“A Card Carrying Environmentalist”
By: Joseph W. Norman
In early October, I had the pleasure of sharing a Mediterranean flatbread pizza with Ken over dinner at Uno Chicago Grill in Vestal, New York. It was an enjoyable conversation which covered a variety of topics including his family, his extensive and accomplished career practicing environmental law, and his current work with Newman Development Group. Much of our chat focused on Ken’s experience with the current Gateway Town Center development project in Geneseo which has been a source of much controversy over the last two years. This is a must read VIP Profile for those of you in or intimately attached to Geneseo. However, for all readers, it is a candid look into the life of a man who has facilitated much positive change through his passions and pursuits.
JWN: So what exactly do you do at Newman Development Group?
KK: Well, I have a couple different responsibilities. When Mark Newman identifies a site that he thinks retailers have an interest in; for example, Lowes and Geneseo. We do a lot of work for Lowes all over the country and a number of other national or big box retailers.
But, let me tell you first what I don’t do. I don’t get involved in transaction and real estate types of stuff. We attain outside real estate council to do things such as negotiate leases. Once a sight of interest is selected, I’m brought in and my job is to secure any necessary land use approvals from local governments. If there are regulatory issues from the Federal or State level, my job is to get those approvals. We often involve a team of consultants with specialized expertise in traffic engineering, wet lands, and archaeology. So that is pretty much what I do.
I don’t get brought into easy sights. They are mostly difficult ones. As my boss likes to say, ‘Every deal is an ordeal.’
JWN: Where did you grow up?
KK: I grew up in a small town called the Bronx. Went to CCNY as an undergrad and then to graduate school for a year at Duke and three years at Yale studying biochemical sciences. After that I went to law school at the University of Pennsylvania.
I’ve got a pretty diverse background. Most of my practice has been in environmental law and my combined science and law studies have stood me good stead in doing that.
One surprising thing about me is my first full time job after law school was with a public interest environmental law group called the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, DC. I was there for twelve and a half years as their pollution and toxic substance program director. I was also director of legal affairs for a number of years. I helped protect the oceans around the country from ocean dumping and ocean discharges, things of that sort. Good old acid rain and toxic chemical pollution.
JWN: What got you interested with law?
KK: I went to grad school with the intention of getting a Ph. D. and spending my career doing teaching and research. Then I woke up one day and decided that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life cooped up in a laboratory studying the esoteric sex life of some obscure fly. I wanted to do something that was a little more relevant to the real world and I ultimately hit on that with pursuing environmental law. So I went in that direction.
At law school I tried out various environmental law arenas. I did an internship with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources, now they are the Department of Environmental Protection, helping the state prosecute Clean Streams Law violators. I also did a summer internship with the region three office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. I organized a canoe flotilla down the Schuykill River as part of that. I spent another summer as Mayor John Lindsay’s summer scholar. There, I worked for the Mayor’s Council on the Environment and the City Environmental Protection Administration. I got involved with trying to toughen up the city’s pre-treatment regulations of industrial discharges going into the sewage system.
What else did I do? I spent six months on an externship with the Center for Law and Social Policy in D.C. where I had the opportunity to work on some interesting phases of the Alaska Pipeline Litigation. And, I wrote a major part of the brief that ultimately prevailed in the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals.
In my spare time, I co-founded and headed up the Environmental Law Group at Penn. One of the things we did under a rule of the State Supreme Court was help prosecute Clean Streams Law violators. Second and third year law students were able to argue cases before magistrates.
JWN: What brought you to Vestal, New York?
KK: It is kind of a long story. After the Wildlife Federation I spent just about seven or eight years in private environmental consulting, including seven years with A.T. Kearney, a management consulting firm. I was a Senior Manager and Principal in their Environmental Health and Safety Practice. And, after that I spent a number of years in private law practice in D.C. and Maryland. In both of those roles I often represented various kinds of developers including the Pyramid Companies, which is one of the biggest developers in the country.
One of the developing companies I represented was this Amius Group out of Jamestown, Pennsylvania, I believe. I did several projects with them. When the Newmans decided to launch Town Square Mall (in Vestal) in the early 90s, some Amius people introduced me to them. I got involved with the Newman’s when the real estate recession hit in the early 90s and Amius ended up backing out of the deal, but the Newmans kept me on to finish up. I have been working for them ever since.
I’m their in-house Director of Legal Affairs, so I’m on their payroll. I’m not a hired gun in the sense of somebody from the outside that is brought in. I’m part of the staff and the management team of the firm. We have in house graphics, construction and engineering, and others.
