CLAYTON – The state Department of State did not submit its answers to the Town Council’s questions about a state scenic-designation by the council’s Wednesday meeting, leaving a few councilmen uncomfortable with making a decision about whether to pursue it.
Councilwoman Mary J. Zovistoski announced the board was not ready to decide whether to pursue the Scenic Area of Statewide Significance designation from the department. She said a few board members had one-on-one conversations with concerns about not having the department’s answers to more than two dozen questions including whether the town would be able to opt out and the differences between SASS and the Local Waterfront Revitalization Program.
“We should wait until we have those answers to make a decision,” she said. “It’s not just about wind. It’s about all of the industries and what Clayton has to offer.”
The Town Council previously scheduled an information session when department officials would have answered questions about SASS, but the department cancelled.
Town Supervisor David M. Storandt Jr. said the department will still compile the answers to the town’s questions in a Powerpoint presentation to send to the board, although there is no deadline for the department’s response. Mr. Storandt previously said “there were some members of the public that unfairly pressured,” causing the department to cancel.
Laz Benitez, director of communications for the department, said in a statement that the department would require the board to request a designation from the department before it would answer the board’s questions.
“The Department postponed the meeting indefinitely due to the fact that, at this time, the Town of Clayton has not committed to requesting a SASS designation … therefore a presentation would not be appropriate at this time. That is the only reason for the postponement,” Mr. Benitez said in a statement. “If the Town of Clayton commits to request a designation and has engaged the public in an informational process, then yes, the department would be more than happy to provide the Town with a presentation.
Mr. Storandt said the board also invited officials from Scenic Hudson, an environmental group from the Hudson River Valley, but they could not attend. Mr. Storandt also said he spoke with Marguerite Wolffsohn, planning director for the Town of East Hampton, a few months ago with questions about the designation, but the board did not invite East Hampton officials due to the distance between the towns. Hudson Valley and East Hampton are the only two areas to receive SASS designation.
“It would be a very difficult thing for us to drive up to Clayton,” said J. Jeffrey Anzevino, land use advocacy director for Scenic Hudson. “It’s just outside of our mission area.”
A few attendees voiced their discontent with board members for revisiting the designation and they organized the information session.
Michael C. Ringer, owner of the St. Lawrence Art Galleries in Alexandria Bay and Clayton, said he was against SASS because it could limit development for future generations. He also said he previously asked department officials whether SASS would prevent wind energy developers from building facilities in the town and they said it was determined by a “case-by-case-basis.”
He said he was against the board’s decision not to allow public comments during the presentation, adding that department officials should be able to answer questions “off the cuff.”
“Clayton is the envy of every river town,” he said. “And we did it without SASS’s help.”
Clayton resident Gunther A. Schaller, said the board made decisions pertaining to SASS outside of the public purview using Ms. Zovistoski’s announcement that the board was not ready to act and the board’s April decision to host an informational session for Wednesday. Ms. Zovistoski said one-on-one discussions did not violate state Open Meetings Law. Mr. Storandt said the board’s decision regarding a date for the session was decided because few other dates that would provide the board enough time to obtain information were available.
“I’m concerned about the ability of the community interacting with its elected officials,” Mr. Schaller said. “They made great improvements. I don’t want them to fall back on old habits.”
While he was undecided about whether he supports SASS, Mr. Schaller said he wondered why the board revisited it after board members opted out of the joint effort with four other towns and three villages to obtain SASS designation two years ago.
“The town board felt so strongly that they sent a message not just to say no, but hell, no,” he said.
Mr. Storandt said he wanted the board to make a decision during that meeting because he does “want to drag it on any longer – any more than we have to.” He also said he hoped the department would have answered the board’s questions before the meeting.
“I see a lot of the benefits in acknowledging what the scenic concerns are for the community and having that voice heard in state and federal permits,” Mr. Storandt said.
Councilman Lance L. Peterson, who first proposed reconsidering the designation a few months ago, said he wanted to wait until the board received information from the department. Mr. Peterson, however, said he would want to pursue the SASS designation if it would prevent Avangrid Renewables from building part of its 250-megawatt Horse Creek Wind Farm project.
Councilman Robert W. Cantwell III, however, was ready to motion for the board not to pursue the designation.
“It’s an unneeded level of bureaucracy,” Mr. Cantwell said. “I voted no two years ago. My mind hasn’t changed.”
VILLAGE OFFICIALS AGAINST SASS
The Village Board of Trustees on Monday voted not to support pursuing the SASS designation.
In a letter from the village board sent to Mr. Storandt, the board said the designation would create an unnecessary, additional layer of government oversight that could inhibit development and “jeopardize local control.”
“It’s the same decision we made two years ago,” Village Mayor Norma J. Zimmer said. “We’re not in support of it.”
The Town Board could still pursue the designation, Mr. Storandt said, but the board would request that the department not include the village in the area designation.
“This has blown way out of proportion,” he said.
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