Village board changes zoning so Stewart’s can build new Altamont store

The Enterprise — Sean Mulkerrin
Carmen Patrone, manager of the Altamont Stewart’s, says at a public hearing on Dec. 12, that, by allowing the contentious rezoning of 107-109 Helderberg Ave., village residents “can have your cake and eat it too” since the new store would not only conform to the village’s requirements and requests but also its character. 

ALTAMONT — On Dec. 12, the Altamont Village Board voted, 3 to 2, to rezone from residential to commercial 107-109 Helderberg Ave., paving the way for Stewart’s to build a new shop on the site.

Mayor Kerry Dineen, and trustees Nicholas Fahrenkopf and Michelle Ganance voted for the change while trustees John Scally and Dean Whalen voted against it.

On Monday, Jan. 28, Stewart’s will present its concept for the site to the village’s planning board.

The bulk of the board’s hour-long discussion was whether or not to have an in-depth environmental review, which the board decided against.

Some village residents expressed surprise that the expansion had come up again, given that it was rejected just a few years ago, albeit in a 2-to-2 vote.

“I thought the community spoke on this issue two years ago and the village board listened, and voted to deny expansion into the neighborhood,” said resident Kristin Casey at the November village board meeting. “So I’m wondering why it’s even coming up again?”

In 2015, the property’s then-owner, Peter Baumann, applied to change the zoning of 107 and 109 Helderberg Ave. from residential to commercial. Baumann had entered into a sales contract with Stewart’s that would have allowed the company to expand its shop. Baumann sold the property to Stewart’s in August 2016, for $217,500.

Because the property had a new owner, it had the right to request the zoning change. Chuck Marshall, who works in land development for Stewart’s, told The Enterprise, last month, with a full board the company decided it was time to take another chance on rezoning. Dineen and Whalen, who had both been on the board three years ago, voted the same way each time — Dineen in favor of the zoning change and Whalen against. The other three board members are new since the initial rezoning vote.

The public hearing

With over 100 residents in attendance, 30 spoke during the public hearing; for every person in favor of the rezone, two were against it. However, many commenters regardless of their position on rezoning praised Stewart’s as a good neighbor.

Three petitions were submitted to the village.

The first two petitions were signed by a total of 303 people (at least 75 were not Altamont residents) in favor of the rezone. One of these petitions, with about 270 signatures, says that it supports a zoning change but does not say that the zoning change would be for 107-109 Helderberg Ave.; the second petition, with about 30 signatures, says explicitly that it supports the rezone of 107-109 Helderberg Ave.

The third petition was signed by 186 people (fewer than five were not Altamont residents), and says that it is against the rezone of  107-109 Helderberg Ave.

The village also received 34 emailed comments; 19 were against the rezone, 13 were in favor, and two asked the village to slow down its approval process.

Marshall, who had made a similar presentation to the board just three years ago, did not discuss specifics when describing how the new shop would tie in with the village’s existing architecture.

“I know that many people want answers about what is going to happen, or what could happen, but the reality is that we can’t do anything until the zoning has changed,” he said.

But there have been changes made since the last proposal.

Last time, concerns were raised about the number of gas pumps; under the new proposal, the store will continue to have only two pumps.

Accommodations could be made for lighting as well, Marshall said.

In November, he told The Enterprise that the plan submitted to the village had aligned more closely with Altamont’s existing architecture, and cited the historic train station that now houses the Altamont Free Library as an example from which Stewart’s would take architectural cues..

Many residents who spoke against the rezone, invoked the village’s comprehensive plan and said that it didn’t allow for the change. One resident even said that the plan “can be thought of as our constitution.”

The comprehensive plan is just that: a plan – not a law.

It identifies goals, objectives, standards, and strategies; the comprehensive plan makes recommendations. Those recommendations are then codified into a zoning law.

The village’s comprehensive plan, adopted in 2007, recommended that the  zoning of 107-109 Helderberg Ave. be changed from light commercial to residential. The recommendation became law when the village adopted new zoning regulations, in 2008.

