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Monroe Village Planning Board: One hand washes the other.

Planning Board

Monroe Village Planning Board: One hand washes the other.

In the midst of all of the controversy surrounding the Smith Farm development, we’ve decided to probe further into some of the past actions of the Village of Monroe Planning Board. 

“The Curious Case of 104 Elm Street.”

To better understand how things are done in Monroe, let’s provide some context using a recent Planning Board action involving the property at 104 Elm Street. The property was owned by Planning Board Member Fred Cocks, and it was sold to an LLC that alternately changed hands from being “104 Elm Street LLC” to the later “104 Elm LLC”. The property is in a mixed-use area zoned as Residential/General Business, but requires a “conditional use permit” so that the occupants can use the house for general business purposes (professional offices, light commercial traffic).

The garage at 104 Elm Street was once a radiator shop, then a construction company, both being run out of the garage. The property owner, represented by counsel, sought a Conditional Use permit to use the house as a business enterprise, which generated questions from the neighbors on the block. Answers that were given to the “type” of business included “office space”, then “retail space”, then to a “retail showroom” that would be displaying stones for us in construction.

It’s not the envisioned use, but that represents only the beginning of the issues with the property.

Planning Board

The former Giovanni’s Pastry Shop continues as a blight on Lake Street.

Neighbors raised strenuous objections to the lack of answers provided, as well as lack of information about the traffic generated, parking regulations, deliveries and other issues. Elm and the corner at Anderson Place where the property sits, has seen an alarming increase in the amount of truck parking that both interferes with traffic flow and often prevents residents from accessing their homes. The property in question was also operating as a business in a “de facto” manner, meaning that they were using the location for business deliveries at curbside before any actions were approved or authorized. These objections were never recorded accurately on the record as meeting minutes from either the July or August 2015 sessions. In fact, most Planning Board meeting minutes are “sanitized” to reflect that issues are resolved, even when objections still exist.

The property was also not being maintained, including litter and building materials strewn about the grounds, and lack of snow removal during the winter. The latter resulted in Village of Monroe DPW coming to perform snow removal, later explaining that the property owner “wasn’t aware” they needed to abide by local ordinances and remove snow as a safety hazard. During the Planning Board meetings to answer concerns, the owner stated that “once (he is) on the premises daily, (he) will be able to maintain the property.”

This alone might seem odd. While none of these items really go over the top, the next actions do, and those belong to the Village Planning Board.

“One Hand Washes the Other.”

Fred Cocks, who sold the property, was also a member of the Planning Board that would vote on a Conditional Use Permit for the property to be legally used as commercial space. The property was also building inspected by his son, James Cocks, who is responsible for code enforcement in the Village of Monroe. We’ll touch on that momentarily.The younger Cocks inspected and cleared the building to make way for a modification of use. Code issues that were mentioned by residents at Planning Board meetings were given little notice, and subsequent reports on the property have had minimal effect. Residents had requested that Fred Cocks recuse himself from voting on the Conditional Use Permitting issue, given that it presented the potential for conflict of interest. After all, he not only sold the property but would also be able to vote for a change of use.

Cocks refused, and cast his vote in favor of the change.

It’s pretty handy if you’re selling a property in Monroe to be able to have a hand in arranging a change from residential to commercial if need be. Conflict of interest is just another issue to be swept aside.

“Village of Monroe Planning Board”

Planning Board

This multi-family dwelling on North Main shows garbage bags piled over the railing along with clutter around the front, sides and back of the property.

Some of the recent events of the Planning Board, both in the Town and the Village, have raised the question: How does one become a member of the Planning Board? The answer is relatively simple.

The application process is used inconsistently — some years they put out a call for applicants, other the members are hand-picked. Otherwise, just be a friend of the Mayor or Supervisor.

For the Village, that person is James Purcell, who is responsible for the appointment of members. Appointment is not based on “qualification” but loyalty, and for either board, it’s better if you can act as a political appointee and carry out their political wishes. This is a board appointed that answers to the mayor. And in a recent Facebook post, Purcell cited that the Village’s Comprehensive Plan had not had updates since 1960 (Ed. Note: The most recent update was in 2014).

When questioned in a recent Time Warner Cable News story about the Smith Farm development, Purcell’s response was typical: Deflect rather than address tough questions. The buck doesn’t appear to stop with Jim Purcell, and his usual reaction is to direct any comments to others.

“Code Enforcement? What code enforcement?”

Anyone who has driven along North Main Street in the northern portion of the village understands that it has become an eyesore to the community. There are buildings that have been subdivided into apartments, many of which are beyond their approved capacity. Houses that were once stately homes now have porches without railings, trash bags filling second floor balconies, garages that have been converted into illegal apartments, the list goes on. And this is to say nothing of Lake Street, which shows dilapidation throughout.

Planning Board

Click for larger image

The mayor’s answer is a bond issue packaged as “Business District Revitalization”, but contains very little money to target the appearance of Lake Street or attract businesses. Jim Purcell has done nothing to spearhead more laws and code enforcement, nor does there appear to be interest in making the effort. Village code is in dire need of updating in order to fix our downtown, including the whole North Main area.

Though anyone critical of Purcell’s efforts can rest assured that the mayor’s wife will make irate public comments in defense of her spouse.

“In summary…”

The Planning Board itself needs more oversight, and more input from citizens. The sanitizing of meeting minutes that has been reported by numerous sources represents a concern that this Board cannot self-govern and needs independent supervision. This includes repealing the prohibitions on who may or may not serve, and enforced recusal when a member of the Board would act on something that is/was/may be in their personal interest. Fred Cocks acted unethically by not recusing himself from a vote on the Elm Street property, and should consider resigning.

While we applaud Mayor Purcell for finally taking action on the Smith Farm project and its numerous violations, this only happened after the cameras appeared and he was goaded into a response. In most other areas, Purcell has been content to let others carry the burden. His reticence at public statements and deflecting questions is disturbing.

Moreover, his spouse’s habit of aggressively berating those who speak publicly about issues impacting the village is alarming and unprofessional. Political dissension and public expression are parts of the democratic process, and public officials are held accountable. The public may not always agree with their actions. Politics requires a thick-skin rather than publicly trashing those who express dissatisfaction or outrage.

It’s not professional behavior, and inexcusable.

We’d suggest more transparency from both Purcell and his appointees, and more accountability to the public interest than to parochial land development. Purcell has an opportunity to improve both the village and his recent perception problem. With two years until the next election, we question whether has an interest in meaningful change.

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Guest Contributor