Village elections are unique in the political world. They can bring out the best in government by giving constituents a direct, strong voice and allowing them to work hand in hand with elected officials to achieve common goals. But they can also become uncomfortably personal, and in some cases, downright vicious.
The Village of Pittsford has mostly avoided that drama, however. Candidates have generally kept to the issues and refrained from ad hominem attacks. In some cases, former opponents have even become allies.
But this year's contests, especially the mayoral election, have a different tenor. A proposed development at 75 Monroe Avenue, a prominent gateway into the village, is at the center of an unusually contentious election.
Pittsford's character is important to residents; it's one of the main reasons people move to the village. Brick storefronts line the sidewalks downtown: their large windows letting passersby peer in. Old warehouses and mills remain intact on the canal, though most have been repurposed as shops, restaurants, and offices. The overall effect calls to mind a time when life centered on the canal.
It's the potential impact of the Monroe Avenue proposal on the village's prized historic character that makes the project controversial and for many, unwelcome. Mark IV Enterprises wants to build a 167-unit apartment complex on the site, but many residents say the project's too big and would be a poor fit with Pittsford's smaller, historic buildings.
In November, the Village Board approved special permits for the project, officially called Westport Crossing, by a three to two vote. A group of citizens is suing the village to get the permits invalidated.
But the controversy may be taking the biggest toll on longtime Mayor Bob Corby, who for the first time in his 20 years on the job has lost the backing of the Republican Party.
Corby was first elected in 1993, and in subsequent elections has mostly run unopposed. He's also enjoyed the endorsement of both the Democratic and Republican parties — although he's registered with the GOP.
This time around, Corby has the Democrats and Conservatives, but the Pittsford Republican Committee is backing Trip Pierson, currently a village trustee, for mayor.
Pierson voted for the Westport Crossing permits and Corby voted against them.
Anthony Daniele, a village resident and Republican majority leader in the Monroe County Legislature, is backing Pierson. He says that he's backed Corby in the past and believes Corby's done some good things for the village.
But Daniele says he's not happy with the way Corby has handled the Westport Crossing project. Corby negotiated parts of the project and kept it moving forward, only to vote against it in the end, he says.
"It's about, from a leadership standpoint, being forthright and honest with your trustees, with the community, and with the developer," Daniele says.
Corby says he did nothing different than what he's always done: he pushed for a better project — one that's compatible with the village in terms of size, scale, and character. And when the board voted on the proposal, he voted first. He says he voted against the permits because he believes the proposal doesn't ultimately conform to village standards.
"I have nothing to be ashamed of and I'm disappointed that people are trying to twist it into something different than it was," Corby says.
Corby's supporters say the village has thrived under his leadership. Monroe County Conservative Party chair Tom Cook, a village resident, says Corby has done many good things for the village, particularly along the canal. Corby was one of the driving forces behind the redevelopment of Schoen Place, the village's popular canalfront district.
"He's been here, he's been doing a good job, and why change horses mid-stream?" Cook says.
Pierson, who's been a trustee since 2009 and works as president of the Mitchell Pierson Jr. real estate agency, frames the election as a leadership matter. Like Daniele, Pierson says that Corby hasn't been forthright about his position on 75 Monroe Avenue: that he shepherded the project through only to ultimately vote against it.
But Corby says he's consistently stated his concerns and reservations about the project. He says he's been clear that he wanted a project that met the spirit of village codes and aligned with the community's character. He's said that he wants the project to become, in essence, another neighborhood within the village, and he wants a seamless fit.
"I don't think that during the process I could have been any more clear," Corby says.
Pierson says he'll always be upfront as mayor, but he'll respond when he hears compelling reasons to change his position. Leaders can't be fence-sitters, he says.
"Sometimes leadership's tough and sometimes you have to say things and do things that maybe a group of people in the room don't agree with," he says. "But if it's in the best interest of the village, you've got to go forward with it."
Pierson says that when he started on the board, he wasn't in favor of the Westport Crossing project. But he says he listened to the experts the board brought in and considered the studies on the project, and that all factored into his vote.
The 75 Monroe Avenue property used to be the Monoco Oil asphalt plant, but a court ordered it shut down in 2000. Mark IV bought the property which, at the time, was partially outside of the village.
At Corby's urging, village officials annexed the property in 2008 and rezoned it from commercial to residential use. Commercial use would have generated far more traffic than residential, Corby says. And if Mark IV built retail at the site, it could have pulled customers away from Main Street, Schoen Place, and Northfield Common businesses, he says.
The annexation was a sound decision, says Pierson, who wasn't on the board at the time. And he voted in favor of the rezoning, though in hindsight he says he should have had more information before doing so.
Corby stands by the decision to rezone the property, though he says the board should have taken more time to deliberate. Still, the intent of the code was to add an extra layer of protection — the special permits — and that goal was met, Corby says, even if the code itself isn't perfect.
The Westport Crossing review doesn't end with the permit approvals granted by the Board of Trustees. The project must undergo review by the Planning and Zoning Board of Appeals and the Architectural Preservation and Review Board. Under village law, the two boards have considerable clout. Corby and Pierson both say they have faith that the boards will ensure a project that's appropriate for the village.
The mayor's race is getting the bulk of the attention, but two trustee seats are up for grabs this year, too.
Corby is sharing the Democratic ticket with trustee candidates Stacey Freed and Lili Lanphear. They're also running on the Pittsford Village United line.
Freed has run for trustee before and operates a villagewide e-mail newsletter. Lanphear served on the village planning board for 19 years before Corby appointed her to the Board of Trustees in January; longtime Trustee Paula Sherwood moved out of the village and resigned, leaving a vacant seat.
Pierson is on the Republican ticket with candidates Christopher Linares and Leslie Buck. Linares and Buck are also running on the No to 75 Monroe line; Buck says the line is a way for the candidates to be upfront about their opposition to the current Westport Crossing plan.
Linares, who moved to the village about two years ago, is a senior vice president at Hickey Freeman and over the past 20 years has served on the town Republican Committee on an on-and-off basis. Buck was a County Legislature staffer for three years and over the summer started working in the county's Law Department. Linares and Buck have the Conservative line, too.
All four trustee candidates say that the Westport Crossing proposal in its current form is not a good fit with the village. They say they'd like to see a smaller project and that the scale and mass of the proposed buildings needs to be addressed.