MRD reviewed by local boards in Knox

KNOX — Following unanimous disapproval from the Albany County Planning Board, the proposed multi-use recreational district in Knox has now received unanimous approval from the Knox Zoning Board of Appeals.

Usually a town’s planning board guides the process. The Knox’s zoning ordinance states that proposed amendments are to be referred to the planning board, but is silent on the zoning board’s role. However, the current Knox Planning Board was split on the proposed zoning change.

Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis had originally proposed a business district in the area around routes 156 and 157, which was voted down by the planning board twice after which the town board took it on. The politically divided town board tied twice in votes on creating the district, meaning it couldn’t move forward.

The following year, Lefkaditis retracted the proposal and instead proposed an MRD as an option that wouldn’t allow businesses that residents had objected to, such as gas stations, in the district.

There is currently one business district in town, in the Knox hamlet, and one MRD in the southwestern corner of the town. Restaurants and retail stores are allowed in either of these districts with special-use permits. The area at routes 156 and 157 is currently zoned agricultural and residential where neither restaurants nor retail stores are permitted. Zoning board Chairman Douglas Roether said in an email that there is a process to open the now-closed Highlands restaurant by filing for an appeal before the zoning board and submitting applications for a use variance and special use permit, however.

While the town board is the only body that can enact zoning regulations or amendments by adopting an ordinance or local law, nothing prohibits the board from requesting advice from the planning or zoning board — whose members have advisory responsibilities — before making a decision, according a department of state spokesperson.

In fact, the town’s zoning ordinance states that every amendment, unless proposed by the planning board, must be referred to the planning board, which can then make a recommendation within 45 days before the town board makes a decision.

“ ... These board members should have important perspective and understanding of the character of their community and the function of their local zoning and other land use regulations,” the spokesperson said. “Their recommendations for proposed zoning changes while not final are presumably valuable and may be deemed worthy of consideration before the Town Board takes final action.”

At the planning board meeting, Lefkaditis, who is also the board’s liaison, said a public hearing has not yet been set for the town board on the proposed district.

Planning board

At the planning board’s March 14 meeting, a motion to disapprove of the proposed district was made by member Debra Nelson, citing “inadequate consideration of the sensitive environmental conditions as presented on the EAF, as well as the lack of proactive and public involvement,” referring to the proposal’s environmental assessment form. She voted in favor of the motion along with members Robert Price and Betty Ketcham. Chairman Thomas Wolfe and members William Pasquini and Todd LaGrange voted against the measure. With one member, Kurt Johnson, absent, the vote was tied, 3 to 3.

Nelson said that, even with a tied vote, it still serves as a recommendation to the town board, but noted that, when the planning board previously recommended twice against a proposed business district in the same area, the town board still put it to a vote.

Wolfe had cast the sole dissenting vote on the original proposal in 2017, favoring the creation of a business district at the intersection of routes 156 and 157. While the other planning board members cited traffic-safety concerns and concerns with the karst topography, Wolfe said these issues would be handled by other agencies.

Lefkaditis had twice nominated Wolfe to chair the board, replacing the longtime chairman, Price, who opposed the district. The Democratic board majority kept Price as chairman.

In 2018, once Lefkaditis and his two running mates from the 2017 election took office, Wolfe was appointed chairman, and Pasquini and LaGrange were named planning board members.

Wolfe said on March 14 that the town board will have to have a supermajority vote to override the split decision as well as the decision made by the county planning board. That means four of the five town board members will have to vote in favor of establishing the new district.

Wolfe and Nelson led much of the discussion on the proposed district, with Wolfe in favor of the district and Nelson against it.

Nelson brought up concerns such as a lack of infrastructure to support businesses and other uses allowed in the MRD, particularly multi-family housing; housing at two-storeys or higher with four or more units is permitted in an MRD but subject to site plan approval by the planning board.

She noted that, with the town’s karst geography that allows groundwater to travel more readily, issues with septic systems could be detrimental to wells. Wolfe asserted that most allowed uses would still need to have a special-use permit issued and would have regulation from other government agencies, which he said would act as safeguards.

While Wolfe argued that checks and balances would be in place when permitting businesses in an MRD, resident Brigitte McAuliffe said that evidence in other places like Hoosick Falls say otherwise. The Rensselaer County village had its municipal water contaminated with perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, but residents were not warned by the state for over a year.

McAuliffe lives in what was part of the proposed district before her property was removed, as were other residents’ properties. She and a few other residents spoke against the proposed district at the March 14 meeting, frustrated that it has continued to move forward despite the proposed business district in the same area being shot down twice by the town board.

“You’re gambling with my life, my husband’s life, my daughter’s … ,” McAuliffe said. “If this [system] worked, last year when this didn’t go through it would be done.”

Wolfe said that the area historically has supported businesses, listing existing businesses there such as a wood shop, greenhouse, and the now-closed Highlands restaurant. Nelson said that these businesses are either grandfathered in because they existed before the current zoning district was put in place or are home businesses.

Nelson also said that the removal of tax parcels of homeowners who do not want the zoning changed could prevent these homeowners from having legal standing if something happens to their property following a zoning change. She also described it as spot-zoning, which Wolfe said it was not because there was no single interest in one type of business or development.

Pasquini compared having businesses in the proposed district to having multiple homes in the residential district in terms of having a number of septic systems and wells being used. He said that multi-family housing could allow for senior housing that would let elderly residents remain in the Hilltowns.

Zoning board

At its Feb. 28 meeting, the Knox Zoning Board of Appeals met and unanimously decided to approve the proposed MRD. In an email to The Enterprise, Roether said that the board was asked by the town attorney to review the application for the proposed district and offer an advisory opinion.

Roether said that the impact of the vote is minimal. He said he wasn’t sure how common it is for a zoning board to offer an advisory opinion on the matter but said he thought it was sensible to do.

The MRD would prevent the development of the larger commercial enterprises a business district would have allowed, like gas stations, and limit what could be established there to “small mom and pop type stores,” Roether said. In a letter submitted by Roether to the town board, he also writes that he is in favor of the district due to past and present businesses already existing there and because it is close to recreational areas.

Other members voted in favor of the MRD for variety of reasons, Roether wrote, with several saying that the town needed businesses in the area, and others saying that there would be enough oversight from other agencies and the special-use permit process to protect the area. Two members voted in favor of the MRD because, Roether wrote, “nothing is going to happen in the proposed district in the near future.”

Zoning board members Dennis Cyr and Eric Marczak also attended the planning board meeting. Cyr said that, generations ago, the town had many more businesses and needed those back. He also questioned the county board’s decision, asking how many members lived in the Hilltowns.

“I feel a little regret about my decision,” said Marczak. He said that, with new members on the zoning board, noting he has only been on the board for about three years, he is not sure if they completely understood the proposal. He said that he will be asking that the board’s vote be retracted and reviewed again.

Both McAuliffe and Marczak have had their own household water contaminated in the past when they lived in areas outside of the Hilltowns.

Roether does not believe the proposed MRD will be brought to a vote again, but said he couldn’t speak for the rest of the board. He said he thought Marczak was incorrect in saying that the board was unprepared before making its decision, stating that the two members new to the board were given weeks to review the application and reports on karst geography. He said that the other members had months to review the documents.

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