February 08, 2007

Wal-Mart Supercenter —

Residents speak for both sides


Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Dr. Robert Rhodes of Cortland addresses the Cortlandville town board concerning the issue of changing  zoning of acreage on Route 13 in Cortlandville from commercial to PUD (Planned Unit Development) and how the change will hurt the environment as well as other issues against the change.

Staff Reporter

CORTLANDVILLE — Residents lined up equally on either side of the Wal-Mart debate Wednesday night at a public hearing to discuss an application for a zoning change for a proposed Supercenter on Route 13.
The Town Board, which presided over the hearing, now has 30 days to reach a decision. It can approve, reject or conditionally approve Wal-Mart’s application.
Town Supervisor Dick Tupper said that although he anticipates that the issue would be raised at the board’s Feb. 21 meeting, it might take longer for board members and the town’s engineering firm, Clough Harbour & Associates, to review the comments from the hearing.
The Town Board’s March 7 meeting also falls within the 30-day limit, as set by town law.
Twenty-five people offered their comments during the nearly three-hour hearing, which was overseen by the Town Board.
About 100 people attended the hearing in the Cortlandville Fire Station. Many wore green stickers that read, “Wal-Mart YES”.
The 33.7-acre, former polo field proposed as the site of the 205,000 square foot Supercenter is currently zoned industrial, and Wal-Mart has asked for the zoning to be changed to a planned unit development, or PUD, designation.
The PUD ordinance requires that a development fulfill a community need, provide an appropriate mix of uses and display a higher level of creativity and imagination in its design than standard developments.
Much of the comment opposed to the development cited the environmental impact of the Supercenter as directly contrary to “community need,” and also stated that low-cost goods offered under one roof did not satisfy this requirement either.
Meanwhile, those in favor often spoke about their need for lower-priced groceries, more local jobs, and the loss of tax revenue to Wal-Mart Supercenters outside the county.
Speakers were often subject to derisive snorts, guffaws and shouted comments during their presentation, and many had to ask the audience to afford them a measure of respect.
Although Tupper charged the public in attendance with keeping the comments brief and directed solely towards the application for a PUD designation, the comments often strayed off topic and repeated the concerns of those who spoke before.
Wal-Mart’s contention is that a Supercenter’s wide variety of low-cost goods, all available under one roof, would fulfill a community need that would be especially convenient for the elderly. Two outparcels on the lot would be used to house retailers or other commercial spaces (although no companies have been specified, Wal-Mart has assured the town that the uses would be wholly in-line with town laws).
Wal-Mart contends that it has worked with the town to develop as amenable a site plan as is possible, as did many of those who spoke in favor of the project.
Kay Breed, of Gracie Road in Cortlandville and a Republican county legislator, said retired people would benefit greatly from the convenience and cost-effectiveness of shopping at Wal-Mart.
There’s no question that a PUD designation, rather than an industrial designation, would be better for the community and the environment, said Scott Elston, of Virgil.
Under a proposed zoning text amendment — the public hearing for which will be held tonight in the fire station — the current industrial designation would be changed to a commercial zone if the PUD is not granted.
Town Planning Board member Nick Renzi, who voted against recommending that the PUD designation be granted in January resulting in a tie and a vote of “no recommendation,” said that Wal-Mart has yet to meet all of the requirements of the town code, both in spirit and by the letter of the law.
In addition, Renzi said that the Town Board had ignored environmental concerns and issued its State Environmental Quality Review Findings Statement when the mitigation of potential environmental impacts had not been adequately addressed.
Not only does the Supercenter fail to provide for an appropriate mix of uses and fulfill a community need, according to Renzi, the granting of the designation would violate the county’s development plan regarding PUDs, which calls for mixed-use, residential communities similar to the development of Walden Oaks and Greek Peak base in the area.
Andrea Rankin, a member of the pro-aquifer and anti-Supercenter group Citizens for Aquifer Protection and Employment, gave an impassioned speech. She cited environmental and economic concerns, while stating that she couldn’t think of one product a Supercenter would offer that’s not already available in the county.
She emphasized the Town Board’s ability to turn down the application without offering a reason.
Despite Tupper’s repeated admonitions that the hearing wasn’t a question and answer session, board member Ron Rocco replied to public comments several times. The debate grew somewhat heated when CAPE member Robert Rhodes quoted several of Rocco’s past statements and questioned his objectivity about the project.
Tupper and town attorney John Folmer counseled Rocco to refrain from participating in the discussion, but Tupper broke his own rule to correct a resident who had alleged that Wal-Mart would be receiving a large tax abatement.
Tupper said that Wal-Mart had agreed to forego any tax abatement programs.



