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Museum wants to start work in Branchport

    BRANCHPORT (April 10, 2012)—Finger Lakes Cultural and Natural History Museum officials are aiming to begin work on the Branchport campus in July. The site is intended to be a research and educational center where visitors and students can engage in hands-on learning experiences. However, zoning regulations in the town of Jerusalem must be amended before construction can start.
    The $40 million Finger Lakes Museum is expected to be a natural and cultural resource dedicated to the enjoyment, stewardship, and education of the Finger Lakes region. Along with the main campus (620-acre site in Keuka State Park), the museum will also have a location at the former Branchport Elementary School. Don Naetzker, the executive director of the museum, explained the Branchport site will be geared towards “hands-on educational exhibits for interactive exportation of the (Finger Lakes) environment.” The campus in Keuka State Park will focus more on traditional-based exhibits.
    According to Jerusalem Planning Board Vice-Chair Mary Coriale, the elementary school could not be renovated under the town’s current zoning laws. She said a clause permitting museum development would need to be added to the regulations. In order to make any changes regarding zoning ordinances, the town board would need to hold a public hearing on a local law to make the amendments before voting on the matter.
    During the planning board meeting on Thursday, April 5, Coriale explained one problem is determining exactly how to adjust zoning laws. She noted while museum officials have asked the town for a zoning change, they have not given a definite answer regarding the type of zoning amendments. Coriale said project leaders initially wanted to see a clause added that solely permitted a museum for educational purposes. However, the museum is now looking to add items such as lodging (housing/hostels for Boy Scouts and senior citizen groups) to what would be considered a permitted use. There are also now plans for the outside of the campus to feature a kayak site. Coriale expressed concern about fixing zoning regulations only to have to make changes again a short time later. “We don’t want to get stuck going back and forth between what they (museum leaders) want,” she stated. “They need to be specific.”
    Town board member Patrick Killen indicated a reason officials keep altering requests is due to receiving additional finances through state funding and fundraisers. The museum received $2.28 million in state aid last December and also has been raising money to cover remaining costs. “They want to do more as they make more money,” spoke Killen. Board member Max Parson agreed, saying he is having trouble figuring out exactly what the museum wants. “They’re stretching things out,” said Parson.
    Along with zoning changes, Coriale said Naetzker wants the planning board to be a “lead agency” in assisting with the State Environmental and Quality Review Act (SEQR) form for the Branchport campus. In N.Y. State, SEQR requires that agencies review the environmental effects of any development before beginning construction. Voting on a resolution to help with the SEQR had been considered for Thursday’s meeting. However, a decision was made to table the vote.
    Planning board member Jennifer Gruschow said representatives from the museum need to be present at a meeting when voting is conducted on the matter. Gruschow added it did not make sense to take any action regarding the SEQR form when there is still uncertainty about the exact zoning changes officials are looking for. “We just don’t know what we’re supposed to be a lead agency on,” she said.
    Gruschow also expressed support of scheduling a joint meeting between the town board, planning board, zoning board of appeals, and museum representatives. The purpose of the meeting would be to get everyone on the same page and determine what the museum is expecting out of a “lead agency.”
    Coriale mentioned she still feels it is possible for construction at the Branchport site to begin in July. However, she pointed out a public hearing on adjusting the zoning laws is probably “far away.” Corriale added museum leaders hope to finish work on the elementary school by the end of the year.
    Naetzker referred to the changes that must be made as “regulatory steps” and indicated museum leaders are not concerned about regulations getting in the way of renovating the elementary school. “We’re still working through that with the town of Jerusalem,” he stated. “We’re not concerned about current zoning.” Naetzker also noted he was uncertain of when construction at the Keuka State Park would begin. However, he said he was hoping for that work to begin by the end of 2013.


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