Up in arms New Scotlanders protest big-box plans

By David S. Lewis

NEW SCOTLAND — A crowd of over 275 New Scotland residents yesterday voiced nearly unanimous opposition to the large-scale development of the old Bender melon farm.

The 179-acre property near the intersection of the town’s two major thoroughfares, routes 85 and 85A, has been purchased by the Sphere Group, which expects to close next week.  The Sphere Group, a developer based near Syracuse, approached town zoning officials earlier this year, but hasn’t yet filed an application. The town of New Scotland provides for only one level of commercial zoning, which means that any sort of development on the property would be legal under current zoning laws.

“At this time, no application has been submitted, no legal plans are pending,” said New Scotland Supervisor Tom Dolin at Wednesday’s meeting. But he said that the zoning and planning boards had received a sketch in March; he said the sketch did not include the names of any of the businesses that might be included in the project.  Dolin said he suggested in February that the town board consider a moratorium to discuss whether the zoning laws reflect the town’s best interests.

Gregory Widrick, a managing partner of the Sphere Group, assured the townspeople that, while the company met informally with town officials, it wasn’t to circumvent the citizenry.  Before co-founding Sphere, Widrick was in charge of the “big box” division at The Pyramid Companies, where he worked with “any of your typical big-box stores — Best Buy, Circuit City, Sport Authority,” he told The Enterprise earlier. Pyramid owns Guilderland’s Crossgates Mall.

“The rumors that we are planning to build a 1.5-million square-foot enclosed mall… or a Wal-Mart are entirely untrue,” said Widrick.  He said that the developers were interested in designing a project that would “co-exist harmoniously” with the rural character of the town. 

Widrick urged the residents to consider some of the benefits to the area before ruling out the development, claiming that local real-estate revenue would go up 9,000 percent.  He also said that the school district would experience an increase in its revenues that would be equivalent to the enrollment of 40 percent of the current student body, but without actually adding a single student.  He also asked that the board not pass a moratorium on development, saying that the company would be conducting studies on the area before even submitting a design.

Voorheesville Assistant Superintendent for Business Sarita Winchell had very different numbers, however. When the floor was opened for public comment, she said that she had calculated the amount of tax savings for school-district residents based on a 110,000-square-foot Wal-Mart (a much larger development than is being proposed) and said that families in New Scotland would save about $32 annually; residents outside the town with larger properties would probably save around $42.

Citizens speak out

So many people wished to comment on the issue that two lines were formed. Residents raised questions about the lack of infrastructure supporting the area such as sewer and water, as well as cost of constructing larger roads.  Many others simply voiced outright opposition to the Sphere Group’s plan.

“I pay the higher property taxes because I like the town the way it is,” said Janice Raleigh of Voorheesville.

New Scotland resident Ben Carlson was even more direct.  “From my standpoint, we need to have the moratorium so we can step back and say, ‘Is this appropriate?’” he said. Addressing Widrick, he said, “Nothing against you, but this is our town, and, quite frankly, I don’t trust you.”

Paula Adams, who lives near the proposed development site, asked residents in favor of the development to raise their hands and no one moved; when she asked for a show of opposition, nearly every hand in the room shot into the air.

“…The Bender farm isn’t something waiting to be ground up; it is worth preserving the way it is,” said Adams.  The statement was echoed by several other residents supporting the idea of using the area as green space. Edie Abrams, another resident who lives close to the farm, suggested residents “put our money where our mouth is.” 

“This land belongs to someone; you want green space, buy it,” said Abrams.

Environmental lawyer Jeffrey Baker of Clarksville urged the board to “adopt the moratorium, unequivocally.”

“Give the planning board the tools it needs to make certain the zoning laws meet the needs of the town,” he said.

Sphere perseveres

The Enterprise asked if the Sphere Group was put off by the crowd’s negative reaction. “Unfortunately, this is what you tend to get anytime a developer comes to a small town,” said Kathleen Bennett, an attorney for the Sphere Group during a phone interview after the meeting.  And of the town’s reaction, she said, “It wasn’t unexpected.”

She acknowledged that sewer and water issues would need to be addressed regardless of the scale of the development.  Bennett said that Widrick had asked the town not to adopt a moratorium because it would “halt the progress of the development for as long as the moratorium was in effect” but that the developer would continue to conduct research.

“It depends on the drafting of the moratorium,” said Bennett.  “Depending on how it is worded, there might not be any permits granted.  It could even prevent applications from being considered until the moratorium expires.” 

Although the 179-acre farm is assessed at $734,700, the asking price for the property is $4 million, Platform Realty Group told The Enterprise last month.  When queried as to the price actually paid for the farm, Bennett replied via e-mail, “Due to the terms of the deal and the financing, the developer is not willing to disclose the purchase price of the property at this time.  They will be closing in about a week and at that point the number will become a matter of public record.”

The property is owned by a group of doctors who are listed as MLF Enterprises, said Robert Murphy, vice president of Platform Realty.

The Enterprise also asked whether Target was being considered.  Bennett said that it was “still a potential option for this project” but later wrote an e-mail saying, “I am not certain about the pursuit of Target at this point after further discussions and would appreciate it if Target was not attributed [either yes or no] to me or the developer.” 

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