Big-Box redux: GOP objections raised over proposed hamlet plan

The Enterprise — Sean Mulkerrin

On notice: A sign reminding passersby of the public hearing for the proposed hamlet-rezoning law hangs outside of the home of Edie Abrams, a member of the New Scotland Zoning Board. 

NEW SCOTLAND — Forces that have been at play for decades in this once rural but rapidly developing town were at odds last week during a public hearing on proposed zoning changes for the hamlet of New Scotland.

The all-Democratic town board postponed voting on the plan after hearing criticism — much of it from Republicans.

A score of critics called the proposal anti-business but most of their arguments were not about the proposal itself but spoke of larger themes: decrying loss of freedom; charging that the new zoning would strip landowners of property rights; denouncing the plan as “elitist”; and making anti-intellectual cracks about the length of the document, which is about 95 pages, of which 15 pages are pictures and maps.

A decade ago, when a big-box developer wanted to build a Target-anchored mall in the hamlet, a grassroots uprising led, over several election cycles including last November’s, to a board that favors what members say is a plan to keep small-town character while fostering mixed-use growth.

The plan

The plan proposes new zoning for the hamlet of New Scotland, which is currently zoned as commercial. The hamlet is bounded by the town of Bethlehem to the east, the village of Voorheesville and railroad to the west, the Helderberg-Hudson Rail Trail to the north, and commercial and medium-density residential districts to the south of Route 85.

The plan ascribes specific “character areas,” or sub-districts, to the hamlet:

— Beginning with a concentrated hamlet center that will have the character of a traditional village, including a central area for greenspace. It will be mostly commercial space, but could also include multi-family housing that is incorporated into mixed-use development, which would have commercial space on the ground level. In the plan, this area covers the corner of routes 85 and 85A, extending to Falvo’s Meat Market to the north and extends past Stewart’s to the east;

— Radiating out from the hamlet center, south of route 85 and extending west across Route 85A to the railroad tracks and north a few hundred feet past Falvo’s, is the hamlet-expansion area, which is currently zoned for commercial use, and will now include mixed uses to incorporate more housing; and

— The development area extends north to the rail trail and crosses over to the west of route 85 to the proposed LeVie Farm housing development and extends east to existing, developed land. This area would include more residential space than commercial.

 



 

“When my husband and I first moved to New Scotland, we learned of the ongoing and often heated discussion among the townspeople regarding planning. Twenty-six years later, here we are — still,” said Katie O’Rourke, the first person to speak at the hearing. She is now a resident of Albany, but is also the owner about 54 acres that would be affected by the new law.

O’Rourke, who was active in the grassroots movement against the big-box development, recounted the story of a property owner in the neighborhood who claimed to have the right to do whatever he wanted with the land that he owned. “His actions, whether negligent or willful,” led to the aquifer that supplied the drinking water to that area to be contaminated with petrochemicals. “I was eight months pregnant with my second child in two years when we discovered that as many as 20 household in our neighborhood were affected. We were cooking, bathing, drinking it — even breathing it every time we took a hot shower.”

“If that doesn’t drive home the idea that no one has the right to do whatever they want with the land that they own, at the expense of the entire community, then I don't know what does,” she said.

O’Rourke said that the New Scotland Hamlet plan is a product that has been years in the making. In 2011, O’Rourke was part of a five-member committee chosen by the town board to work with representatives from various transportation and planning agencies on a hamlet master plan. Now the town, she said, has an obligation to see it through, because board members were voted into office to represent the best interest of the town.

“The plan does not meet the needs of any individual property owner, but it does represent the best compromise that we could come up with after 25 years or more,” O’Rourke said. While this law will not make everyone happy, she said, her hope is  that it will evolve with the changing needs of the town.

“Be assured that the rest of the people in the town are the majority, as demonstrated by the results of the last few town elections,” she said.

Recent New Scotland election history has revolved around planning, beginning a decade ago, when Sphere Development had wanted to build the Target-anchored mall on the old Bender melon farm in the proposed hamlet district. A grassroots movement opposing the plan led to a size-cap law and to the ousting of board members who had supported the mall, and, for the most part, has left the New Scotland GOP on the sidelines of town governance ever since.

