New Town Planning Board chair sparks controversy

On Tuesday, Jan. 2, Geneseo Town Planning Board Chairman John Zmich became the Board's first ever chair to not be reappointed by the Town of Geneseo. The choice to replace Zmich with veteran board member Dwight Folts has sparked a degree of controversy among Geneseo residents opposed to the building of a Lowe's shopping plaza on Route 20A.

The Town Board has ultimate control over who is appointed into the Planning Board, and the Planning Board members have seven-year terms to create political insulation. Although each member has one equally weighted vote, the chair possesses the ability to guide the direction of meetings and decisions. Geneseo resident and member of activist group Please Don't Destroy Geneseo (PDDG) Corrin Strong expressed his opinion that the replacement of Zmich was a direct relationship with the Town Board's support of the construction of a Lowe's in Geneseo. "The Planning Board should be independent from political elements," he explained.

The Lowe's construction project is being headed by Ken Kamlett, Director of Legal Affairs at the Newman Development Group. Kamlett views the project as "a well-planned, positive, upper-hand project that is an asset to the [Geneseo] community."

Folts is regarded as being in favor of the Lowe's project. Geneseo sociology professor Kurt Cylke wrote in his "Community Alerts" electronic newsletter that "with the appointment of Dwight Folts, Newman Development Group's closest ally on the Planning Board, to Board Chair, the Town has clearly renewed its commitment to pushing this project."

Zmich will remain very involved as a member of the Planning Board. "Although I am no longer Chairman, I vow that as long as I am on the board I will make sure that the process remains untainted by improper influences. Under state law, the Planning Board is intended to function independently and I will continue to insist that happens," he said. "My job now is just to find out everything and give the public the facts they deserve and honest answers about the impact of the [Lowe's] project," Zmich later explained.

There is a broad range of reactions in regards to the issue of the planned shopping center. Some Geneseo residents support the plan while others express not only concerns about the project, but what it may imply about future development in Geneseo.

“I'd rather see it not happen. Retail jobs are really not all that good for people trying to make a living. Surviving on minimum wage is nearly impossible," said Geneseo resident Amy Carpenter. "I am also afraid of what else will come along." Strong expressed PDDG's stance on the project as "out of scale for a small town. It sets a precedent for more big boxes and threatens to destroy the character of Geneseo."

The final scope for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement will be submitted on Feb. 9 for the Newman Development Group's response. If the Planning Board approves this response, then the project will be open for a public hearing before approval. Strong noted that, due to various time frames of review, it will be "at least a six-month process" before a decision will be made.