The Town of New Castle has launched an investigation into recent site disturbance on a portion of the Sunshine Children’s Home & Rehabilitation Center after multiple complaints from neighbors were brought to the town’s attention.
Jennifer Gray, counsel for the Planning Board, said at Tuesday night’s Planning Board meeting that the town’s Building Department is scrutinizing what has occurred on a portion of the 33-acre property located at 15 Spring Valley Rd. She said officials are taking the complaints seriously.
“My understanding is that staff was made aware of some site disturbance at the property recently. They have been conducting an investigation through the Building Department and other members of staff,” Gray said. “They’re still proceeding with that investigation and when the results of that investigation are complete, if any actions are necessary, at that time they will be taken.”
The controversial application to expand the facility for medically fragile children from 54 to up to 122 beds and to enlarge the footprint from under 19,000 square feet to about 147,000 square feet had been referred to the Planning Board from the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) for Tuesday night’s meeting. Although two permits were approved last year by the ZBA, relatively minor modifications to the plan recommended by the Planning Board required amendments to the original permits.
Neither Gray nor the Planning Board or any other town official elaborated on the nature of the disturbance. It is not known how long the investigation will last.
However, area residents on local social media outlets described demolition and excavation having taken place at the site for about a week. Neighboring resident David Whitlinger said starting the day after Thanksgiving he observed crews with heavy equipment remove an old well pumphouse on the property, damage a decorative fountain and perform excavation to unearth and remove a large underground tank.
While the work was taking place, several large caliper trees were cut down and there was a strong odor of petroleum, Whitlinger said.
He said he believes that whatever the crews were doing on the property Sunshine didn’t have proper authority to initiate the work.
“They dug up a whole hillside, and the steep slope of that hillside is now all dug up and then they cut down some trees,” Whitlinger told The Examiner.
“I’m not quite clear what’s going on there. It’s not quite the dead of night but you kind of scratch your head (and) say ‘What are you doing that for?’” he added.
Work ceased on the property by last Friday, Dec. 1, Whitlinger said.
A source told The Examiner that Sunshine needed to perform maintenance to its groundwater supply in one of the property’s wells. Messages left for the town’s Building Department this week in an attempt to confirm whether or not that was the cause of the activity were not returned.
Two members of the Planning Board commented Tuesday night that they were puzzled at what had taken place. Chairman Robert Kirkwood questioned why there would be unexpected activity at the site with the applicant so close to securing final permit approvals.
“So, my word of advice to the applicant is it just is not giving good feelings to the members of this board and now perhaps the Town Board and ZBA, so when you have applications before these boards and you don’t have your final permits, whether it’s pushing the envelope, crossing the line or getting right up to the line, from the standpoint, of nothing else, optics, I would counsel you on perhaps taking a different strategy,” Kirkwood said.
Board member Thomas Curley called the situation “a real problem.”
“To the extent that things may be going on that run counter to what I thought was working in good faith with this board and with the town and I believe with the community… as Bob just said, it feels like it tarnishes everybody in the process, and to my mind it’s inappropriate and not necessary.”
The Planning Board decided to taken no action regarding the referrals. It is scheduled to address the application again on Dec. 19.
Representatives for the Sunshine Home did not speak at the meeting.
For well over two years, review of the Sunshine Home’s application has drawn stiff opposition from the neighboring community. Residents have contended that the scope of the expansion far exceeds what is appropriate for the rural location.
Last year, two Article 78 proceedings were launched by neighbors after the ZBA approved the permits without making a positive declaration under the state Environmental Quality Review Act, which would have triggered a more stringent environmental analysis.