Story by A.J. Arias
Construction has begun on the new Yesterdays restaurant, to be located at 16 Elm St. in the Village of Warwick, even as disputes surrounding the project continue.
The Village Board of Trustees convened its regular meeting on Tues., Feb. 19 and spent over an hour, during Privilege of the Floor, hearing from residents who live in the area of Elm St. as well as from John Christison, owner of Yesterdays and the developer of the Elm St. project. The remarks and discussion, contentious at times, centered on the removal of trees at the construction site at the beginning of the project.
Tree Removal Started in December
In early to mid-December, several trees were removed for the purpose of clearing the property at 16 Elm Street for the construction of the new Yesterdays restaurant. Several neighboring residents objected to the tree removal, claiming it violated the approved site plan.
Following the tree removal a meeting was held between the Village Building Inspector and Code Enforcement Officer Boris Rudzinski, Village Engineer David Getz, Yesterdays owner and project applicant John Christison, the applicant’s landscaper Richard Valentino, and the applicant’s engineer Keith Woodruff to review the matter. During the meeting, Getz and Rudzinski determined that the cleared trees were within the approved limits of the site plan.
A letter to Rudzinski, dated Feb. 4, 2019, from Emily B. Svenson, an attorney representing the residents, outlined what the residents believe are violations of the site plan through the clearing of the trees designated as a buffer. The letter urged the Village to “issue a Stop Work Order, revoke the project’s building permit and require the applicant to amend the site plan to provide screening commensurate with the mature forest he [the developer] removed.”
In a follow-up phone interview, Village Building Inspector Boris Rudzinski said that in meetings with the Planning Board, Christison has stated that he will take the necessary steps to honor the original agreement with regards to tree placement.
Residents Express Concerns
At the Board meeting, West St. resident Patrick Gallagher read a statement to the Mayor and Trustees outlining the resident’s complaints and concerns about the removal of the “buffer” between their properties and the developer’s project. Gallagher asserted that the Planning Board approval of this project was predicated on keeping certain trees as a buffer against noise, light and odors from the new restaurant.
These sentiments were echoed by several of the other neighboring residents.
Susan Graf, of West St., invited the Board of Trustees to take a walk on the property.
“It is shocking and heartbreaking, the lack of respect that’s been shown to the neighbors,” stated Graf.
Christison and Woodruff were in attendance at the meeting and spoke to the Board in an effort to clear up any misconceptions or rumors regarding the tree removal, including assuring that new trees would be planted. Christison remarked that the issuance of the Certificate of Occupancy would be contingent on completing the plantings in accordance with the approved site plan.
New & Definitive Landscape Plan Needed
Mayor Newhard noted several times the importance of a buffer between the developer’s project and the neighboring properties. He pointed out the need for a new, definitive plan containing a more detailed layout of a natural buffer.
Trustee Barry Cheney voiced his concern that the landscaping portion of the approved site plan that was drafted by the landscape architect was done using aerial photos of the property but without an onsite field survey. This was brought to light following questions by Trustee Eileen Patterson regarding the location of the trees that were removed.
Woodruff stated that an excessive number of trees were not cleared, adding that several of the trees that were removed were located in the spot where the building is being placed.
Village Attorney Stephen Gaba advised the Board of two potential plans to move forward to resolve this issue. The first called for taking the original site plan back to the Planning Board for revisions. Gaba did not feel this was necessary.
The second option, which was based on the claims that the tree removal was a violation of the existing site plan, is to have the applicant work with the Village Engineer and Code Enforcement Officer to come up with a resolution that would be presented to the Board of Trustees for their comments and approval.
Gaba’s advice later resulted in a process that would start with a meeting including Mayor Newhard, along with the Village’s Code Enforcement Officer and Engineer, Christison and his engineer and landscaper. The meeting would be for the purpose of drafting up a new, more detailed landscaping plan with a buffer that matches the letter and the spirit of the originally approved site plan.
The new plans, which, according to Trustee Cheney, are the responsibility of the applicant to provide, will be presented to the Village Board of Trustees.
Residents will also have an opportunity to review and make comments on the new plans. Based on the comments from the Board and the public, the plan will be finalized before it’s brought back to the Village Board for final approval. The public comments on the new landscaping portion of the site plan will be part of an informal public hearing during the Privilege of the Floor portion of a regular Village Board meeting.
Several residents criticized the Board during the meeting on Tues., saying that their voices have gone unheard throughout the process. After several comments suggesting similar sentiments, a frustrated Trustee Eileen Patterson pointed out that the Board of Trustee’s opinion on the project did not matter and that the Board is bound to abide by the zoning code, which was adopted in 2008.
When asked if the Board of Trustees would listen to the public’s comments and take them seriously, Trustee Patterson said that she, personally, would and believes that the whole Board would do the same, provided the comments were in line with achieving the goal of that part of the project: “Creating a buffer that allows [affected residents] to live with screening between them and the restaurant…a reasonable buffer.”
Gaba added, “Taking your [the residents] comments seriously doesn’t mean agreeing with everything you say,” and that the applicant has certain rights under the approved site plan.
Several residents also voiced their opinion that they believed that the mayor wasn’t doing enough to unify both sides to make a compromise.
Mayor Newhard pointed out that, at the beginning of the process, Christison opened his doors to the neighbors to speak with them about the planned restaurant and bar and very few attended, the position of the residents has been to stop the project altogether.
Patrick Gallagher countered by saying that just because the neighbors don’t want a bar in their backyard doesn’t mean their voices and opinions shouldn’t be heard.
“It does not invalidate the points we have made,” Gallagher stated.
John Christison thanked the Mayor for acknowledging his efforts to reach out to the neighbors.
“I want to thank you, Michael, for acknowledging the fact that I’ve reached out numerous times and the only thing they [the neighboring residents] wanted is it [the project] stopped…The only thing I ever heard was ‘no bar in my backyard’,” Christison said.
A Call to Bring the Community Together
Mayor Newhard ended the public comment segment with an appeal to remember the importance of being neighbors, stating that not everyone is going to get what they want in this situation. Newhard further pointed out that the property is four acres in the middle of the Village and zoned for light industrial use. Through the Planning Board’s efforts, it will now only have one building and the rest of the area will be cultivated and landscaped with significant buffers created.
“Sometimes you can’t pick your neighbors, what Villages are and how they grow and how they exist. There are many changes that happen,” Newhard stated.
Newhard ended his remarks by once again reminding the crowd that they were all neighbors and a community that have to work together and that this was “not the end of the world, but how do we make it the beginning of something better.”
Next Village Board Meeting
The next meeting of the Village of Warwick Board of Trustees will take place on Mon., Mar. 4 at 7:30 p.m. at Village Hall, located at 77 Main St. in Warwick.
Editor’s note: Dispatch Reporter Katie Bisaro also contributed to this article.