“The comprehensive plan is an ever-evolving document,” said Kelly Best during the public hearing. “It is not written in stone.” It’s not a document that ensures everything will stay the same forever, Best added.

Carmen Patrone, the ebullient manager of the Altamont Stewart’s, offered attendees what she called “wonderful news.”

“You can have your cake and eat it too,” she said, “including me.”

Downplaying the details of the proposed project, Patrone said, “We’re not here to talk about lights for parking lots.” She said that Stewart’s will address those issues and residents’ opinions will be heard.

“All that we need is for you to give us the approval to give the town what it would like: A building that conforms to the requirements, requests, and character of the town,” she said.

“Yes, we will do that,” Patrone concluded. “We’ll do that, so we can all have our cake and eat it too — I promise, I’ll be there to serve it.”

Spencer Tyson, whose family will lose its home if construction is approved, concluded the public hearing with a genuine and sincere speech.

“Organically,” Tyson began, “four years ago … we were sort of the center of this because of our family … We didn’t really want it, but it organically came that we kind of became the center of it.”

At the time, Spencer and his wife, Beth, in a letter to the village board, said that they had lived at 107 Helderberg Ave. for many years — currently, it’s been 18 years — and they were certain that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find another rental unit that would accommodate their family of six and allow them to remain in village.

Marshall told The Enterprise this week that the Spencers have a month-to-month lease with Stewart’s, and that it was always the plan to let the children finish their school year before any action was taken.

Three Spencer children were enrolled in the Guilderland Central School District the last time Stewart’s tried to expand; two of them were students at Altamont Elementary School.

“That was something that was difficult for my kids, my family because it was like: Oh my goodness, it’s everyone saying, ‘You’re going to have to move, you have to do this, you’re going to have to do that,’” Spencer said at the Dec. 12 meeting.

But now, he said, his children are older; they understand a little more, and they hear what people are saying.

“We heard all the whispers about our house, about how it’s an eyesore; it’s a dump; it’s this and it’s that,” Spencer said. “And it’s hard for us because we haven’t been in the position to do as much as we like, because we don’t own the house.”

Just because the family doesn’t own the house, Spencer said, that doesn’t mean it’s not a home.

He then delivered a message from his children: “They said, ‘Dad, you know what? This is home for us, so just go and tell everyone.’”

“I do know that outside it might look like this dump, this eyesore,” Spencer said of 107-109 Helderberg Ave. “But inside it’s home.

“And whether or not this goes through, you guys have an enormous responsibility and I don’t envy you,” he told the village board members.

Spencer then, with complete earnestness, thanked the board that may soon ensure his family’s eviction from its home.

“Thank you for giving us this forum,” he said, “for being able to disagree without being disagreeable.” In today’s world, Spencer said, there are many people who are disagreeable for the sake of being disagreeable.

“The fact that we could all come together as basically a family, and hash out our differences and disagree, have different views about whether or not we want this … I think it’s the most important thing.”

The vote

Views varied as to what exactly Stewart’s was seeking approval for.

Dineen had opened the public hearing by saying: “The village board is only voting this evening on a potential rezone, not the plan specifically, although we keep that in mind in our deliberations.”

However, after the hearing ended and trustees began their discussion, Fahrenkopf asked the village attorney, Justin Heller, if the board was determining only the impact that rezoning the parcel of land at 107-109 Helderberg Ave. from residential to commercial may have, or if the board also had to take into consideration the demolition of the home and construction of a new Stewart’s shop.

Heller told Fahrenkopf the demolition and construction should be considered. “I mean, it’s one SEQR,” Heller said.

The State Environmental Quality Review, or SEQR, process is a series of questions that the “lead agency,” in this case, Altamont, must ask about a proposed project to determine if the project would have a significant adverse impact on the environment.

If, after the SEQR review is completed and the lead agency determines that the project would not have a significant adverse impact on the environment, then a “negative declaration” would be made and the project would be allowed to proceed without stringent environmental review.