In a follow-up interview with The Enterprise, Councilman Daniel Leinung pointed out that many who spoke after O’Rourke in opposition to the hamlet plan were the same people who were on the losing side of the big-box issue 10 years earlier. “So it is already a fairly, loosely organized group,” he said.

Commercial Development

At the public hearing, George Miller, a resident of Feura Bush, read a letter on behalf of Robert Staph, who could not be at the hearing. Staph is the former long-time chairman of the planning board who lost that position after being on the losing side of the big-box issue.

Staph’s letter touched on a theme that would be repeated over and over during the public hearing: The hamlet plan places even more restrictions on retail and commercial use, and will hurt the town’s ability to attract businesses.

“As a town resident, I would like the town to reconsider a more reasonable law, allowing for more retail and commercial development in the Route 85 A and Route 85 corridor,” Staph’s letter said.

Colleen Stanton, a New Scotland Republican Committee member, said that the proposed law hinders the economic potential of any future growth.

“I am not against having planning for this area; it is well needed,” said Timothy Stanton, a Republican Committee member. “But you come up with a document … which is overly restrictive, and, let me tell you, if you pass it, they will not come. There will not be any business here; I have been saying this over and over in this town.”

Stanton, a farmer, made his second unsuccessful run in November for the Albany County legislature.

Edie Abrams, a Democrat, who was part of the grassroots anti-big-box movement is now a member of the town’s zoning board, pushed back against the business argument others were making: “A major reason why we don't have a lot of big businesses or a lot of businesses in this town is because we don't have a big population. The population of New Scotland is around 8,600. We are not on a major road; we are not Bethlehem, which is off of Route 85 and Route 9; we are not Guilderland, that is right off the Northway and Route 90 — we are just not.”

Glenn Schultz, also a New Scotland Republican Committee member, voiced his concern about what he called an erosion of freedoms. “I read the report and it seems like you are going into exclusionary zoning in many ways,” he said.

“What you’ve done with the zoning is that you have limited the commercial expansion in many ways,” Schultz said.  

According to the plan itself, this is not accurate; with very few exceptions (see table), most commercial activity is permissible in each of the hamlet’s sub-districts.

In a follow-up interview that included councilmembers Adam Greenberg and William Hennessey, who did much of the work drafting the plan, as well as town Supervisor Douglas LaGrange, Greenberg told The Enterprise: “The idea that we have taken commercial space away is ridiculous.”

Hennessy said that the uproar over the proposed zoning law confirmed what many on the board had thought: That some people want residential, some people want affordable housing, some people want retail space, some people want commercial space, some people want agricultural, and some people want a mix of everything.

“Well guess what?” Hennessey asked. “This plan allows those things ... We are not precluding residential, we’re not precluding commercial, and we’re not precluding agricultural.”

“When we call it mixed-use, we are not requiring retail on the first floor and apartments on the second floor; there are other things … other uses that are allowed and permitted,” he said.

Hennessy pointed out that the proposed plan could have required those things or features like where to place a road, or a trail, or where green space would be required — that would be called an official town map. But there was no inclination from anyone working on the plan to go that far.

Greenberg said that the plan is tailored specifically to New Scotland to allow for reasonable development on the routes 85 and 85 A corridor.

Housing

Well over a dozen who spoke raised concerns that the proposed law would create only expensive homes in town.

Jacob Shaw, one of the youngest residents who spoke against the proposed law, was concerned with density.

He said that the proposed law would not allow younger residents to purchase homes in the area because the allowable lot sizes would allow only for larger, more costly homes to be built. “It is going to push out young families — anyone my age,” Shaw said.

Schultz, who said he had lived in New Scotland for 63 years, echoed Shaw’s concerns about housing.

“The way you have set up the housing development, you’re going to force fewer and fewer developments, which means contractors are going to have to build bigger houses to get their money back,” Schultz said. “Right now, there is no place for reasonable housing development that our kids can grow up and move into.”

