The red barn at Cucina. (Photo by Alan Carey)

A philosophical dispute between Woodstock’s Zoning Board of Appeals and its Zoning Enforcement Officer of six months, Ellen Casciaro, appears to be at the bottom of what may cause several lawsuits against the town and the ZBA and has caught one local business in a vise after it had already spent a considerable amount on renovations.

One entity, the Zoning Enforcement Officer, is saying that what’s good for business is good for the town. The other, the ZBA, is replying that a zoning law is a zoning law, and it can’t legally be interpreted in favor of any economic philosophy.

At issue appears to be how a business can get a building permit for a proposed project, complete it at $125,000, and then be told what they did was wrong and had to stop. Some are asking if there’s a weak leak within Woodstock’s zoning and planning worlds…or maybe the zoning document itself is the problem. Do 13 requests for ZBA interpretations of zoning decisions in one year represent a trend, when the norm was between zero and four such requests in previous years?

On April 12, the Woodstock Zoning Board of Appeals passed a resolution, 5-0, determining that the building permit Casciaro issued under which Cucina Restaurant has been renovating the old Riseley barn for use as a catering hall was “improperly issued,” and the restaurant’s proposed use of the structure is not allowed under town zoning laws.

In its four page determination, the ZBA answered a request for a zoning interpretation from Cucina neighbor Nancy Shauffler of Edgewood Lane by stressing that the town’s Gateway Overlay District only allows restaurants somehow tied to a cultural institution, and termed Cucina a “lawful nonconforming restaurant use.”

But the ZBA pointed out that all uses for a property not “listed specifically as a permitted, special permit or accessory use” in the town zoning law “shall be considered a prohibited use;” and added that “a proposed change in use of the barn building even one considered a legal use…would require a Site Plan to be done and submitted to the planning board for review prior to the issuance of a legal building permit.”

They concluded that because no site plan was ever done and submitted to the town planning board, and no referrals for alterations were made to the town’s Commission for Civic Design, Zoning Enforcement Officer Casciaro’s decision to issue the building permit was to be considered reversed.

The question, now, is whether anyone will enforce that called-for reversal, and what a lack of action on the town’s part will mean to other zoning matters in Woodstock.

And just how many lawsuits will be filed against the town over this matter, joining a similar suit, still in the courts, involving the Hanowitz plumbing building property in Wittenberg and another discrepancy between Casciaro and the ZBA.

“My architect Barry Price had a site pan prepared and was told by Zoning Enforcement Officer Ellen Casciaro that it was not needed,” Cucina co-owner Lois Freedman said this week of the matter. “We were prepared to do whatever was necessary. We were told we were not going to need a site plan.”

Freedman spoke about having put $125,000 into the red barn renovation, and her understanding of town zoning law. An article about her plans for the catering business ran in a Woodstock Times article this past winter, following a series of stories about possible changes to the Gateway District that included talk of possible hotel and other major expansions to the Cucina site, owned by attorney and local property owner Cyrus Adler. In it she mentioned having received her building permit, and thus assumed she had planning board approval. She also said she had gotten an e-mail from the planning board last autumn in which they noted that, “the zoning enforcement officer has to make a determination of which category of use our proposal falls into.”

“We’re ready to open in a couple of weeks. We’ve booked parties for the new space all summer long,” Freedman said, noting how much she and partner Gianni Scappin have put into their business, in addition to having signed a 17-year lease on the property with Adler. “The Woodstock Film Festival has been talking to us about making the red barn their headquarters for the length of the festival next autumn.”

She added that she was currently contemplating an Article 78 lawsuit against the ZBA decision, as was Adler, separately.