WARRENSBURG - Monday morning, Morgan Harris sat cross-legged atop her sedan parked on Stewart Farrar Avenue, gazing across the street at lot that until recent years hosted the 1850s residence of one of the town's most influential citizens in its formative years.
Now, bulldozers ripped up earth on the lot, and chain saws buzzed as workers felled a few trees at the back of the plot. Excavation was just beginning to clear the site to prepare it for a proposed new Stewart's convenience store, to be located across Stewart Farrar from the historic First Presbyterian Church, where Morgan's mother Lucy is pastor.
Harris, a 2010 Warrensburg High School graduate now a Freshman at SUNY Pottsdam studying Environmental Science, explained why she was conducting a watchful vigil, gripping a baseball bat as she watched the development of the site, which has not only sparked considerable controversy in town, but prompted a lawsuit from citizens seeking to protect the neighborhood's historic ambiance and serenity.
"I woke up this morning to the sound of a big tree being cut down, and I am going to sit here to make sure these workers don't take down any more trees," Morgan Harris said. "I will sit in front of the remaining two trees if I need to, and if they try to move me, I have my bat."
Months ago, a group of 15 local citizens filed an Article 78 lawsuit, alleging that the town board didn't properly conduct a required environmental review for the store and the preceding zoning change. The suit included a request for a preliminary injunction to stop Stewart's Shops from proceeding with plans to build a store on the historic lot. The citizens' injunction request was declined recently by state Supreme Court Justice David Krogmann, who also rejected Stewart's motion to dismiss the citizens' lawsuit. In the decision, Krogmann warned that any excavation or construction at the project site would be at Stewart's peril if the company proceeded with the lawsuit's outcome still pending.
Paul Gilchrist, President of the Warrensburgh Historical Society and leader of the citizens' group, said Stewart's was ignoring the judge's advice by felling a 100-year-old cherry tree and beginning the excavation on Monday.
"By going ahead while the matter's still in court, Stewart's seems to be showing disregard for the legal procedure of the lawsuit," he said.
Contacted Monday, Tom Lewis of the real estate division of Stewart's said the construction timetable wasn't his direct responsibility, and that inquiries should be directed to the firm's lawyer, Jon Lapper. But Lapper said Tuesday that Stewart's simply made a tactical decision to move forward with the construction, and he wouldn't comment on it - but that questions about whether it was in conflict with the judge's advice should be addressed to Lewis.
The pending citizens' lawsuit, among its many claims, challenged whether the zoning and environmental review involved segmentation, whether the town board was engaged in "spot zoning," and whether the board bypassed required criteria on a SEQR review. The judge's decision on the injunction rejected the claims of segmentation and spot zoning, and a claim that irreparable harm would occur by the development - but Krogmann did cite the potential of irreparable harm from the removal of the trees.
Lapper said the decision on the injunction addressed the pivotal issues of the suit - the segmentation and spot zoning claims.
"I think the town did a thorough job with the SEQR review and the approval of the project," he said.
Gilchrist, however, said many issues in the suit weren't addressed in Krogmann's initial decision. Still pending are the citizens' allegations that the town board fabricated minutes concerning which town entity was authorized to conduct the environmental review and board minutes concerning the scope of the SEQR's jurisdiction. The citizens also challenged the town's written assertions on the SEQR review that claim that the development would have no significant impact on groundwater quality or aesthetic resources.
Tuesday, Gilchrist said his group doubts the validity of the neighborhood traffic study Stewart's commissioned in the planning review process, and that the planning members had fudged their training requirements mandated by state law. The judge's decision calls for the town to submit minutes and various documents and transcripts within 30 days. Gilchrist said the group was awaiting the judge's decision.
Meanwhile, Morgan Harris said her concerns over the tree's fate would be continuing. Lewis said he couldn't say whether the two trees Harris was ready to defend Monday were scheduled to be cut down.
"I don't know if the site plan involves leaving trees or bringing them down," he said.
Harris said she was alarmed the town officials hadn't thoroughly considered the concerns of the town citizens over the neighborhood character, its history, and the safety of young pedestrians who frequent the local sidewalks.
"I'm upset the town has ignored the voice of the people," she said. "They don't know how it will effect this part of town."