By Tyler Murphy
NEW SCOTLAND — After years of debate, the town took several steps in 2012 to steer future development and is preparing for expansions in infrastructure and possibly population.
In 2012, the town approved a law limiting large-scale development, finished a major study on zoning recommendations, approved the formation of a new water district, completed an audit by the New York State Comptroller, welcomed a new highway superintendent, and now has about 220 residential lots awaiting home construction.
Closing development gaps
Closing the chapter on a two-year battle over the issue, the town board unanimously adopted a local law this summer limiting large-scale commercial development.
Aimed at restricting the building of large department stores and strip malls, the new law limits single retail stores to no more than 50,000 square feet.
Momentum for the law began in 2008 when a developer became interested in hundreds of acres of land at the intersection of routes 85 and 85A, which is zoned for commercial development but has only ever been used for agriculture.
The issue became a focal point of controversy for the town when Cazenovia-based Sphere Development proposed building a Target-anchored shopping center there. The area is comprised of cornfields and woodlands and includes the former Bender melon farm. It has been owned by a group of private investors since 1971.
After two previous failed attempts, the town board successfully passed the law, which limits the size of large-scale commercial development at the intersection. Candidates for town board ran on platforms of limiting large-scale development and it took two election cycles to seat a super majority required to pass the new law. A fact board members where keen to recall at the vote.
“It is the driving force for me being here and many here tonight,” acknowledged Councilman William Hennessy at the time, motioning to his fellow board members before casting a vote of support.
Symbolic of New Scotland’s struggle to reform its zoning laws was the divide in the crowd at town hall when the new law was debated. Residents, representing the interests of large-scale developers, noted their objections and then left before the board passed the resolution. A score of other residents at the meeting broke out in applause and cheers of “thank you,” when the law was passed.
New Scotland Supervisor Thomas Dolin said the law was a “temporary, stop-gap measure” meant to fill a hole in the town’s zoning laws while an advisory committee worked to create a more comprehensive plan.
The committee was first conceived in 2008 in response to the controversy over Sphere’s proposal. It’s task was to map a comprehensive zoning plan to shape future ordinances that would steer the size and location of commercial, industrial, and residential development in the heart of the town.
The group released the study on Nov. 14.
“What happened is the community was caught off guard by a proposal for the site [in the past few years] and that created a lot of stress on the community to respond. That isn’t that uncommon,” said Michael Welti, whose firm, Behan Planning Associates, was hired by the town to work with the committee.
“I think in the case of New Scotland, things are pretty unique and special. It’s pretty much outside the more densely developed parts of our region but not in the heart of the Capital Region. It’s still rural. What’s interesting here was an area zoned for any type of commercial development you can imagine for many years, and in the last couple of decades no one had any real interest to develop it,” said Welti.
The 58-page plan refers to the intersection of routes 85 and 85A as the core of the town’s commercial zoning district and ideal for development. Though the study is not legally binding, it may serve as a blueprint for officials.
Welti said the committee tried to maintain a quaint, small-town atmosphere while allowing for appropriate, and somewhat inevitable, business development.
“My main hope is the town moves ahead with our recommendations.” said Welti.
“The study is one very useful step in a multi-step process,” said Dolin, “It’ll be useful in mending our comprehensive plan; though, the next step is the hardest part.”
Dolin suggested the next step for the board in implementing the study would be to fund a townwide environmental study. He explained that currently each contractor is required to produce his own environmental impact report base solely on the land he wants to develop. A townwide plan could take the place of the developer’s plan and would take into account the impact on all properties.
The planned, the pending
The financial recession that hit in 2008 contributed to the stagnation of population and development in the town, said Dolin. New Scotland has 8,648 residents, according to the 2010 census.
Dolin predicts that, once the town passes about 10,000 residents, its appeal to developers will increase and the business environment will become more sustainable.
“That’s the number the developers are telling us, they are waiting for the economy and things to start growing again,” he said.
“It’s the economic times we live in unfortunately,” said Dolin. “The financial crash of 2008 has made homes hard to sell and developers are having trouble getting financing from banks.”
Construction companies often build housing developments on a loan and then pay the lenders back as residents buy the homes. As a result, explained Dolin, “When there’s a credit crunch or a lull in the housing market, its gets a lot harder to build.”
Code Enforcement Officer Jeremy Cramer said the planning board had previously approved about 217 residential units that were waiting for construction, including about 177 at Kensington Woods and 40 more at Colonie Country Club Estates. Dolin said contractors have been cleared by the town to begin construction but are waiting for the economy to improve before building.