I think one of the things that endeared me to the Newmans is my environmental background and my work with the Wildlife Federation. They knew that I was someone that would help them do things correctly and not try to evade legal requirements, but rather help them efficiently and effectively do what they needed to do to be responsible business people.
JWN: Now, you’re involved with a brownfield organization correct?
KK: I’m involved with a number of brownfield organizations. I’m on the Board of Directors of the New York State Chapter of the National Brownfield Association. I’m also chair of the Brownfield Committee of the Greater Binghamton Coalition (GBC). The GBC is a public / private partnership setup between the business community and the local elected officials to promote economic development in this area, which desperately needs it.
JWN: When we met at the Greater Binghamton Chamber mixer last spring, you had a cowboy hat on. Is that a standard operation for you?
KK: Not really. Last winter was the first time I ever wore a cowboy hat. A previous girlfriend thought I would look good in one. And, it seemed functional. It was good for keeping the rain and snow off of my head.
I’m very active in the Greater Binghamton Chamber. I’m active in a number of committees with the chamber. I recently relinquished the chairmanship of the Legislative Committee, but I’m still serving on the committee though. I also serve on the Governmental Affairs Committee, the Consolidation Committee, the Recognition and Awards Committee.
JWN: With all of these activities, what do you do in your spare time?
KK: I joke that in my spare time I work for Newman Development Group since I seem to spend most of my time at the Chamber.
JWN: Please, tell me more about your experience with the development project in Geneseo…
KK: I probably should choose my words carefully but I won’t. I’ll take my lumps. I think the controversy our there is a tempest in a teapot in a lot of ways. I’ve been involved in a lot of controversial projects; some of them present really significant issues where what we’re proposing represents a major departure from where the community has gone in the past. That is not at all the case in Geneseo.
We’re proposing to build a Lowes across from a Super Wal-Mart and a Wegmans. The opposition referred to it as ‘sprawl development’ and all kinds of other pejoratives. Nothing could really be further from the truth. As a longtime card carrying environmentalist I consider it smart growth. The town board of Geneseo made the conscious and conscientious decision to concentrate commercial development in the area already characterized by concentrated commercial development.
This case does not entail having retail go anywhere it hasn’t been before. It does not entail any new infrastructure that has to be added to the area. It is not going to be radically transforming the landscape. Why the big stink over a Lowes when a Super Wal-Mart is right across the street?
Most of the arguments that have been leveled against the project are disingenuous and in my view extreme. They are make-weight arguments. The academics from the college that have chosen to spear head this effort are engaging in intellectual sophistry and seem to be engaging in debate for the sake of debate. They want some public platform. The Town Board and now Town Supervisor races seem to revolve around which side each individual is on this Lowes project and I don’t see it as a big deal.
We don’t go into a community to destroy it by being oblivious to the character of the community. We are quite sensitive about those kinds of things and we have bent over backwards in Geneseo to study every issue, whether we think it’s legitimate or not.
We have gone through a protracted Environmental Impact Statement that really was superfluous. Most of the data that was contained in a previous statement had been publicized and largely consisted of a compilation of information that had already existed. Not only had it been well ventilated, but exhaustively ventilated through two years of work with the planning board.
Let me give you an example with the traffic issue. One of the more significant potential impacts of a project like this, particularly in a small community like Geneseo, is impact on traffic. We did a very thorough traffic impact study through Fisher Associates which has a good reputation in Western New York.
On the first go around of the traffic study, the consultant relied heavily on traffic data generated by Wal-Mart in the course of the Wal-Mart development. The DOT indicated that it was adequate for this purpose but the naysayers criticized it and wanted traffic counts. So, we did traffic counts and paid for a second traffic study that included the traffic counts data. The counts indicated that the projections in the Wal-Mart study were overly conservative and the impacts were actually going to be less for our project than had been suggested based on extrapolations from the original Wal-Mart data.
We did some additional fine tuning. The naysayers raised concerns about net impact on the National Historic Landmark district of downtown Geneseo. The DOT has very specific criteria for what the study area needs to be in a standard traffic study. Generally, it is only intersections that stand to have a hundred or more additional vehicles during the peak hour of the week and that extended a fairly limited radius out from the project location. It came no where close to downtown Geneseo, but because of those concerns we did more traffic counts all the way into the village and downtown area. The result each time said there was no significant adverse impact.
