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Democrat Photo by Nathan Mayberg

MAMAKATING ZONING BOARD Chairman James Barnett gestures angrily toward a resident during Thursday’s emotionally charged board meeting in Wurtsboro.

Tough Words Precede
Variances Approval

By Nathan Mayberg
WURTSBORO — December 27, 2005 – The tension shot to record heights between Town of Mamakating Zoning Board of Appeals Chairman Jim Barnett and opponents of the proposed mushroom factory Thursday as the board gave its final approval of the factory’s variance requests and sent the applicant back to the planning board for site plan approval.
A large amount of hollering between the two sides began following the announcement that public comment would not be accepted at the meeting.
Town resident James McIntyre challenged Barnett on the issue by moving towards the board and raising his voice. Opponents in the crowd supported him and began speaking out against Barnett, yelling at times from the top of their lungs and calling on him to resign as chairman. Several charged Barnett with failing to heed the law in his actions regarding the application.
Numerous opponents attacked Barnett for refusing to release a number of public documents including minutes of meetings, elevation drawings and letters related to the project’s review. A number of public documents dating back to September have yet to be released, despite Freedom of Information Law requests and an advisory opinion by the New York State Committee on Open Government which sided with those seeking access to the documents.
In a series of tense moments lasting nearly a half hour, opponents started chanting against the plant. Barnett called on some of those standing up to be removed. Security on watch confronted some of the speakers and called on the New York State Police to come in.
One trooper walked in and stood behind McIntyre. After surveying the scene, he left. Three troopers stood outside the entrance of the hall but never entered the hall itself.
The situation defused itself, but not until after Barnett stood up and yelled back as loudly as he could, telling those in the crowd to “shut up.”
Town resident and leading factory opponent Eileen Weil repeatedly questioned Barnett about the minutes from meetings and records of letters exchanged between Barnett and ousted attorney Ira Cohen. She questioned the board’s right to present new information at its last board meeting after the public hearing had already been closed.
Barnett threatened to press charges against Weil for calling him at his home.
On Friday, Weil responded by stating she had only called Barnett twice in her life to ask him to postpone a meeting and was immediately hung up on.
“If he can’t even take the calls of residents, then he shouldn’t be chairman,” she said.
At a town board meeting two nights earlier, Fedun and Asdal also threatened to go to the police if residents continued calling them at their homes about the mushroom factory.
On Thursday, Fedun told the crowd to watch what they say about him or he would take legal action.
The vote finally went through as it had the month before, with board members Cliff Asdal, Barnett, William Fedun and Andrew Lewis voting in favor and Fern Laks voting against.
Laks said she had not had any chance to review the resolution, the changes or corrections made since the last meeting. She said she was only handed the resolution right before the meeting.
The three variances will allow the mushroom factory developers to build a building up to 80 feet high (35 feet higher than town code allows), allow for a ten percent increase in lot coverage and reduce the amount of required 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. The parcel adjoins the residential property of the Moore family, who have been fighting the project since its inception.
Despite the hostile reception to their actions, members of the board defended their decision. Barnett said he was doing what he thought was best for the community. He acknowledged the Moores’ right to live on their property, which borders the mushroom plant. But, he said, “this is the future.”
Barnett was candid on his future tenure as chairman of the board. If the town decides to replace him as chairman, “I will step aside,” he said.
“I have tried my damnedest,” he concluded.
Lewis said, “I’ve never been involved in anything like this. . . . I’m comfortable and fearful of the resolution of this. . . . We’re hoping that the mushroom factory will be a good corporate citizen.”
The tenure of the board’s hired attorney – Stephen Gaba of Drake, Sommers, Loeb, Tarshis and Catania in Orange County – has been of significant controversy. Ira Cohen, the town’s appointed attorney to the ZBA, was booted by Barnett after he prepared a findings statement which recommended denial of the height variance request.
Town of Mamakating Supervisor Charles Penna has contended that only the town board can appoint the ZBA’s attorney.
Questions have arisen as to how Gaba will be compensated for his work. Gaba is a former law partner of Charles Bazydlow, the attorney for Yukiguni Maitake Manufacturing Corporation of America. Gaba said Thursday evening that he will submit a voucher to the board for compensation. He said he does not expect to return to the town for further ZBA business.
Following the meeting, opponents of the plan continued to hammer away at its ramifications.
William Lucas, a town resident who has studied mushroom plants in other areas of the country, said that 80 percent of the workforce will be migrant workers.
Kevin and Tish Moore took exception with comments made by Asdal at a previous meeting. Asdal told them that their property had always been zoned industrial-commercial. Not so, corrected the Moores. In 2001, their property was rezoned from rural-agricultural to light industrial. The Moores said the change was done specifically with the mushroom factory in mind. Preliminary proposals for the plant had already been introduced to town officials by that time, and plans were beginning to form.
Their property on McDonald Road, has been in the hands of Kevin Moore’s family since the 1890s, he said. When asked what he worries about when faced with the possibility of having his home border a large factory such as the one proposed, Moore said there were a number of issues to be concerned with: potential odor, light, traffic – “who knows what?”
Despite all of the turmoil, Sullivan County Legislator Kathleen LaBuda, who has long been opposed to the plant, said, “It is not over yet.”
A major battle in the courts over the planning board and ZBA’s decision is brewing. The Basha Kill Area Association is taking the planning board to court, while the Moore family will be suing the ZBA.
Eileen Weil also took the ZBA to task for scheduling a special meeting and going through with their action so close to the holidays.

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