A “positive declaration” would not kill the project; it would start a new process of approval. The new process would require that the project’s applicant submit an Environmental Impact Statement that “concisely describes and analyzes a proposed action which may have a significant impact on the environment,” according to the state.

Whalen asked Marshall if he had planned to submit separate SEQRs for the the demolition of 107-109 Helderberg Ave. and for construction of a new store.

Marshall, reading the SEQR Stewart’s submitted for the project, said: “It states rezoning from R10 to central business district and then the construction of a Stewart’s shop and gas [station].”

The submittal, Marshall said, did not explicitly include the demolition of the existing house, “but by the nature of the site plan that would be included,” he said.

“So the SEQR action would be in its entirety the zone change and construction,” Marshall said.

Whalen responded, “I’m uncomfortable doing that.” Whalen, an architect, led the committee that drafted Altamont’s comprehensive plan.

The village board’s job, Whalen said, was to use the SEQR process to address strictly the potential impacts that rezoning might have; a separate SEQR for demolition and construction would have go through the planning board.

In a follow-up interview, Marshall told The Enterprise that Stewart’s has submitted combination rezone-and-construction SEQRs elsewhere, but added that every municipality’s zoning is different.

In the town of Malta, in Saratoga County, Marshall said, the company had submitted a single SEQR for both zoning and construction, which undergoes a coordinated review by both the planning and town boards. However, he said, a lot of Malta’s zoning is done by planned development district, which allows a developer to propose a project that would otherwise not be permissible by a town’s zoning laws and regulations.

“So in the SEQR findings,” Marshall said of the proposed store in Malta, “because it was the establishment of new zone and, then, the construction of the store, the SEQR findings were one in the same.”

At the Dec. 12 meeting, Whalen held firm that the SEQRA should apply only to the rezoning question; and, even when that was the case, he said, the proposed rezoning still warranted a positive declaration.

Reading through Part 2 of the SEQRA — the full environmental assessment form, which identifies potential project impacts — Whalen said that the rezone itself would have a “moderate to large impact,” the most extreme choice on the assessment form, on the land Stewart’s was seeking to have rezoned.

Continuing through the assessment form, Whalen said the rezone would also impact the site’s geological, historic, and archeological features, as well as having an impact on the surface water in the adjacent creek.

“I’m not trying to difficult; I’m trying to be careful,” Whalen said, eliciting applause from residents against the proposed rezoning. By voting on the SEQR as written, Whalen said, the village board would be circumventing the planning board’s authority.

Fahrenkopf appeared to be the only village board member who hadn’t made a decision on the SEQR. “Until we see the final plan,” he said, there is no way to know if the proposed rezoning would have a significant adverse impact.

“It’s true that it’s a material conflict with the adopted land-use plan or zoning regulations,” he said, citing one of the 11 criteria to be considered in an environmental review. “I don’t think it would have a significant impact on the environment.”

However, Fahrenkopf added, he understood that the rezone and construction could have a significant impact, but that depended on what the final plans looked like.

Fahrenkopf was then assured by Heller and Dineen that the planning board would not approve a site plan that created a “moderate to large” material conflict with an adopted land-use plan or zoning regulation.

After further discussion, Fahrenkopf asked: “Can we have the action just be rezoning?”

Marshall agreed and said that he would submit a separate SEQR to the planning board for the construction of a new shop. Whalen said the amended SEQRA still warranted a positive declaration but deferred to the majority’s will.

The village board then voted, 3 to 2, to rezone from residential to commercial the two-family home at 107-109 Helderberg Ave.

In the neighboring village of Voorheesville, when the planning commission made a positive declaration to proceed with an in-depth environmental review, Stewart’s threatened to sue. Stewart’s eventually abandoned the project after the village’s new comprehensive plan included stipulations that the Vly Creek floodplain would not allow a gas station, nor would Stewart’s “standardized architecture” be accepted.

Dineen, Fahrenkopf, and Ganance voted for the rezone while Scally and Whalen voted against it.

 

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