The supervisor said it is unlikely most of the approved lots would be developed in the next year, as some have been waiting for construction for at least two years.
“It is fair to say, though, that it does now look as if there is going to be some new construction in 2013,” said Dolin.
The planning board also approved about 24 more residences to be built near Stone Creek this year and another 16 are nearing the final stages of the application process and could be approved in the beginning of 2013.
Dolin said that once the new Kensington Woods and Country Club developments are built they will form two new water districts. Combined with the newest created water district in the hamlet of New Salem earlier this year, the town will have a total of nine districts to manage.
Many New Salem residents have poor functioning wells or currently have water piped to their homes from an old system drawing from the Bethlehem reservoir located near the center of New Scotland. They have struggled with drastically reduced water pressure, damaged lines, the absence of water during long dry spells, and other issues, reported the town board. Currently, about 75 parcels are served by failing infrastructure that pipes water from the Vly Creek Reservoir on Rock Hill Road to the residents of Bethlehem.
Owners of the 150 parcels in the new district will eventually vote to undertake a $3.2 million infrastructure project to repair and install water lines. The project will be paid for by residents and grants through a 30-year, no-interest bond from the Department of Health’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. In order to be eligible for the interest-free funds, the project must be shovel-ready by August 2013, said Dolin.
New road super
The highway superintendent, Kenneth Guyer, manages the water districts. The growth has added to the demand for water and sewer infrastructure and presented further responsibilities to the highway superintendent’s position.
Guyer was named deputy superintendent in early March after the highway superintendent of 18 years, Darrell Duncan, was appointed to a county post as head of public works. Guyer was then elected to the office in November in an uncontested election.
In the 2013 budget, New Scotland is planning on spending about $25,000 a year on creating a part-time public-works job and hiring a new employee for the post.
Following Duncan’s departure, town board members reviewed the position and discussed the superintendent’s highway job’s growing responsibilities.
Dolin said many of those tasks to be divided involved the water and sewer systems, though the board has yet to decide the details.
— The town negotiated the closure of the Youman’s Road railroad crossing, eliminating a dangerous intersection. Dolin said the crossing was a well-known hazard locally and statistically one of the most dangerous crossings in the state.
— After suffering millions in damages from tropical storms Irene and Lee in 2011, New Scotland has been approved for nearly $2 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds and another $2 million from the Federal Highway Emergency Relief Act to help rebuild damaged roads.
The destruction of the one-lane bridge along the eastern part of Wolf Hill Road and the washing out of one side of Countryman Road, which is located along a gorge making heavy equipment repairs more complicated, are two of the most expensive of 12 projects for which the town is being reimbursed. The two projects’ combined costs are about $985,000. Work is expected to begin in early 2013.
—New York State found few issues in an audit of all town operations and finances that began in 2011. The audit assessed the town board’s oversight of municipal tasks including the administration of payroll, supervision of employees, and the state of financial controls and policies. It reviewed the town clerk’s office; justice court; and the town’s handling of sewer, water, information technology, and refuse.
Dolin said a team of auditors visited Town Hall over a period of several months and found no major issues. One thing the report did note was the handling of funds at the transfer station posed risks. Those issues have since been corrected, said Dolin.
— New Scotland may be the first town to open up its full portion of the Helderberg Hudson Rail Trail. A 2.4-mile section of the trail through the town opened this summer. Formerly part of the Delaware & Hudson Railway, the nine-mile stretch of land located between the Port of Albany and Voorheesville, was purchased by Albany from Canadian Pacific Railway in 2009 with the intent of creating a pedestrian and bike path connecting the suburbs to the city. Dolin said only a very small part of the trail in New Scotland had yet to open but would soon.
— After collecting nearly a year’s worth of feedback, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is set to release a draft master plan, designed to chart the future of the John Boyd
Thacher and Thompson’s Lake state parks, this spring. The plan will eventually document the state’s goals in operating the parks and will involve a broad review of current practices, services, and facilities. It could lead to new programs and building projects at the parks.
—Starting Jan. 2, town court will be held inside the Clarksville Elementary School, which has been converted by the sheriff’s office into a major substation. Renting space in the school’s auditorium, the optional three to five year lease allows New Scotland to avoid building a new addition onto the town hall, after a 2009 state audit found the court lacked space and security.
— The Keleher Preserve was donated and opened in September Atop the Helderberg escarpment on Wolf Hill, the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy opened 287 acres of privately donated land to the public. The land was dedicated as the Keleher Preserve, in honor of its former owner, William “Bill” Keleher. After Keleher died in 2003, his daughter Katherine Barber and her husband, John, inherited the land, which the family decided to donate in 2010.