Susan Dee, illustrating the complexities to what can be an esoteric topic, made a statement that was both contradictory and correct about the proposed zoning changes.

“Mr. Shaw raised the concern about limiting the town of New Scotland into a very high, expensive, exclusive community. Personally, I am opposed to that. I find that diversity, extended diversity, makes for a much more sustainable community,” Dee said. “The village model that we are trying to build upon is very inclusive and allows us to start in the low economic level and move into any other economic level that we choose to, and still stay within that community. So I present that to the board and I hope that you can incorporate that into your plan.”

This has already been incorporated into the plan.

According to the plan, in the hamlet-district extension area, the minimum allowable lot size for a detached single-family dwelling is 5,000 square feet; the maximum allowable lot size is 10,000 square feet.

The hamlet-district development area allows for a minimum allowable lot size for a detached single-family dwelling of 10,000 square feet; the maximum allowable lot size is 30,000 square feet.

But these are not the only allowable types of homes in these two districts.

The plan also allows for semi-detached single-family dwellings with a minimum allowable lot size of 3,500 square feet per unit and a maximum allowable lot size of 5,000 square feet per unit; attached single-family dwellings, with a minimum of 2,500 square feet per unit and a maximum of 5,000 square feet per unit; two-family dwellings, with a minimum of 6,000 square feet per two-family unit and a maximum of 10,000 square feet per two-family unit; and multi-family residences have a minimum allowable lot size of 3,500 square feet, which is also the only allowable type residence in the proposed hamlet center sub-district.

The proposed hamlet plan outlines what would be allowable lot sizes in the sub-districts — it is up to the developer to decide if, for example, in the hamlet-district extension area, that there will be the maximum 10,000 square-foot lots with single family homes or multi-family residences that need only be a minimum of 3,000 square feet.

These allowable uses create density and diversity, which can create affordability.

“We are not restricting development, we are encouraging development but also preserving open space by having it clustered,” Councilwoman Patricia Snyder told The Enterprise this week.

Responding to Shaw’s concern about density and affordability, Greenberg said the entire hamlet-district center answers that concern. “It is dense housing that will be lower cost,” he said.

The proposed zoning law, according to Greenberg, tries to take into account affordable housing, which is why the plan allows for smaller lot sizes.

LaGrange pointed out that the proposed zoning is good for both the town and for developers.

It used to be, he said, if homes were allowed in a more suburban-sprawl manner, it was debatable from the municipality’s perspective if that would actually gain the town any tax revenue. This is because of the services that the town would need to provide for those sprawl areas. “On a more concentrated area, like what is proposed in the hamlet zone — where the development and density is so much more — there is less infrastructure to maintain per person,” LaGrange said.

For a developer, density could cut down construction costs, because builders would be responsible for less infrastructure installation, given that lot sizes could be significantly smaller and closer together.

Bender melon farm

The single, largest parcel of land that would be affected by the new law is the old Bender melon farm, which accounts for about 179 of the roughly 500 acres in the proposed hamlet-zoning district.

Criticism from Maura Mottolese, who spoke on behalf of of 306 Maple LLC, the property’s owner, was especially harsh. Mottolese — who is also the daughter of one of the of farm’s owners who died in 2015 — called the proposed zoning arbitrary and capricious, targeting of one of the last remaining commercially-zoned properties in town. The proposed law, she claimed, disregarded the sanctity of private property rights. She chided the town board for failing to involve stakeholders in the process.

At the December town meeting, Mottolese had also taken the board to task, saying that the owners of Bender melon farm were not informed about a new hamlet plan that would affect their land.

At the time, Hennessey said that the board had held numerous open meetings, one of which was specifically for large landowners who would be affected by the hamlet plan. He told The Enterprise at the time that the meeting of large landholders took place on Dec. 8, 2015. It was set up by the consultant to the project, AECOM.

Hennessy said this week that at the December 2015 meeting, the second, third, and fourth largest landowners had been present

During the regularly scheduled board meeting on Feb. 14, Greenberg read into the record a portion of a letter from Peter Baltis, the second largest landowner whose property would be affected by the new law, to show that a meeting of the  large landowners had taken place.