The DOT, in two separate letters, signed off both on the evaluation of impacts and on the proposal of mitigation as being adequate saying there would be no significant decline in the level of service of traffic in any of the studied intersections. The town’s traffic consultant and engineer, Bill Holtoff, generated a letter and stated not once, but three separate times, that the analyses that our traffic consultant had done were fully consistent with the state of the traffic engineering art as it is practiced in Western New York.
Then we went through this exercise where the naysayers were able to persuade a narrow majority of the planning board to render a positive declaration under seeker of the State Environmental Quality Review Act obligating us to go through the whole Environmental Impact Statement exercise. As part of that process there was a scope of work, a seeker scoping document that was put together, which has a traffic section. The opponents lobbied to have 10 more additional traffic analyses done above and beyond the ones that we had already done through these two plus earlier traffic impact studies.
Bill Holtoff’s advice was sought as to if any of these needed to be done. He identified ten studies. I guess there was a longer list, maybe twice as long, that the opponents wanted to impose on us. But Holtoff after having three times advised in writing that everything we had done was totally adequate bowed to the opposition and agreed that we should do additional studies and gave us a template for how the studies should be designed. So, we went back to Fisher and gave them $100,000 more to do these ten additional studies.
Surprise, surprise. None of the studies revealed anything different from what had been shown before. And, we spent two or three planning board meetings debating whether the studies really showed what they were supposed to show or whether they were carried out properly. But, the net result is the new traffic that will be generated by the Lowes project at the proposed development site will be a relatively small proportion of the traffic generated by the Wal-Mart project and the traffic that is already on the road system.
In fact, there is so much existing traffic on the roadway that most of the visitors to the Gateway Town Center, our proposed project, will be visiting in conjunction with trips to other destinations. So, there are not even really going to be new cars on the roadway, but rather just existing traffic.
JWN: This sounds like it must be incredibly frustrating in terms of how much time and capital
has been invested in the project. I’m curious, in respect to the Newman Group, how do you manage that?
KK: There have been a few instances where we have bailed out of a project, but we don’t do that very often. We have a reputation to uphold and represent. We are not taken to turning tail and running at the slightest provocation. We have done enough projects to know what the issues are and know that any legitimate concerns can be addressed and ultimately addressed to the satisfaction of the local officials.
There is the additional factor that Lowes is a retail client that we have worked with in many, many locations around the state and the country. We are not going to let them down. I’m sure many residents and many of our opponents think that we are some greedy developer that is going to make a killing at the expense of Geneseo’s way of life. But, the fact of the matter is, the time has probably long since passed on this project - with the amount of time, effort, and expense that has been devoted to it - where we, the developing partners, are going to make anything. It is a matter of sticking with it and bringing home this project for Lowes which wants to be located here and is depending on us to get the approval that it needs. It is a very unfortunate state of affairs.
This shopping center at one point was being looked at by the county as a potential site for a solid-waste incinerator. The vigor of the opposition of this retail project seems to be significantly greater than that against a solid-waste incinerator. There seems to be no sense of proportion on the part of some people on the positions they take on things.
The most discouraging thing to me in Geneseo, or disappointing I suppose rather than discouraging, is the fact that some people seem to feel they have to be disagreeable in order to disagree. The opponents are so intense in their opposition that they have demonized those that are identified with the developer and caricatured me and everybody else associated with the project.
When I leave planning board meetings I have to walk past this gauntlet. I was there a few weeks ago and as I was heading out they said, “Have a safe drive home,” as though what they are really saying is, ‘I hope you crash and go up in a fireball or something.’ It is unfortunate. I don’t have a high degree of regard for those people, but I don’t hate them. I don’t think they are evil people, but rather seriously misguided.
As far as the project is concerned, we have really bent over backwards to scale it down and address the concerns that various people have raised, particularly legitimate concerns. We have greatly enhanced the architecture of the buildings and scaled down the project. There were originally going to be six out parcels, now there is going to be just one in addition to the Lowes. We started off with three access driveways along 20A, now we are down to one.
We developed an internal roadway system to address concerns that the County Planning Board raised about certain provisions of the Gateway Overlay District. So we have an internal roadway, kind of like a service road, that people accessing the site from 20A or Volunteer Road would enter. They don’t enter directly into the shopping center which prevents cars from stacking up and potentially interfering with traffic on 20A or Volunteer.
There were concerns raised about impact on the valley view…we were forced to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on 3D renderings and other simulations. I can’t tell you how many planning board meetings we had to go through where the opponents kept accusing us of distorting the photography. We went through an exercise where we did five different building orientations for the Lowes building. We ultimately came up with, what I think, is a very good compromise which is basically a 45 degree orientation towards the intersection of 20A and Volunteer. This minimizes the building mass that lies between 20A and whatever view there is of the valley and it also happens to be the most efficient use of the land, minimizing impacts on wetlands and various other things.
