Not all neighbors feeling jolly about Christmas Land

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Three neighbors on Furbeck Road told the zoning board on Jan. 3 that they were concerned that Paula Tambasco, who now runs Christmas Land on a 65-acre parcel in the established rural area, might wish to hold additional events throughout the year.

GUILDERLAND — Paula Tambasco appeared before the town’s zoning board on Jan. 3 to apply for a special-use permit for her seasonal commercial-recreation event, Christmas Land, on a 65-acre parcel at 3068 Furbeck Rd. in western Guilderland.

One neighbor spoke, making several different complaints about the event, while two other neighbors expressed concern for possible future uses for the site.

Owner Tambasco told the board that Christmas Land was “where families come together and community members, bringing back the old-fashioned spirit of Christmas.” The event involves, she said, horse and wagon rides and sitting by a fire while listening to carolers. There are also rides on Frankie the Christmas Land Train and visits with Santa.

“The real Santa is alive at Christmas Land,” Tambasco told the zoning board.

Admission is free, but tickets for activities cost between $2 and $10; a Christmas Land “passport” is available for sale that covers a number of activities. Vendors also sell items and pay a vendor fee.

Tambasco appeared before the board to apply for a special-use permit after the season ended. Christmas Land was open weekends from just after Thanksgiving through just before Christmas. This was Christmas Land’s first season in a new location, which Tambasco says is its permanent home. In 2016, it debuted as part of a larger event at the Altamont Vineyard and Winery at 3001 Furbeck Rd.

Despite speaking with town officials last spring, Tambasco did not understand she needed to fill out a special-use permit application, she told the board. Jacqueline Coons, the town’s chief building and zoning inspector, said this week that she didn’t know who Tambasco spoke with, because she had not spoken with her before. Dennis Mason, a town building inspector, said he had not spoken with her in the spring, either; he said people sometimes speak with the wrong department or a secretary. Tambasco said she didn’t know the name of the person she spoke to.

A neighbor alerted the board in November that that the event was happening, Coons said this week. The Enterprise had printed a feature story about the venue on Nov. 23.

 

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Three neighbors on Furbeck Road told the zoning board on Jan. 3 that they were concerned that Paula Tambasco, who now runs Christmas Land on a 65-acre parcel in the established rural area, might wish to hold additional events throughout the year.

 

Tambasco had been on the agenda to appear before the zoning board on Dec. 6 but told The Enterprise that she was not informed of this until the day after the meeting. Mason said this week that he had thought he had informed Tambasco, but that he had not followed up, since contacting applicants is not usually his responsibility, resulting in a “miscommunication.” Mason said he had gone out several times to see Christmas Land in operation and had never observed any problems. He called the event’s lights and noise “minimal.”

Coons said this week that, once Tambasco learned of her responsibility to apply for the permit, she was very cooperative.

Barbara Chepaitis, who said she lives a mile and a half away, at 2824 Furbeck Rd., told the board at the Jan. 3 meeting that the signs advertising the event had not yet been taken down; she said it looked like “an abandoned Christmas Land” and as though “Frosty ran away and didn’t clean up after himself.” She asked that the board clearly delineate an allowed timeframe, including a deadline for cleanup.

Tambasco said that, after the holiday, “exhaustion had set in,” and that then the weather had made it impossible to take down the displays.

Chepaitis complained about traffic. Normally, “two cars an hour is traffic for us,” she said. Each weekend during the event, she said, 500 cars came through the rural area, many driving well over the 30-mile-per-hour speed limit; she said her dog had almost been hit. Chepaitis also said that she had stopped over several times during set-up to try to find out what was planned, and had seen a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old directing parking within the site; the kids told her they were being paid, she said.

Several board members spoke at the meeting, saying they had driven by the site and not seen more than 100 to 150 cars there at one time.

Chepaitis, an author, said that the area is special because people of every political persuasion coexist peacefully there. She said she set one of her novels, “Something Unpredictable,” there, and has a “particular feel” for the area. Chepaitis did not feel that Tambasco tried hard enough to contact neighbors and let them know what was happening.

Chepaitis told The Enterprise on Sunday, “One of my problems was the absolute lack of contact or interest in understanding the nature of this community” where the neighbors look out for each other “and try not to step on each other’s toes.”

Tambasco doesn’t live in the area; she lives in Clifton Park.

The land is zoned RA5, or rural agricultural parcels of at least five acres. According to Guilderland’s zoning code, uses permitted with a special-use permit in RA5 zones include farm-implement stores, garden facilities, inns, kennels, and the use for which Tambasco applied: “Recreation, Commercial, but not including such intensive commercial uses as a race track or amusement park.”

Tambasco told The Enterprise that Chepaitis had visited the site early on and had spoken with workers at the site and been given Tambasco’s phone number as the person to call to discuss the project, but that Chepaitis had never called. Tambasco also said she thought she had called Chepaitis once and left her a message asking for a callback.

