Plenty of discussion in lengthy session
By Terry Duffy
The Lewiston Town Board listened, deliberated and, following hesitation, acted on the French Landing subdivision eyed for the east side of Lower River Road in northern Lewiston. The Town Board opted to table its approval of a final plat planned for the project.
The decision came after close to an hour of comments Monday from a number of Lower River Road residents, along with French Landing housing development's merits presented by Kristin Savard, owner/consultant of Advanced Design Group, and attorney Damon DeCastro.
Savard, who has been active in a number of home development projects in Lewiston and nearby communities, spoke highly of the project. It calls for 27 single-family homes spread out over a 14.4-acre parcel, built in two phases: eight lots and then 19. The subdivision would feature upscale home models in the $350,000 range; include a separate storm drainage system; feature private gas, telephone, electric and cable services for property owners; and generate roughly $6,000 to $7,000 in property taxes.
No taxpayer money would be spent on the project whatsoever, Savard said.
When given the opportunity to comment, Lower River Road and nearby River Walk residents did not speak highly of the plan. In fact, just about all were against it during a public hearing that followed.
Henry Sondonato asked questions about Lower River Road intersection traffic and safety. Nancy Korea wondered why more housing is needed. Bonnie Collins raised concerns over irrigation ponds and mosquitoes. Marty Montante asked about existing water outflow problems during heavy rains.
Roxanne Frederick said drainage problems at River Walk were still not addressed. Steve Lyle said that subdivision has retention pond problems. Thomas Montante said there are still unmet demands for emergency vehicle access at River Walk. He suggested a similar outcome at French Landing.
No comment was considered an overall factor in the Town Board's decision to table. It was the town's own lack of action on moving in a procedural fashion on the proposal in the first place that doomed plat approval.
Despite having all necessary paperwork in its possession for weeks, the board failed to act on a range of required French Landing documents from Savard and DeCastro. Moreover, town department heads failed to sign off; communication did not occur between the town's engineering and building departments, and town attorney reviews and follow-up actions were not completed.
As a result, the board tabled and delayed the project - at developer Jerry Wolfgang's expense.
Town Attorney Mark Davis was not in attendance at Monday's session.
"I appreciate all of the concerns and comments that we had on this," Town of Lewiston Councilman Al Bax said. "We share in those concerns ... but we do not want to repeat the past on the developments that we've had before us (meaning River Walk).
"I think, in my experience with the (French Landing) developer and my communication with him, we're of the same sentiment that he does not want to add additional problems and safety concerns on River Road," Bax continued. "So I think, at this point, it is unfair to group him into that category (River Walk) ... but we're all out for one thing."
He added, "I do believe that, despite the financial setbacks that a delay will cause, that he appreciates the fact that we're sincere in our job to do the best for the residents."
"Motion to table ... to review everything," Supervisor Dennis Brochey said.
Soon after, the board voted unanimously to table on a Bax-Ron Winkley motion.
"This puts a stain on this; I want to see it done as soon as possible," Winkley commented. "They deserve an answer."
The board's delay put the French Landing project on the back burner for at least three weeks until a Sept. 14 work session. This left French Landing project representatives miffed.
"There are a number of issues here," DeCastro said as he proceeded to review the board's explanations, which ranged from a lack of communication to a lack of engineering and building department sign-offs, to health department issues and the need for attorney letters related to the project. "Everything we're doing on that plan has been approved (for your review). There aren't any new things."
DeCastro continued, "When we submit these documents (to the town), it's staff's responsibilities to respond to you (the board). ... Otherwise our project should be approved; it's not your responsibility not to consider it.
"We're (only) asking for a realistic assessment of what can be done on that list, what's needed," he added.
Town Board members appeared sympathetic and in agreement with DeCastro and Savard that the town was at fault.
"I don't (think) there's a list (here) of what the developer needs to do ... it's the town's internal process. I think it's our due diligence that has not been properly addressed here," Town Board member Bill Conrad said.
"We have to do things here," Winkley said. "It's not the developer's fault. ... It's our fault that we did not do our homework to get it done."
"We cannot support something that we did not review," Brochey responded.
"I support what Mr. Winkley has said here," Savard said in response. She went on to note a typical procedure done in other towns where pieces of information are ultimately gathered into a complete document. "All the other towns' comments are collected into one disbursement of comments and you do one revision. If the town can make that its focus ... that would be huge. It's better for the public, it's better for the developer, better for us, better for the town."
The discussion ended with board members promising action in coming weeks to resolve the matter.
In other news:
•CPA Patrick Brown of Brown and Company LLP reviewed the town's 2014 audit. He said Lewiston's financial picture was generally favorable and, if anything, should be considered a work in progress.
"The town received an unmodified (clean) audit opinion for the year ended Dec. 31, 2014, as in previous years," Brown said. "It means the town's financial statements are in compliance with generally accepted and government accounting principles and reporting requirements and free of material misstatements and unrecorded financial activity."
"An unmodified opinion is the desired and highest opinion form for financial audits," he said.
Brown said all town operating funds, excluding town highway, sanitation and water pollution accounts, had favorable operating balances for 2014.
He said unfavorable balances (deficits) seen overall in the town's accounts were not the result of any mismanagement, but rather a situation of lower revenues than what was budgeted.
"It was a similar situation found in all accounts," Brown said. Revenues were not meeting expenditures. In most cases, the town was able to overcome these shortfalls with revenue/transfers equal to the respective budgets in the individual accounts.
Brown said the town needs to better address funding issues as respective department needs dictate.
"Highway, sanitation, water pollution had unfavorable balances. In past years these had large fund balances, (but) in several funds there are no funds available going forward," Brown said.
He said the town should continue its strict budgeting practices in all accounts, including the aforementioned, for the future, as well as continue to seek out new revenue streams to achieve an improved rating from Moody's Investors Service.
Moody's had recently lowered the town's rating from A-3 to A-1, reflecting its concerns over recurring revenues and the town's reliance on limited revenue such as sales tax.
Lewiston government continues to operate with no town tax despite the funding challenges.
"This was not unexpected," Brown said of the Moody's downgrade. "But continued budgeting like 2015 with less reliance on fund reserves should bring an upgrade in bond rating back to what is was in future years."
"(Overall), the fund balances are in good shape," he added. "A-1 (general fund) has the most challenges, with no source revenue without a town tax. Expenses are running within; revenues are down. This needs to be addressed."
Brown closed by advising the town its 2015-16 budget "will be challenging."
•In other financial news, Finance Director Martha Blazick said the town is making progress with the New York Power Authority on its expenditures/hydropower allocations (low-cost power funding). She said NYPA, through its Town of Lewiston Hydro Monetization agreement, has approved those monies to go toward HVAC improvements at the Lewiston Senior Center and for replacement of the muckland pumps used for ongoing water drainage in large areas of southern Lewiston off Saunders Settlement Road.
It was also reported the town would approach the Greenway Commission this fall for funding assistance for work at Kiwanis Park, Colonial Village and for Lewiston Family Ice Rink operations.
•Bax reported he intends to work with the Village of Lewiston on a project that could see a mechanized kayak launch built in the future on the north sand docks near The Silo Restaurant. Bax indicated Greenway funding could be a possibility and that he would speak with Mayor Terry Collesano and village trustees about the proposal.