakatings ZBA squandered a unique opportunity to do the right thing for town residents. Instead, the ZBA validated construction of a behemoth, whose consumptive size and water usage clearly contravene current zoning regulations. In so doing, the board mocked governmental processes by engaging in methods that were unethical, if not illegal.
Eileen Weil, who has been at the forefront in fighting the plant, said that she was just disgusted by the show that went on in our town today. It was obvious that some members had not done their homework.
She pondered who would pay for the newly hired special counsel, since the board has not approved the appointment.
Her husband Andrew took exception to the entire board meeting with its new attorney before the public meeting in closed doors.
Fedun summed up his feelings after the vote on the project by calling it an opportunity for high-tech farming, which may be able to fight cancer. He said that if more businesses could be brought into the town, in each school district, taxes could be lowered.
Yukiguni President and CEO Kazunori Kameyama was pleased with the decision.
However, he was cognizant of the steps still required for his company to gain final approval. The company first appeared in front of the ZBA over two years ago, to request the variances.
When asked how much money his company has spent on gaining the approvals, Kameyama said he could not comment so as not to give any information to domestic mushroom producers.