Homer town checks out consolidation

Staff Reporter

HOMER — The town voted unanimously Wednesday to explore the possibility of combining Homer’s town and village governments.
The motion was made by town Supervisor Fred Forbes, who said the state is encouraging consolidation of government services to cut costs and offering grant money to the first municipalities that do it.
“I think it can be done,” Forbes said. “I think it’s the time to do it.”
The board’s decision to explore consolidations gives Forbes the go ahead to bring the idea before the Village Board. Forbes said he intends to speak in front of the Village Board at its March 6 board meeting.
“It kind of has to be this board to extend its hand as being the greater entity,” Forbes said.
In the coming month the Town Board and the town attorney will also look into how many municipalities have consolidated, how they did that and what grants are available for municipalities looking to consolidate.
Forbes said all elements of town and village government, including the town and village highway departments, should be considered for consolidation. If the two governments can share equipment and services then money will be saved, he said.
Forbes said this morning he guessed that Homer, whose village spends about $3 million and town spends about $1.5 million a year, could save tens of thousands dollars a year as a result of consolidations.
Homer has a Town Board with a town supervisor and four councilmen and the village has a Board of Trustees with a mayor and four trustees.
Forbes said town and village boards could be merged as part of the consolidation process.
Joanne Sweeney, a village trustee, said she supports the idea of the town and village exploring consolidating services.
“Well I definitely think it’s something that needs to be explored,” she said. “It has come up in conversation before, just because of the overwhelming cost of duplicated services.”
She said careful attention would have to be paid, though, in figuring out which departments should be consolidated and which ones should not be. Consolidation doesn’t always improve things, she said.
“Having worked in a corporate environment where there’s been reductions, I’m thinking that’s not always the answer because it does burden people with an excessive workload,” she said.
Mike McDermott, village mayor, said he also supports looking into consolidation of village and town services. He said if the village and town highway departments were merged, for example, such services as plowing could be more efficient.
Right now the town highway department plows village and town roads, he said.