We really have gone to extraordinary lengths to try to accommodate legitimate concerns, but the illegitimate concerns keep coming, and the opponents have no interest, in my view, of making this a better project. They just want it gone.
We’re going to plod through it and we haven’t sought anybody’s recusal. We’ll continue to play the game and play by the rules as best we can and hopefully we’ll get through it.
JWN: Let’s talk more about you. How long were you in the Bronx?
KK: All the way through college. For 20 years until 1966. I lived in the West Bronx and went away to school and never lived there again. Meanwhile, my parents retired to south Florida.
JWN: What did your parents do?
KK: My dad was a, I guess you’d refer to him as a rag-picker; basically he was working with wool clippings on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the garment district. Some would refer to him as a Textile Engineer, but it was a very low tech application. My dad, his father, and several of my dad’s brothers all sorted wool, taking part in that business for 40 or 50 years. When they sold the business it became a very upscale loft area.
JWN: How many brothers and sisters do you have?
KK: I have one brother and one sister, both younger.
JWN: And, what do they do?
KK: My brother is actually an Orthodox Rabbi and my sister is a retired teacher. She taught Physical Education and Health Education. Now, she does personal training for people. My brother-in-law is also a teacher but he sold bullet proof vests on the side.
JWN: (Joking) You might want to pick one of those up…
KK: (Laughing) Yeah, maybe I should. Every time I visit Geneseo I feel like I need one.
JWN: Do you have any children?
KK: I’ve got a son and a daughter. My son is an entrepreneur. He runs a webhosting company. If you were twenty years older I would probably have to explain what that is, but you probably understand the concept. It is a company called H4Y Technologies, LLC.
My daughter has been married for a few years. She has a son. It’s my first grandson. We celebrated his first birthday recently. She just got her Masters in Nutrition and is poised on the precipice of initiating her own business for the first time. She wants to do nutrition counseling online, so my son is helping her out with that.
JWN: What are some of the other things you’re interested in?
KK: I enjoy digital photography. I like the outdoors. Why I live in this climate, I’m not sure. I like to read. I listen to books on tape. I get through a lot of books on tape on my trips to Geneseo.
JWN: What are some of your favorite reads?
KK: I like Tom Clancy, spy thrillers, detective thrillers, and sci-fi sometimes. I like Dean Koontz. I used to like Stephen King, but some of his more recent stuff I’m not crazy about.
JWN: Do you have any favorite quotes?
KK: Apart from, “Disagreeing without being disagreeable?” (Laughs) I’m not sure if some of them are particularly appropriate in this context; “None but the brave deserve the fair” and maybe “Tis better to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
JWN: Ahhh…a little Shakespeare. Are you a fan?
JWN: Do you watch any sports?
KK: I have never been much of a sports fan. I was always more interested in participatory sports than spectator sports. I like handball, paddle ball, racket ball, tennis, and ping pong.
JWN: If you could meet three people in any time period, who might they be?
KK: Albert Einstein, Thomas A. Edison, and Mark Twain. Those are just three names that popped into my head.
JWN: What is your favorite candy bar?
KK: I used to be a chocoholic but I try to stay away from it now. I used to like the raspberry filled chocolates, but I rapidly move away from such things now. I can’t stay away from potato chips though. I like the unsalted or low salt Lay’s.
JWN: What are some favorite foods?
KK: Apart from the Mediterranean flatbread pizza we’re dining on right now, I like Italian food; veal pecatta, veal marsala, and pasta dishes in moderation. I like Mexican. I’m fairly versatile but I’m not crazy about much seafood other than shrimp and lobster. Never developed a taste for coffee or beer, but I have been known to drink some Pinot Grigio. I like herbal teas.
JWN: What are some goals?
KK: Well, I was 61 at my last birthday, so if I haven’t accomplished most of my goals in life by now… (Laughs) I can look back on my life and take some comfort and pride in the fact that I accomplished quite a few things that have made a real difference in a number of arenas; one of them being the Wildlife Federation. When I’m gone, I’ll be just as gone as anybody else, but while I was here I accomplished some good and did some things that made me feel good.
Editor’s Note: After I gave Ken the fabled VIP sticker he laughed and quipped, “I’ll put it right next to the Phi Beta Kappa key.”
Kenneth S. Kamlet, Esq.
Director of Legal Affairs
Newman Development Group
Vestal, New York