No decision on Stewart’s variance requests in Altamont, hearing extended

— From Stewart’s Shops

Night moves: Stewart’s Shops says the proposed site configuration for its Altamont Boulevard project is the best way to shield its neighbor to the rear, 111 Helderberg Ave., from the site’s commercial activity and lights.

ALTAMONT — The Altamont Zoning Board of Appeals used its monthly meeting to listen to the public’s comments on Stewart’s Shops’ variance requests for its proposed Altamont Boulevard project but took no action and extended the public hearing on the variance requests for 10 days following the Feb. 11 meeting. 

Stewart’s laid out for the board additional site layout options and made the case why its current site proposal is the best of all of the alternatives. 

The zoning board’s next meeting is slated for March 10.

The Altamont Board of Trustees in November 2019, for the second time in less than a year, voted to rezone from residential to commercial the Stewart’s-owned property at 107-109 Helderberg Ave., a now-empty turn-of-the-last-century duplex.

At the Feb. 11 meeting, the company requested that the zoning board grant it three variances:

— A setback variance of about 30 feet from the adjacent property at 111 Helderberg Ave.

With a gasoline-service-station designation, the village code says the only structure on a site that can be closer than 50 feet to an adjacent residential lot is a fence. As proposed, the Stewart’s site plan shows the back of the new building approximately 20 feet from the property line of the adjacent 111 Helderberg Ave.;

—   A setback variance of about 94 feet from Altamont Boulevard for the new building.

 According to village code, the maximum distance from Altamont Boulevard that the new shop could be built is 10 feet. Stewart’s is proposing to place its new store 104 feet from Altamont Boulevard; and

— An area variance of about 6,000 square feet for minimum allowable lot size.

The parcel has an area of about 34,000 square feet. Village code states that gasoline service stations are permitted only on lots of 40,000 square feet or more. 

For every three speakers who were against granting the variances, one spoke in favor of it. Altogether there were about 16 speakers.

But before public comment, it was stressed to those who would be speaking that the zoning board’s job on Feb. 11 was not to rehash the entire zoning approval process undertaken by the village board at its November 2019 meeting. Rather, the zoning board had a very clear-cut job: Determine three very specific variance requests made by Stewart’s that the company said it needed because building a code-compliant project was not possible.


Stewart’s says: No other alternatives

Speakers who specifically addressed Stewart’s variances said that some of the requests were too large to be granted; for example, the setback variance from Altamont Boulevard would be a variance of 940 percent. 

Chuck Marshall, a real-estate representative for Stewart’s, and Leah Everhart, an attorney with Miller, Mannix, Schachner, and Hafner, the legal counsel for Stewart’s Shops, addressed the siting of the new shop, by addressing the problems with the site alternatives.

If the shop were built within the code-required setback, that is 10 feet from the road, then the back of the new building would be facing the intersection of Altamont Boulevard, Main Street, Prospect Terrace, and Helderberg Avenue — which would not comply with village code nor is it recommended in the comprehensive plan, Marshall and Everhart said. 

In addition, the gas canopy would then have to be placed between the building and the abutting non-similarly zoned property, they said, which would mean all of the site’s lighting would be open to 111 Helderberg Ave.

The proposed siting of the new store allows the mass of the building to block 111 Helderberg Ave. from the site’s commercial activity, Marshall and Everhart said; as proposed, the plan keeps the commercial activity between the building and the street.

And if Stewart’s were to build its new shop based on the site’s current configuration, Marshall and Everhart said, the project would not be in compliance with the village code for setbacks from Altamont Boulevard but also a new shop that would sit on the current store’s footprint would be be out of compliance with the zoning code because the new building would not be oriented to either Altamont Boulevard or Helderberg Avenue. In addition, nothing would be done to alleviate parking problems on the site.


Five criteria

Each variance request, to be granted, has to pass five criteria used by the zoning board: 

— Whether the variance request would create an undesirable change in neighborhood character or cause detriment to nearby properties;

— Whether there are ways for an applicant to achieve the same level of benefit without having to seek an area variance;

— Whether the requested variance is substantial;

— Whether the proposed variance would adversely affect a neighborhood or district’s physical or environmental conditions; and

— Whether “the alleged difficulty was self-created, which consideration shall be relevant to the decision of the Zoning Board of Appeals, but not necessarily preclude the granting of the area variance.”

The zoning board, using each of the five factors, then undertakes a balancing test, “weighing the benefit to the applicant against the detriment to the health, safety and welfare of the neighborhood or community if the area variance is granted.”

Everhart made the case that, when people during the public hearing were arguing that a new shop would change the nature of the Helderberg-Severson neighborhood (the fourth of five criteria when considering a zoning change), the neighborhood is much larger than the just the properties to the west of the Stewart’s property — the homes of the Helderberg-Severson neighborhood. 

Also included in the neighborhood are Altamont Corners, Ketchum’s gas station, and Village Pizza — among others, Everhart said. The appearance of the store will change, she said, but the use in the neighborhood will stay the same. 

“The character of the neighborhood is commercial as well,” she said. The use-designation of the central business district had been extended to an adjacent property, she said, and the appearance of the new building will be changed and updated to comply with current trends for Stewart’s but also current zoning and planning trends in the village — what the village wants to see aesthetically.

The zoning board’s chairman, Maurice McCormick, said that, while the use in the neighborhood will stay the same, there will be an impact on the Helderberg-Severson neighborhood.

Marshall responded that the impact on the neighborhood was created when the village board rezoned the property — commercial activity is now allowed on the property while the house that the currently occupies the site is not.

It was then pointed out that the zoning board can look at what impact the variance request would have on the character of the neighborhood, or the detriment granting the variance would have on nearby properties. 

The consideration given to the impact that the variances would have on the neighborhood is appropriate, Everhart said, but “looking at it only from a perspective of the west of our property [the Helderberg-Severson neighborhood] is very, very limiting,” adding that Stewart’s felt that perspective was too limiting for the zoning board when it considered the variance requests — because the neighborhood is more than just the homes in the Helderberg-Severson neighborhood.

The shop sits at the intersection of five roads, Everhart said, and considering only the impact on one road was “very, very limiting.”

Marshall was asked by McCormick what he felt the impact would be specifically to 111 Helderberg Ave., to which Marshall responded that he’d want to see the new building to stay where it’s proposed to be built (20 feet from the property line), he’d want the Dumpster moved, and would want to see restrictions made on delivery and pick-up times.

“That is what I think the impact on that one, individual house is,” Marshall said, adding that he thought one long-term goal of the village is to redevelop and retain businesses, “particularly in reference to [the village’s] comprehensive plan,” and he said that he thought the proposed plan did that.

A little while later, McCormick again asked Marshall to explain what he saw as the impacts a new shop would have on Carol Rothenberg’s property, owner of 111 Helderberg Ave.

Marshall said that he thought the impact was what was identified in the village board’s State Environmental Quality Review determination when it rezoned the property from residential to commercial. 

He said he thought the company did all it could to mitigate impacts — but further mitigation could be achieved if the Dumpster were moved and delivery times were restricted. And using the mass of the building is the best way to ensure that commercial activity is not introduced into the residential area, Marshall said. 

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