By Chris McKenna
Woodbury - His new seat might get hot in the days ahead. But the small, bare office John Burke now occupies in a corner of Woodbury Town Hall felt cold yesterday morning as he settled into his new job, clad in sweater and jeans.
Burke, who beat former Supervisor Sheila Conroy in an election two months ago, started work Sunday and will be sworn in tonight, taking his place on a Town Board he's more accustomed to questioning from the audience, particularly during this past rancorous year.
Only two days after picking up his keys to Town Hall, the retired high school principal faced his first local-government challenge: a storm that dumped 8 or more inches of wet snow on Woodbury's roads and required mobilization of the plows.
Maybe that was an omen.
More difficult plowing lies ahead, including working with three board members who support a 451-home development proposal that Burke and others spent the last year fighting - a controversy that lingers on, thanks to a court challenge.
Once a board critic, Burke will now feel its pain: by day, fielding calls from irate residents and managing a $15 million budget and more than 100 employees; by night, catching flak at board meetings.
It won't be all headaches: Burke said the town's department heads have welcomed him and given him tours since his election victory.
But as the only Democrat on a five-member board, he might find himself on the losing end of votes, especially those involving land-use decisions.
"I plan on maintaining my positions, knowing full well that five people vote," Burke said yesterday. "I've not given up my right to make an individual vote on things I feel very strongly about."
Maybe the thorniest issue of all on the horizon is a potential land war with neighboring Kiryas Joel.
Burke said he's willing to meet with Kiryas Joel leaders but sounds no more willing than his predecessor to consider a compromise that would allow the Hasidic community's high-density housing to spread into Woodbury's rural fringe.
That goes for any annexation of Woodbury land into Kiryas Joel: "If the solution is for part of Woodbury to be no longer be part of Woodbury, I'm not interested."
Friday, March 25, 2005
Bending zoning rules in Woodbury might have benefits
By Chris McKenna
Woodbury – The controversy du jour in a town full of them is known as "the zoning changes," in the shorthand of some of the people arguing about them.
It refers to requests by two developers to loosen the town's zoning rules to increase the number of homes they can build in two gated communities they want to erect on opposite sides of town.
Among the purported benefits offered in return are large tracts of dedicated open space and improvements to the town's water and sewer systems.
Since the requests surfaced in November, the Town Board, which must decide on them, has held hearings to field initial concerns and begun overseeing environmental reviews for each project that could take months, if not years, to complete.
Officially, the board has no position on the projects, which would total 731 homes. Supervisor Sheila Conroy assures residents the reviews will be thorough and open to the public and must answer any major concerns, such as traffic.
"This is going to take time, and it guarantees input from the public," she said at the end of the board meeting last Thursday. "Let's go through the process and see what it says."
But critics have been flaying the board.
In their view, the board has already signaled its support and is rushing toward a foregone conclusion. They've called for more public hearings, a referendum, a delay while the town revises its master plan – anything to stop the process trudging forward.
"It smacks of back-room politics," said Aimee Fitzgerald, who lives in Central Valley near one of the projects involved – 450-home Woodbury Suburban. "And the public was never consulted about whether it wanted high-density changes in their master plan."
The Woodbury Suburban developer asked for a zoning break to allow 450 homes, instead of the 175 allowed under current zoning. The developer behind the Legacy Ridge project in northern Woodbury wants to build 281 homes instead of 164.
Conroy said in an interview yesterday that the board had no legal obligation to consider the requests but saw enough potential benefits – such as senior-citizen units in the Woodbury Suburban project and open space in both – to go forward.
"We said we were willing to look at these projects because there were some things we liked about them," she said.
She pointed out that, on a personal level, she lives near one of the proposed communities – Legacy Ridge – and would prefer to keep the unblemished view she's had for 26 years.
And she emphasized that the projects could shrink as the developers go through the environmental reviews and adjust to various limitations.
Critics, meanwhile, are unmoved by the perceived benefits, especially open space.
"Land you can't build on," Fitzgerald said with disgust. "You put it behind a gate and call it a gift to the people of Woodbury."