Last week’s Livingston County News quotes Supervisor Kennison as hailing the Town Planning Board’s “completeness” decision as a milestone in the review of Newman’s Big Box proposal. With this decision, he suggested, the Town Planning Board had completed its review of Newman’s application, finally freeing him to declare publicly his support for Newman’s proposal.
As reported in the paper, Kennison stated of Newman’s proposal: “It’s a good project. I like it a lot.” It is also reported that Kennison had withheld from making such a public statement previously because doing so “would have been inappropriate because the [planning] board needed to make its evaluations in an objective setting.”
While Kennison’s actions over the past several years leave no doubt to anyone with a pulse just how strongly and actively he has worked on behalf of Newman’s proposal and against its opponents (I’ll spare you my customary recitation of his misdeeds), his claim that he is now free to pledge his support to Newman is just plain wrong.
What the Town Planning Board did at its last meeting was to declare Newman’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) complete. It rendered no judgment on the quality of the information provided by Newman or the merits of its proposal. It simply said Newman had completed the studies it was required to complete.
While PDDG opposed the Town Planning Board’s decision because we believe strongly that Newman’s DEIS was not complete (it failed to complete the required studies of the impacts of another Big Box on traffic in residential portions of Geneseo), we also understand that their decision was only procedural. Its entire effect was to allow the Town Planning Board to begin (not end) its formal review of the evidence collected by Newman about the impacts of its proposal on Geneseo.
Last winter, the Planning Board determined that Newman’s proposal had a series of potentially significant adverse impacts on Geneseo. Since that time, Newman has been collecting evidence regarding those impacts. Over the next several months, the Planning Board will be taking a “hard look” at that evidence to determine whether this proposal is permissible under Town zoning and in the best interests of Geneseo.
As part of this, the Planning Board must determine whether the traffic Newman’s project will generate can be managed, whether opening the Gateway to this Big Box will lead others to follow, and whether Geneseo’s National Historic Landmark District can withstand more retail sprawl. If it decides that these costs are outweighed by whatever benefits we might receive from this project, it must also decide what Newman’s stores will look like and how they will be situated on their property.
Only if and when the Town Planning Board recommends Newman’s proposal will the Town Board be placed in a position of making its own determination about the merits of this proposal. That will be at least several months from now. The public hearing coming sometime sooner will not culminate with a vote by the Town Planning Board or the Town Board. It is merely a forum for accepting comments from the public.
I don’t know whether to attribute Kennison’s statement to a staggering misunderstanding of the process for reviewing development applications or a clever effort to try to garner support for himself and Newman by declaring his support for this proposal. Whatever the reason, the effect is the same. The Supervisor has publicly inserted himself where he is not supposed to go: in the independent deliberations of the Planning Board.
As the Supervisor himself recognizes, good and ethical practice requires that elected officials not act in a manner that can be construed as pressuring Planning Board members to render a particular decision and not prejudge proposals they will later be asked to judge. Elected officials have the power to appoint planning board members. Beyond that point, planning boards must be free to render judgments independent of influence by those who have power over them.
I recommend that the Supervisor withdraw his statements and apologize to the Planning Board and the public for getting ahead of the process. That would be a small step toward restoring order to this disorderly affair.