“I also want to mention that approximately two years ago I was invited to a meeting at town hall to discuss potential uses for my property and others in the area. I was one of several property owners in attendance,” Greenberg read.

Town attorney Michael Naughton told The Enterprise in December 2017 that there is no local law or regulation that requires the town to provide written notice to people who own lands subject to a proposed zoning change.

Mottolese had also been named to the same 2011 five-member committee chosen by the town board that O’Rourke had been a part of.

“The proposed zoning amendment regulates in such an over-reaching manner that it effectively discourages development and small business in the exact area that the town has for years claimed to be best suited for commercial development,” Mottolese said during the public hearing.  

LaGrange told The Enterprise that the owners of Bender melon farm had known for a long time what the town had thought the direction of development should be for the area, and, he said, they had been on board with it.

About 12 years ago, LaGrange said, the owners of then Bender melon farm approached the town supervisor at the time, Ed Clark, and asked him what the town thought the owners should do with the property.

Clark tapped LaGrange, who had just started as a councilman on the town board and who had been on the planning board for four years previous to that, to help him come up with some answers for the owners.

LaGrange in turn enlisted the help of the present planning board chairman, Charles Voss, a professional planner who was not on any boards at the time.

LaGrange said that he and Voss took the town’s comprehensive plan and created a report — not a legal town document, just an opinion — of what would work for the area, according to the comprehensive plan. The report, he said, although lacking the specificity is, in general, remarkably similar to the current proposed hamlet rezoning plan.

“We gave it to them, and we called it New Scotland Hamlet plan — catchy?” LaGrange said. “We gave them that plan and they were ecstatic.”

It had turned out, according to LaGrange, that the farm’s owner had been approached by a developer who was looking to build-out the land in much the same way that Voss and LaGrange’s report suggested. This was because the developer had read the town’s comprehensive plan and made developmental decisions based on that — which is exactly the point of the new hamlet zoning plan, he said. The only difference between that long-ago report and the current proposal is that the current plan gives developers even clearer guidelines for what is permissible.

“What happened was Sphere development came in and offered them twice the money if they would go a different route, and that's how the whole big-box affair started,” LaGrange said.

Have we seen this fail before?

Allyson Stanton, the daughter-in-law of Timothy and Colleen, pointed out that previous attempts in Guilderland and Bethlehem to create planned communities based on a design movement called new urbanism have largely failed.

“There are many failures of the new urbanist-style community and they stem from the elitist perspective of those trying to implement the rules,” Stanton said.

New Urbanism, according to the Congress for the New Urbanism, is a “planning and development approach based on the principles of how cities and towns had been built for the last several centuries: Walkable blocks and streets, housing and shopping in close proximity, and accessible public spaces.”

It focuses on human-scaled urban design.

Over a decade ago, the village of Altamont adopted a master plan that said if the Altamont fairgrounds were ever to be sold that the area would be developed according to New Urbanist principles.

Glass Works Village, the New Urbanism project in Guilderland, was to be located at the corner of Route 20 and Winding Brook Drive, chosen for its proximity (and therefore walkability) to the Guilderland Public Library, the YMCA, and the Price Chopper Plaza.

The development itself was to be 310 living units and 195,000 square feet of commercial space, which was to be clustered.

The project did not fail for lack of local enthusiasm. It had received unanimous approval from the Guilderland Planning Board. At the time, town planner Jan Weston said that, when Glass Works was first proposed, she had 10 to 15 calls per week by those interested in living there.

The proposed Glass Works Village was not one of the “many failures of the new urbanist style community.” It was a victim of the economy.

With the onset of the Great Recession, the Glass Works Village project “kind of went away,” Guilderland’s grant writer, Donald Csaposs, told The Enterprise last year.

There are significant differences between what was, and is, proposed in Guilderland, Bethlehem, and New Scotland.  

The proposed New Scotland Hamlet zoning plan is just that — a plan, a set a guidelines for potential future developers. There is no actual development — like there had been in Guilderland and Bethlehem — attached to the proposed zoning law.

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