Middleburgh housing project draws scrutiny from state Department of Environmental Conservation

The state Department of Environmental Conservation is investigating a housing development project in Middleburgh after town Planning Board members approved substantial changes to the project without appropriate review or additional public input. 

Amid the ongoing DEC investigation, Middleburgh Planning Board members and village residents clashed over the Middleburgh Meadows project at the Planning Board’s monthly meeting last week. 

A major focus of the debate was the waiver the Planning Board issued for Carver Companies, the project’s developer, to skip village approval for changes to its development plan. 

The Planning Board’s decision to give permission to change the plan from 16 townhouse units to 64 individual single-family homes is at the heart of the conflict, according to Rena Ryan, one of a number of village residents who attended the most recent meeting.

“It just feels like a comedy of errors how this all happened,” said Ryan. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse. I feel this all started from the waiver. That was historic.” 

The Planning Board overstepped its authority in issuing the plan review waiver because a memorandum of agreement approved in 2017 established the village of Middleburgh and the New York State Historic Preservation Office as the entities through which changes to the project needed to pass, according to Middleburgh resident Bobbi Ryan, who is not related to Rena Ryan.

Mayor Trish Bergan and the rest of the Village Board never saw the changes to the site plan, which is required by the agreement, said Bobbi Ryan. “I strongly feel that something [permission] was given that should not have been. You guys were not the lead agency,” Ryan told Planning Board officials.  

Any significant changes to the building plans had to be reviewed by the state Historic Preservation offices and the village, Bergan said. The Planning Board did not approach the state’s Historic Preservation offices because it determined that the new plan to build 64 standalone homes was not substantially different from the originally planned 16 townhouse units, according to Bergan. 

“We followed every procedure that we are supposed to,” Carver Laraway, owner of Carver Companies, told the Daily Gazette.  “This is not our first time that we have done a development. With DEC we worked with every single one [of them] in every manner.”

One of the primary stipulations in the memorandum of agreement states that the state Historic Preservation Office conduct design review of the project. “New building design should be appropriate to the surrounding National Register historic district,” the document said. 

The state Historic Preservation Office did not receive the updated plans until after the town Planning Board had issued the site plan waiver, Bergan said. 

“Continued design review by our office is required for all revisions for this project,” Derek Rhode, historic site restoration coordinator at the state Historic Preservation Office, wrote to Bergan in an email last month. “The proposed changes to the 2017 site plan appear to greatly increase the building density of the area, which changes the settling of the… Upper Middleburgh Settlement Historic District. Our office has significant concerns with the proposed increase of individual structures.”  

The problem with the state Historic Preservation Office’s recommendations, Bergan said, is that they are only able to make suggestions about the project and lack the legal power to shut the project down. 

Planning Board chairman Fred Risse said the Panning Board was unaware of the memorandum until after it had already approved the changes to the project.

“The lead agency, the Village Board, never told us they signed such a document, and never gave it to us back four years ago,” Risse told The Gazette. 

Bergan took office in the fall of 2020, several years after the village agreed to the memorandum agreement. However, the town Planning Board and Carver Companies should have received a copy of the agreement from the previous mayor, she said. 

“Carver [Companies] got a copy and they know what they were supposed to be doing,” Bergan said.  

Laraway declined to comment on the role of the memorandum of agreement and the state Historic Preservation Office concerning the construction process. 

The Schoharie County Planning Commission urged the Middleburgh Planning Board not to issue the site plan waiver after the Planning Board sought advice from the county commission, according to both Rena Ryan and Bobbi Ryan. 

One member of the planning commission recently changed his mind about the waiver approval and said the changes to the project plans were actually significant, and the waiver should not have been approved, according to Risse.

“[The commission member’s] exact words were: If there’s no significant changes, we can issue a waiver. He never said [going] from townhouses to condos [was] a significant change,” Risse told the Daily Gazette. “Now [the Planning Board is] saying it’s a significant change.” 

“Our office has no jurisdiction or authority over local land-use regulations. Our advice to local boards when reviewing projects that change substantially is to undertake the same level of review as initially provided or, if a law has changed, to follow the new procedures. The determination of what constitutes a substantial change is a decision of the local review board,” said Shane Nickle, senior planner at the Schoharie County Office of Community Development Services, in an email. 

Another concern residents mentioned at the meeting was whether or not the Department of Environmental Conservation had fully completed its review of the project site. 

The additional buildings on the site and the subsequent addition of more asphalt driveways and their impervious surfaces requires DEC approval, Bobbi Ryan said.

“The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is actively investigating public complaints related to the Middleburgh Meadows development project in Schoharie County to ensure the project is in compliance with all rules and regulations governing the state’s stringent environmental laws,” said Regina Willis, a spokesperson for DEC. “The investigation is ongoing.” 

Laraway said his company has followed all necessary protocols and received all necessary approvals for the project, but declined to comment specifically on the role of the DEC in the project. 

Risse said he did not know anything about the DEC’s review of the site. The only information he was given was that the state Historic Preservation Office had completed its review and had not found enough artifacts to consider the land a historical site, Risse said.

However, the memorandum of agreement classified areas of the development site as historical sites. “In consultation with the New York State Historic Preservation Office, has determined that the undertaking will have an adverse effect on 206 River Street and 135 Middlefort Road, which are eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places,” the agreement said. 

Other Middleburgh Planning Board members in attendance last week included co-chair Denise Lloyd, secretary Danielle Berger, and general members Bonnie Morton and Lisa Tenneson. 

Bergan said she plans to reach out to Carver Companies and have a discussion regarding the state Historic Preservation Office’s concerns and other concerns village residents have about changes to the plan. 

“I’m imploring you to do something because you’re our only hope,” Rena Ryan said she told Bergan at a Village Board meeting. “We all really feel let down and nothing is changing.” 

Options for stopping the construction of Middleburgh Meadows appear limited. 

“The entire community we’ve listened [to], we’ve worked with,” said Laraway. “We will meet with any of the people that want to meet with us.” 

“I am going to remember the people that stood up and tried to change it, even if it’s a futile attempt,” said Rena Ryan. 

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