In a May 7 Times Union story, Wendy Libertore brought out the darker side of developer John Witt. Ms. Liberatore doesn’t have an unblemished record on accuracy and she definitely likes to go for the throat. In the case of Mr. Witt, he offered up a large target for her.
Witt wants to build a large development of 31 homes he calls “Cedar Bluff” on 111.6 acres on a steep ridge overlooking Saratoga Lake. According to Ms. Liberatore’s story, the neighbors are alarmed about the potential impact of removing at least half the trees on the property. The neighbors along with the Saratoga Lake Association and the Saratoga Lake Protection and Improvement District believe Witt’s proposal could “…destabilize the ridge, cause flooding due to an excess of storm water run-off, erode 9P below, and adversely affect the health of the lake.” They also fear the runoff will compromise the water table that they depend upon for their homes.
It is unclear just how many times Witt met with Ian Murray the chairman of the Stillwater Planning Board, but at a March 28 meeting of the Planning Board Murray apparently referenced meeting with Witt. His statement was recorded in the minutes of the meeting. According to Liberatore’s story, he actually told his fellow board members and the public that he had met privately with Witt and the town engineer.
In classic Wendy Liberatore style, she offers that the “Open Meetings Laws do not prohibit planning board chairman [sic]from meeting privately with an applicant. It would only be prohibited if a quorum of the Planning Board was present at a closed-door meeting.” This is inaccurate on so many levels. To begin with, if there were a quorum present, he would not be meeting privately since others would be present. The area of the law she is referencing has to do with the fact that if a quorum of the board assembles, the law considers that to be a de facto meeting and therefore requires that the public be allowed to be present. In fact, the law precludes such a gathering without the proper notices being published prior to the event.
She does, however, quote Jim Cashin, an opponent of the project and an attorney, who accurately characterized the meeting between Witt and Murray as a violation of the New York State General Municipal Law as an ex parte contact. The planning board is a quasi judicial body that bars inappropriate contacts between applicants and members of the board. It would be similar to a plaintif in a civil suit meeting privately with a judge. Ex Parte contacts are strictly prohibited. Sometimes they are hard to avoid. For example, an applicant might accost a board member at a supermarket. If that happens, the board member is supposed to advise the board at the earliest possible time of the details of the event.
According to Liberatore, Witt has accused his critics of “spreading lies.”
Liberatore reported that residents were concerned about an incident Witt was involved in in 2014. She reported that to provide a view for a development he was constructing he clear cut an area in spite of the fact that his plans had not included this. Code enforcement secured a stop work order but the trees were gone before Witt could be served. Attorney Cashin told Liberatore that Witt claimed there had been a filing mistake because he had originally planned to do the clear cutting.
Liberatore contacted Witt for the story. He told her he would not speak “to the trashy newspaper” regarding his project. He told her he would only speak to a reporter willing to cover the story in a “positive light.”
I understand that Mr. Witt builds some beautiful homes. Apparently that skill set does not translate into PR skills.