Guilderland Comprehensive Plan Update Committee receives draft recommendations

— From the town of Guilderland

A draft land-use map proposed as part of the update to Guilderland’s Comprehensive Plan. 

GUILDERLAND — Guilderland’s Comprehensive Plan Update Committee recently received from the town’s consultant on the project a rough draft of recommendations for updating Guilderland’s two-decade-old master plan. 

The recommendations are a synthesis of input from the public, topic-specific subcommittees, and the committee itself, as well as consultant MJ Engineering; the consultant’s participation in the process has been questioned and criticized. 

The “refined draft recommendations,” as consultant Jaclyn Hakes called them were provided to the update committee in early January. At its next meeting, in March, the committee is to discuss public feedback on the recommendations. 

Following the March meeting, a draft comprehensive plan will be prepared for the committee, whose members will then review the draft in the following months. 

The recommendations were grouped by the subcommittees from which they came. They were, among others: 

— Agriculture:

Proposals aim to support local farms and food production through measures like updating definitions related to agriculture in the zoning code, forming an agricultural committee, allowing smaller farms, and restricting “the extension of public water and sewer infrastructure into rural portions of Guilderland” while focusing “water and sewer capacity improvements to support traditional population centers.” An Agriculture Overlay District is also proposed, to protect important farmland soils and promote conservation subdivision;

— Business, employment, and fiscal:

Recommendations focus on promoting a diverse economic base compatible with the town’s character. Proposals include developing clear permitted-use tables, designing guidelines for signs and commercial sites, and streamlining approvals. Partnerships with economic development agencies are also recommended;

— Environment, climate change, and resiliency:

Recommendations focus on hazard mitigation, sustainability, and addressing climate-change impacts, by pursuing Climate Smart Community certification, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting natural resources, and integrating climate resilience into town rules and procedures;

— Neighborhoods and housing:

Proposals aim to expand housing options while preserving neighborhood character. They include allowing accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in single-family districts, permitting duplexes in all single-family districts, updating zoning to enable smaller/affordable housing types — like “tiny houses” — and adding “an inclusionary zoning requirement for affordable residential units in PUDs,” or planned unit developments; 

— Parks, recreation, open space, and historic resources:

These recommendations focus on providing diverse recreational facilities, acquiring open space, protecting scenic resources like the Helderberg Escarpment, and preserving historic and cultural sites;

— Transportation and mobility:

Proposals emphasize expansion of sidewalk, trail, and bike infrastructure to enhance pedestrian mobility and interconnectivity. The installation of supportive amenities like benches and racks is recommended as is pursuing funding for transportation studies and improvements, updating street standards, and improving school access.

Concerns

Committee member Richard Brustman was concerned about the clarity of the recommendations, and sought to clear up the bigger picture. Speaking to Hakes, Brustman said, “I would like to make some comments on the package as a whole.

“One of the things that I personally [had] trouble with when looking at the package  — and we touched on it actually in the last meeting …I think [committee member] Steve Wilson had the same concern at the last meeting  — [are]  the difference between an objective and a step seems to be lost in the package.”

“An objective is something — in this package we called objectives recommendations — like: save the escarpment, you know, from bad development.

But we also have another recommendation, which is objective level, is: reword the definition of such-and-such in the zoning code.

“They’re just not comparable, and they’re implied comparable — so one is a step. There are lots of things in there that I see as just steps towards some objective.  And dealing, reforming the codes and everything, so those are steps towards an objective. They are not an objective in themselves.”

Brustman said he and Wilson brought this issue up at the last meeting, “but we didn't see this reflected in the draft, that we wanted them reorganized so that the objectives, the recommendations have roughly equal weight and that steps be consolidated.”

He said there were “16 steps on the code, for instance. There shouldn’t. There should be one recommendation to reform the code.”

Hakes told Brustman he’d made a good point, and that evaluating the town’s zoning code is something that is suggested in one of the opening sections of the comprehensive plan: governance. 

Brustman next wanted to know about MJ Engineering’s decision-making and editing process for the recommendations, stating there were recommendations not included and others that made that neither he nor the rest of the committee had seen previously. 

Hakes did not address Brustman’s concerns directly, instead stating the process would be displayed as she walked the committee through the recommendations. 

Later, Jesse McCaughey, another MJ Engineering consultant, explained the recommendations had been an amalgamation of feedback from committee members, the previously-mentioned subcommittees, and information from the project’s other consultants, Nan Stolzenburg and Ellen Pemrick. 

What MJ was “trying to do [was] sort of plac[e] things into buckets, to not be redundant,” McCaughey said, and “not say things twice,” to “combine those things that are of like kind.” But it was Pemrick, the plan’s economic development consultant, who offered her own explanation when it came to editing her own work. 

“Well, I reviewed the information that I put together as part of the … community profile. Yeah, I reviewed that information,” she said. “I reviewed the survey results, public meeting results, [and] reviewed the subcommittees’ preliminary recommendations,” she said, and “I was looking to address certain issues that I thought, you know, really needed to to come out, that hadn’t already been addressed.”

Pemrick also added there had been “many internal conference conversations about these things.”

Brustman then asked, “But you didn’t start from the committee’s draft, you started from other material and just came up with recommendations?” — with which Pemrick agreed. 

Robyn Gray, chairwoman of the Guilderland Coalition for Responsible Growth, expressed her concern with the town’s planning decisions, and questioned the definition and placement of commercial zones, while emphasizing the importance of affordable housing. 

Gray has been a frequent critic of the update process. 

Writing with rhetorical flair in a recent edition of her organization’s weekly newsletter, Gray said of the meeting, “As usual, they did not disappoint, or rather, they continue to hit new lows with each meeting,” noting the “biggest take away from this meeting was the bastardization of the work that the Comprehensive Plan Subcommittees did.” 

During the Jan. 22 meeting, Gray pointed out that Westmere, known for its older and affordable neighborhoods, is facing substantial changes due to the introduction of commercial buildings, like Costco and New York Oncology Hematology’s proposed Western Avenue regional cancer center, in addition to other developments. 

Gray advocated for a multi-use approach to accommodate affordable housing and businesses, and suggested the rehabilitation of existing buildings for such projects, but acknowledged that, for some projects, adaptive reuse might not be possible. 

Gray also wrote in a Feb. 1 letter to the Enterprise editor: “What was shocking was to see the slideshow put together by MJ Engineering, the consultants who are driving this process. They reduced multi-page ideas and concerns to one goal for each subcommittee. This is even less than the original plan!”

More Guilderland News

  • The historic Dutch barn in what is now Guilderland was built before the American Revolution, Corey Nellis said, with hand-hewn chestnut beams. The American chestnut — once called the redwood of the East because of its huge size — was wiped out by blight more than a century ago.

  • The comments at Monday’s meeting were often supportive of library staff. Some expressed warm memories of the café and its owners while others questioned their allegations of racism. Several people of color spoke, saying they had not experienced racism at the library. The most common call was one for answers on whether racism and harassment had occurred — or not.

  • Beckmann also received reprieve from having to install a costly sprinkler system when, as part of its approval, the town’s zoning board of appeals granted him a variance from that portion of the law, instead allowing him to install a localized alarm system. 

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