SUNY Cobleskill dorm work raises legal concerns
COBLESKILL The town of Cobleskill is poised to issue a stop-work order on the site of SUNY Cobleskill’s new dormitory construction project because buildings planned for the site don’t conform with current land use laws.
Town Attorney Michael West said the Schoharie County town hired an Albany law firm to explore the issue after officials realized the entity building the facility — Alumni Housing Corporation LLC — isn’t a state agency like SUNY colleges are and therefore should not be exempt from local land-use codes.
A college spokesman on Thursday said the college maintains the position that the project is exempt from those codes.
The college in 2011 began seeking proposals for building the residence halls at the ski lodge site off of Route 10 — most of which is situated in the town of Cobleskill. They will contain a total of 158 units.
The $11.4 million project, approved by the SUNY board of trustees in June 2011, is to be run by the AHC, a subsidiary of the college’s Alumni Association.
West on Thursday said that when the college builds anything, it shares New York state’s exemption from local zoning and codes.
But a limited liability company, West contends, doesn’t qualify for that immunity.
Up until now, neither the college nor the Alumni Housing Corp. have requested any building permits or, in what would be considered the “first step” in a building project, asked for permission to change the zoning in the area, which is zoned rural residential.
Multiple dwellings don’t conform to rural residential zones under the town’s land use codes, so the builder would require a use variance.
“They’re subject to local zoning; they’re subject to local planning,” West said.
He said that in general, there isn’t any opposition to the college building new dorms on its property — all of which is tax-exempt.
But developments at the state level this year make the prospect of unfettered use of land in the town a risky proposition, West said.
The state recently announced plans to implement “tax-free” zones in and around college campuses, a move aimed at luring businesses, which could lead to any type of facility being built on the college campus.
“If the state of New York uses this model, they actually have the ability to build anything they want down on this campus and ultimately say this is a tax-free zone,” West said.
Hypothetically, he said, under these circumstances, that could include a nuclear research facility, which the local government would be unable to contest.
West said more recent news make the issue even more pertinent. The announcement that the state is planning to turn the University at Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering into a separate institution within the SUNY system raises questions about whether the state can turn land into anything it wants.
SUNY Cobleskill spokesman Joel Smith said information has been provided to the town about the project, including legal precedents.
“At the most basic level, this is a residence facility being built on state land on the SUNY Cobleskill campus by the Alumni Association, which has a contractual relationship with SUNY Cobleskill,” he said.
“By state law, the land is exempt from local zoning ordinances; the town has never had any oversight of any construction project on the campus,” Smith said.
West said the town hired McNamee, Lochner, Titus & Williams to explore the issue. He said it’s unlikely the town could afford to file a lawsuit to halt the project.