CORNWALL - Christina Amato is sad her father died with a regret of not seeing a vision of building a senior community turn into reality after years of efforts. What makes her even more frustrated is the project is likely to die because of the Town of Cornwall's recent zoning changes.
Cornwall Commons, a plan that made its debut in 1999, called for building 490 homes for residents 55 and older on 197 acres west of the interchange of routes 9W and 218. Twenty years have passed, and the application is still pending.
“It's my dad's legacy. Every night he woke up at 4 a.m. in the morning saying 'what to do with Cornwall Commons? I don't understand why they're so upset,' ” Amato said, recalling the last years of her father's life before he died from a heart attack in 2016. “My mother would tell you it's because of this project.”
After the family has invested $7.5 million in the project, Amato said, the zoning change in the area from residential to light industrial is devastating. Although the town justified the change by saying the Cornwall Commons plan is not marketable anymore, the actual rationale behind the rezoning, Amato believes, is the fear of the possibility that she would flip the property to a Hasidic community.
The site sits across the street from the New York Military Academy, whose 113 acres of land went up for auction in 2015.
“Everybody was afraid that the Hasidic community was going to buy the (NYMA) land, then come to buy Cornwall Commons so they would have two large pieces of land, which is technically enough for them to create another village,” Amato said.
The NYMA property was bought by Chinese investors, who reopened the school.
Although Amato's company had provided a restrictive covenant which would prohibit “institutional uses” to satisfy the town's concerns, Amato said, it's not reassuring enough.
In 2018 Appellate Court judges upheld a 2015 dismissal of Cornwall Commons' $38 million lawsuit accusing the town of deliberately delaying approval of the project, citing the petitioner failed to proffer evidence that any of the steps taken by the town did not serve a legitimate purpose.
Town Supervisor Richard Randazzo said the alleged concerns of a Hasidic community taking over the land has never been a subject of discussion by the town.
“It doesn't reflect the town's view. We looked at it in terms of what the community is looking for,” Randazzo said. “Over the past years, people didn't express interest in having that as part of our zoning anymore. They really don't want to see that large development at this point.”
However, a report by The Concord Group, a company branded as one of the nation's premier providers of real estate advisory services, shows the market dynamics are favorable for active adult community development at the site.
A letter from the Orange County Department of Planning claims removal of the code that would allow adult communities would also hinder currently approved development for the area.
Additionally, it would restrict development to solely commercial or industrial, and potentially lead to negative externalities for storm water, runoff and traffic.
Amato said the project would contribute more than $1.5 million in town tax revenues and $4.2 million in school tax revenues annually, with no addition of school-age kids.
Eight years after the project was granted a conditional approval from the Planning Board, Amato's company recently went back to the board seeking a final approval. The rezoning may prompt years of trying to get a zoning variance.
For the Amatos, it would mean investing millions of dollars more.
“We can't afford another $7.5 million,” Amato said. “It's something the town encouraged and pushed us to do, and we worked so hard for years. One night, it's gone.”