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Seeking the right time on SEQR

Residents question village’s process on emergency services complex

SARANAC LAKE — The village continues to face pushback as it moves forward with a planned new emergency services complex at 33 Petrova Ave., with members of the public continuing to urge the village to slow down and reevaluate its planning process.

The village board again discussed the project — which aims to bring together the Saranac Lake police, volunteer fire and volunteer rescue squad departments into one unified complex at the site of the former St. Pius X High School — at its Monday meeting.

This meeting largely focused on one specific point of contention: A group of residents believe that the village should have conducted a state Environmental Quality Review Act analysis for its emergency services project prior to taking any significant actions to move the project forward.

The state Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQR, requires “all local, regional and state government agencies to equally examine the environmental impacts along with the social and economic considerations for a certain project, or action, during their discretionary review,” according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. New York requires SEQR to be considered in order to avoid negative environmental impacts from government action. It focuses on things like natural impacts, traffic, public safety and noise as well as more nebulous things like consistency with local zoning or comprehensive plans and changes to the character of a community.

Village Mayor Jimmy Williams says they are doing everything by the book, based on the guidance of the experts the village contracts with.

But village Trustee Aurora White — and a group of residents — disagree.

White proposed a resolution on Monday to rescind a recent village board vote, wherein the board approved a $340,000 contract with Wendel Architecture, Engineering, Surveying and Landscape Architecture out of Buffalo for design work as part of a broader $1.78 million contract.

White’s resolution would have prompted the village to start the SEQR process and negotiate a new contract with Wendel. More than a dozen members of the public, some neighbors of the site, spoke last month against the contract that was approved with a 3-2 vote.

“SEQRA review of a proposed emergency services facility will allow the village board to publicly consider the size and use of the project, its access and its potential environmental impacts, prior to committing the village to the full design and development of the project,” White wrote in her resolution.

Wendel employees who attended the meeting said that a SEQR process is already included in the bill the village passed last month. White said she didn’t see it specified in the contract, but Wendel employees said it is covered under the term “regulatory approvals.” They offered to amend the contract to specify that a SEQR process will be undertaken.

The board unanimously agreed to table the resolution, saying it was unnecessary if the contract would be amended to specify the SEQR would be done in the first phase.

“Let’s table it until after we get those amendments, make sure they say what we want,” White said.

White also requested that Wendel make village Manager Bachana Tsiklauri their first point of contact in the village instead of Williams, and that they get a monthly update on the project at village board meetings.

Letter of the law

Jim Abendroth from Bloomingdale brought a letter from attorney Mark Schachner of the Glens Falls firm Miller, Mannix, Schachner and Hafner to the village board’s meeting. Abendroth said Schachner is the “foremost authority” on SEQR. He wrote a chapter on SEQR for a book published twice by the state bar association. He’s also the attorney for the town of North Elba.

In his letter, Schachner said he had “several concerns” about the village’s process in this project. With the caveat that he’s only taken a brief review of the facts, he said it appears the village should have conducted a SEQR weeks or even months ago.

Williams said on Tuesday that he does not know how the question to Schachner from members of the public was posed, saying that he believes that could’ve changed the attorney’s response. He said they cannot “segment” SEQR, meaning it should not be done multiple times during a project.

“It’s very hard to do an environmental study if you don’t know what you’re going to build,” Williams said.

Williams said Wendel, the village attorney and advice from NYCOM all points him to doing SEQR during the site plan review phase. That doesn’t mean all the building internals are set, he said, but that they have a footprint for the building.

Schachner wrote that SEQR should be done “as early in the developmental process as possible.” He said courts have held that failure to do so invalidates governmental decisions made prior to SEQR compliance. He requested the village suspend all further activities on this project until a SEQR review is done.

“It is very clear that SEQR or potential environmental impact analysis should have been undertaken before the resolution adopted on June 24,” Schachner wrote.

He said it may turn out to be a reasonable project, but that the village needs to take numerous preliminary steps before financing or site plan approval.

Public comment

Village resident Mark Wilson said he believes Wendel should not be the firm to do the SEQR review, because the firm is invested in the outcome of the SEQR — the law says it should be done by a disinterested party.

Mary Thill said the village should pay a third-party firm for the SEQR. She also said the village should not make the SEQR determination as normal, saying it poses a potential conflict of interest since they are the project sponsor.

Village resident Peter Seward said Williams ran for mayor on his character, not necessarily his governmental experience. He felt that has gone “unfulfilled.” He said last month the board voted against what he sees as a majority public opinion by accepting the contract.

He said the whole project hinges on two options for where emergency vehicles would leave the site — whether the vehicles would exit on Petrova Avenue, driving through a school zone, or across wetlands to state Route 3.

“Whose responsibility is it when an emergency vehicle kills a kid on a bicycle?” Seward asked.

Village resident Joy Cranker said she is “disappointed” with what she sees as a lack of transparency from the village. She said more than 300 people signed a petition requesting the village study 33 Petrova for residential housing, and that there are hundreds of questions from the public still left unanswered. She felt the village board is ignoring the public and not representing them.

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