Tavern owners want better enforcement of smoking law

Staff Reporter

A representative of local tavern owners vowed at a Health Committee meeting Wednesday to ignore citations from the county Health Department against local bars and restaurants for violation of the Clean Indoor Air Act (CIAA), and hinted at legal action, should the county continue to push the issue.
A concentrated effort by the county Health Department in January to enforce the Clean Indoor Air Act (CIAA) resulted in a total of 11 citations, totaling $14,050 in fines, Jackie Gailor, director of the Health Department, told the Health Committee.
This represented a substantial rise in fines levied, from just two fines in 2006 for $450 and 12 for $1,425 in 2005, primarily because staff limitations in the department’s clerical division kept the department from following up on findings of noncompliance in a timely fashion, Gailor said.
In January, staff members were asked to focus on tobacco enforcement, resulting in the sudden surge in citations, she said.
The citations came as a shock to local restaurant owners, according to Troy Beckwith, president of the county’s Tavern Owners Association and owner of Friends in Homer.
Members who had received CIAA citations, including Beckwith, had decided at the Tavern Owners Association’s most recent meeting to ignore the fines, Beckwith said.
The law itself is vague, Beckwith said, and it is unclear who has the authority to enforce it.
“I don’t think our members have a problem with the law, I just think we’ve all been uneducated, and I think the county doesn’t understand it either,” Beckwith said. “I’ve always felt that the law hasn’t been fair to all individuals, and the same ones have been cited again.”
Beckwith said the restaurant and bar owners would wait to see how the county proceeds in enforcing the citations, and if it moves forward, he suggested that his group might be forced to file a lawsuit against the county.
Gailor this morning said the county does at least one compliance check on all eating and drinking establishments every year.
Establishments that receive complaints of noncompliance receive at least one additional visit, she said.
Fines are levied only after a verbal warning and a second written warning have been given, Gailor said, and the amount of each fine is based on the severity of the offense and past citations.
Regarding the county’s authority to enforce the law, Gailor said that state Public Health Law placed the responsibility of enforcing the law on the county.
Meanwhile Audry Lewis, director of environmental health, said if the citations were ignored, a hearing would still go forth, and the fines would still be levied.
“The process will go on whether they participate in the process or not,” Lewis said. “We always prefer that people take part in the process though.”
Legislators said they understood Beckwith’s concerns, but that the county had to enforce the law.
“If they want to fight it, they should go to the state and fight it, but it’s our job to enforce it,” said Ron Van Dee (D-5th Ward).
“I know that there are establishments out there that follow the law, but I also know there are others who aren’t, and that just isn’t fair.”
Committee Chairman Sean Clark (D-2nd Ward) agreed.
“This is business for tavern owners and restaurant owners, and every time they turn around they’re facing another mandate, so I understand where they’re coming from,” Clark said. “I think the key word is consistency — we need to enforce this law consistently, educate the public on how the law works, and try to be fair to everybody.”
Gailor said that additions to the clerical staff this year should allow citations to be issued more consistently, and in a timely manner.



Parents kick the habit

Cortland County Drug Court graduates its first two participants

Staff Reporter

Cortland County’s Drug Court graduated its first two participants Wednesday, and graduate Treena Manning said she has never felt so good.
“It’s great,” she said after the graduation ceremony in the Cortland County Courthouse. “I spend sober fun time with my daughter. I find myself playing with her and just being a kid again myself.”
In front of a support team made up of employees from numerous state and local agencies, family and other drug court members, Manning, 35, — along with one other participant who declined to be named in the Cortland Standard — became the program’s first graduates since it began its services in May 2005.
Family Court Judge William Ames, who presides over the court every week, explained that the system is based on four, 90-day phases. He said the court is designed to help drug and alcohol addicted parents accused of negligence kick their habits so they can eventually get their children back.
Ames explained that the court’s participants are referred to the program through Family Court after petitions have been filed against them. He said that not all applicants are eligible, but the ones who are have lost temporary custody of the children and are dangerously close to being forced to give them up for adoption.
“I was a skeptic,” Ames said, speaking to a crowd of around 20 people during the ceremony. “One of the toughest things I have ever had to do is to take children away from their mother … half the time they are trying and it’s not working.”
The program requires participants to undergo weekly drug screening paid for by the state, as well as court appearances, counseling and parenting classes provided by county and state agencies.
The simplicity and positive reinforcement is what makes the court successful, Ames said, adding that if a member relapses, he or she faces repercussions that range from writing a letter or essay to spending a weekend in jail or being kicked out of the program all together.
“If somebody messes up they’re immediately sanctioned,” he said.
Ames and Chief Family Court Clerk Laurie Case said they still have five active participants, and four people were released from the program because they couldn’t stay clean.
Ames said the weekly sessions create a unique court environment, contrary to the standard “adversarial” atmosphere where attorneys argue their points. He said the new approach allows public defenders, Family Court attorneys, family counseling services, the Department of Social Services and the parents to work as a team, with the hope of putting the children back in their homes by phase three of the program.
Case said there is no extra funding set aside for the program, explaining that the county and state agencies involved have chosen to take on the extra workload the court creates.