Tambasco said that she didn’t know all the neighbors, but that several had come to the site during set-up and introduced themselves “in a cordial way” and that they had then discussed the project. Tambasco said Chepaitis’s manner had been “intimidating” and had made one employee cry while she, Tambasco, was not there on site.

Chepaitis brought a letter from neighbor Veronica Din, who lives across the street from Christmas Land and who wrote in a notarized letter to the board that she and her husband are happy that the business has fixed up the property but that they are “hesitant” about having the business so close to their home; she said that there were almost 500 cars across the street during the first weekend, causing what Din called “major traffic,” although it seemed to be controlled. She was afraid that having these events throughout more of the year would impact her property values.

Neighbor Bill West, of 2990 Furbeck Rd., Guilderland’s former superintendent of water, spoke, saying that he had no problem with any aspect of the event and had even participated in it; Tambasco told The Enterprise that West had sold Christmas trees there. West told the board that he hopes that, if the owner wanted to do additional events on the land in the future, she would need to return to the board for additional permits. He also said that Din’s thoughts should be given more weight than his, as the closer neighbor.

The Enterprise was unable to reach Din or West by press time.

The board approved Tambasco’s special-use permit request, 5 to 0, on the condition that the event’s hours of operation are from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday only, from the weekend after Thanksgiving through Dec. 24. Large outdoor displays can be up from Nov. 1 through Jan. 31, the board decided, with everything to be removed by the last day of February.

If Tambasco wishes to hold any other events at the site in the future, such as one-day craft fairs, she would need to return to the zoning board for permission, the board said. Coons said this week that Tambasco could come back to ask for permission for specific events one at a time, or could come in and ask to be able to do, for instance, whatever she wants every weekend during the summer, and the board would have to consider her request.

Chepaitis said that what concerns her is that she has no idea what else Tambasco is planning for the site, or how those plans will affect her.

Tambasco said she plans to launch a not-for-profit gardening project. For now, she said that Christmas Land has a philanthropic aspect each year: Last year, she arranged for a limousine to bring out 20 sick children and family members who were staying at Ronald McDonald House in Albany, and this year the organization had brought out and given each child a specialized gift “that only Santa would know.”

Board members suggested that Tambasco put up signs at the side of the roadway saying “Slow” or “Children crossing” or “Watch for pedestrians.” In addition, Coons suggested that Tambasco confer with the Guilderland Police Department about temporarily relocating one of the town’s radar speed signs that tell drivers how fast they are going.

After the zoning board meeting, Tambasco and Chepaitis both told The Enterprise that they had had a long talk and a meal together. Chepaitis said that, while she felt the timeframe for cleanup was probably too long, she believed “clarity will develop as long as this is it, and they follow the rules.”

Chepaitis said this week that she was “90 percent satisfied” with the outcome but would be keeping an eye on the site, particularly since Tambasco is not a resident and so not invested in preserving the character of the area.

Mason, the building inspector — he is also a firefighter — said that the town has suggested that Tambasco contact the fire department and also the New York State Department of Health next year before opening, to ensure that she is in compliance.

About fire compliance, Mason said that fire-prevention officers go through every commercial building in their districts once a year. Since Tambasco’s is a small operation with a limited season, he said, it will be her responsibility to contact the fire department to schedule a walk-through.

He concluded of the permitting process in general, “Our job is to try to get them into compliance, not fine them or whatever.”

Cumby signs

The board worked with Cumberland Farms to reduce the size of the signs that the company was proposing for its planned gas station and convenience store at the southeast corner of routes 146 and 20, opposite Stewart’s. Cumby had originally sought a variance for 500 square feet of combined signage at the store, while 50 feet was allowed.

By meeting’s end, the board and Stefanie DiLallo Bitter, local counsel for Cumberland Farms, had agreed on 291.2 square feet, of which 108 feet was for signs on Route 20 and on Route 146, listing the price of fuel products. In addition, the company will have the option of printing its logo, but no words, on the canopies over the fuel pumps.

Board chairman Thomas Remmert noted that, while this is more square footage in signage than Stewart’s has across the street, the board basically approved what Stewart’s proposed, and that Stewart’s had also needed a variance, because its signs had also exceeded 50 square feet. Building inspector Jacqueline Coons told The Enterprise that Stewart’s was granted a variance in 2014 when the company built a new building on the site; the shop has been in that spot since the early 1980s.

Remmert said that the board’s decision Jan. 3 about Cumby’s signs might well prompt Stewart’s to come in to apply “next week for a variance, and we would have to consider it, based on this variance.”

The board approved Cumberland Farms’s variance for 291.2 square feet, 5 to 0. 

More Guilderland News

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  • The Guilderland committee for police reform assembled arrest records according to race and found that a much higher percentage of Blacks than there are Black residents in town were charged. This is largely due to arrests of out-of-town suspects made at Crossgates Mall, according to Police Chief Daniel McNally. The public is encouraged to read the draft and respond.

  • Since the plaza is owned by Jeff Thomas the addition would be an amendment to his existing special-use permit on Altamont Corners, not to the owner of Curry Patta, Nadia Raza.

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