PLATTSBURGH — The City of Plattsburgh Common Council unanimously approved its Final Scoping Document after an opposing lawyer advised otherwise.
That document will outline environmental impact analyses of several city projects, including the Durkee Street lot’s development.
Lake George-based Attorney Matthew F. Fuller, representing Plattsburgh Citizens Coalition, questioned the council’s proposal to adopt the Final Scoping Document, calling the request premature.
“I think the City of Plattsburgh has a bit of an issue in that the project, as composed, currently does not comply with the city law,” Fuller said before citing two concerns.
“I understand you’re about to take an action on the SEQR Scoping Document, but I think, from a legal standpoint, you can’t even get that far until these two legal hurdles are dealt with.”
After entering an executive session to discuss a matter of litigation, and in front of a packed audience, the council returned to unanimously approve the document.
The Generic Environmental Impact Statement process is a statute of the State Environmental Quality Review Act.
That route will allow the City of Plattsburgh to examine the joint environmental impacts of various downtown projects, including some with ties to the Downtown Revitalization Initiative.
According to city Special Environmental Council representative attorney Mark Schachner, the newly approved Final Scoping Document will be a “table of contents” used throughout this process.
Though not a local government requirement for large-scale developments, Schachner called the Generic Impact Statement route a responsible one.
“It avoids what’s called segmentation, or separately reviewing projects that are occurring in the same basic geographical area that could have synergistic impacts on, or with, each other,” he had said.
Formed in July 2019, the not-for-profit Plattsburgh Citizens Coalition has formerly revealed its ambition to halt current Durkee Street development plans.
Prime Plattsburgh LLC has been selected for that DRI project and intends to transform the lot into a mixed-use development with market-rate apartments, public-private parking options and a pedestrian walkway.
The lot will also be the future site of a Saranac Riverwalk.
When Fuller addressed the council at their Thursday night session, it was the Durkee lot’s proximity to the Saranac River that sparked one of his concerns.
Per New York General City Law, Fuller said, waterfront property cannot be alienated.
“State laws preventing alienation of important public assets such as parks, beaches and other public spaces — and yes, public parking lots,” a Plattsburgh Citizens Coalition press release adds, “are put in place to protect the public from greedy politicians who might choose such short-term enrichment at the public’s expense.”
Fuller’s second point was the lot’s positioning within the City of Plattsburgh’s Special Assessment District.
In a letter addressed to the Common Council, Fuller says that placement could protect the lot under the public trust doctrine.
“This parking lot, and indeed other similar parking lots within the downtown parking district, are held for the benefit of that parking district,” Fuller says in the letter.
“Taxpayers are charged a special tax for the maintenance, repair and upkeep of those parking lots, evidencing an intention by the City of Plattsburgh to hold those public parking spaces in trust for this district.
“Thus, no parking property may be alienated without addressing the underlying special taxing district.”
Mayor Colin Read said, however, parking spaces are generally not included within the public trust doctrine.
“Nevertheless the city appreciates the good Lake George attorney’s concern about our city’s welfare,” Read said. “The various committees and groups engaged have formulated a viable plan for at least a one-to-one match of parking spaces.”
Read also negated Fuller’s first claim, saying the DRI project would guarantee public access to the waterfront.
“The Common Council believes that this land can best be used as a river trail and for people to live, work and access, rather than car storage,” he said. “The plan that is currently being explored is a win-win.
“Whether that guaranteed public access takes the form of a public easement, or the city’s retention of the underlying property can still be resolved, but the important point is that public’s continued and improved access has always been assured as an integral component of the larger development plans.”
‘FAR FROM OVER’
At the end of the day, the council decided to vote in approval of the Final Scoping Document — a step that, Read said, was necessary to continue the Generic Impact Statement process.
Read referred to the attorney’s letter and speech as “strategic more than substantive.”
“It appears to be challenging the validity of the Development Agreement that was entered into between the city and Prime in early 2019, as opposed to the scoping document itself,” he said.
Still, it’s in the coalition’s opinion that the Common Council has abandoned its responsibility to protect the interests of its residents.
“While the city government may not have the public’s interests at heart, Plattsburgh can be proud to know that it is home to good, decent, passionate, civic-minded people who do,” the coalition press release says.
“The fight has just begun and is far from over.”
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