The Housing Council

« Return to News

Three factions at odds over Pittsford housing plan

Since it was unveiled, there have been scores of public meetings and nearly as many consultants and lawyers. Wrangling over code requirements and a volley of lawsuits among the developer, the village and angry residents have sunk the project — 167 apartment units and a 125-seat restaurant — into political and legal limbo with no immediate prospect of disentanglement.

At a court hearing earlier this month, the developers asked a state Supreme Court judge to bar the village trustees from doing anything to interfere with a public hearing set for this coming Wednesday. The Friends of Pittsford Village asked the judge to strike down an approval the developer secured because proper procedure hadn’t been followed. The village asked him to keep everyone else out of its proper business.

In short, it’s a mess, and neither the key players nor several interested observers could offer much practical wisdom as to how other municipalities or developers could avoid a similar predicament.

How did it get this bad?

The three principals — Mark IV, the village and Friends of Pittsford Village, a resident group opposing the project — all had ready answers.

“You can start with a mayor that doesn’t lie,” Mark IV Chief Operating Officer Chris DiMarzo said. He accused Pittsford Mayor Robert Corby of manipulating the political process to stall the project and said the village, already mostly developed, doesn’t have the expertise to work with builders.

“We feel everybody should comply with our code requirements,” Corby said, casting the village trustees as protectors of Pittsford’s historic character. He said DiMarzo changed the site plan beyond what is acceptable then blustered with its lawyers when the village called him on it.

“The developer didn’t listen,” Friends of Pittsford Village president Justin Vliestra said. He represents village residents who think the project is too large and will disrupt traffic on Monroe Avenue, among other complaints. “If you know what the stance of a majority of the residents is but you ignore it and go through with it anyway, things go wrong.”

The developer’s decision to relocate its restaurant away from the Erie Canal toward Monroe Avenue is being held up by the village as possible grounds for a new environmental review. Questions of political process are in front of Supreme Court Justice John Ark, and the village will hear public input Wednesday in deciding whether to grant site plan approval.

Both Corby and DiMarzo said they believed communication early in the planning process was important. But it appears one of the village’s mechanisms for that communication, its Development Review Committee, did more harm than good.

That committee comprises members of the village board of trustees, the planning board and the preservation board. It meets in private with developers — skirting open meetings law by not having a quorum from any one of the boards — to hash out details of proposed projects.

That committee convened several times to discuss Westport Crossing. At the court hearing earlier this month, Mark IV’s lawyers repeatedly said the reason the developer moved the restaurant was that Corby and others recommended it during a committee meeting.

Corby responded by saying those meetings were “just a discussion.” If the developer wants to move the restaurant, he said, it should be prepared to go through the permitting process again.

He defended the Development Review Committee and accused Mark IV of “(using) it as a tool to push their agenda.”

“I think we have to rethink the limits of what that body is about,” he said. “It’s about communication, not about making binding decisions.”

Building tension

Former trustee Trip Pierson ran against Corby for mayor last year and lost. He supports the development and said he has “no idea” why the process has been so cumbersome.

“Why we as a village are making this so difficult, I don’t know,” he said. “If I knew the answer, maybe I would have done better in the election.”

Architect Roger Brown has worked for both the village and the developer. He helped create Pittsford’s 2002 comprehensive plan and also worked for Mark IV, trying to marry the village’s vision with the developer’s needs.

He said the unpleasantness surrounding the project is partly a product of the tension between residents wary of high density and a developer who needs to make his investment pay off.

“As the density increased, you’re creating a disparity with the way things are traditionally done in Pittsford — single family, two or three stories at the most — and people would look at that and say it’s not compatible,” he said.

“It’s just hard to convince the public sometimes. The developer is victimized by the cost it takes to make this happen and the public can’t understand that and thinks the density will be detrimental, when in fact, over time, it would probably be a very good thing for the village’s economic vitality.”

Westport Crossing isn’t the first development in Rochester’s suburbs to be slow-tracked: Anthony Costello noted his plan for the Reserve, a housing development on the canal in Brighton, took eight years to get approval.

“I don’t know whether any work ahead of time could alleviate (all the) problems that might come up as the process goes on,” he said. “It depends on the individuals who are involved in the process and what they see as the future of their community.”

JMURPHY7@DemocratandChronicle.com

Twitter.com/CitizenMurphy

If you go

There will be a public hearing on final site plan approval for Westport Crossing at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15 at Pittsford Village Hall, 21 N. Main St.

For more information, go to villageofpittsford.org or call (585) 586-4332.