Majority rules: Altamont ZBA officially signs off on Stewart’s variances

— Photo from Carol Rothenberg

Going, going, gone: A tree — one of a row of century-old pines — is taken down at the Stewart’s-owned property at 107-109 Helderberg Ave. in Altamont on March 24. This week, the Altamont Zoning Board of Appeals approved three variances the company needed to build a new shop. 

ALTAMONT — The Altamont Zoning Board of Appeals on Tuesday approved three variances Stewart’s Shops needed for its proposed Altamont Boulevard project. At its meeting the day before, the village planning board had set an April 27 public hearing for the company’s special-use permit application and site-plan approval.

Stewart’s now has a year to use its variances.

With COVID-19 keeping board members and the public isolated in their homes, zoning board members deliberated and voted on the variances via Zoom, a video-conferencing app; both the planning and zoning meetings had as many as 36 remote attendees — which is higher than a traditional in-person meeting. 

The board had tentatively approved the variances at last month’s meeting but it had to wait for an actual decision to be drafted by the village attorney.

The variances approved by the zoning board were:

— Allowing Stewart’s to build its new shop 30 feet closer to the adjacent residential property than the zoning code allows.

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. The back of the new building would now sit approximately 20 feet from the property line of the adjacent 111 Helderberg Ave.

There were also provisions added to this variance that said deliveries and Dumpster pickups could take place only between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. on weekends; another provision required a qualified professional to provide an opinion regarding site screening.  

This was the most discussed variance of the meeting.

As zoning board secretary Ginger Hannah was preparing to ask each board member how they would vote on each variance, board member Kathryn Provencher asked that, as roll call was being performed, could board members also add their explanation for why they were voting the way were — she would end up explaining only her vote on the first variance. 

Chairman Maurice McCormick said that any board member was “certainly welcome to do that.”

Provencher was against granting the variance.

“I believe that there is a very clear detriment to the neighborhood ... It causes a decrease in the property value of the properties in the residential neighborhood. It moves [a commercial building] much farther into the residential neighborhood. It’s irreversible,” she said. “It doesn’t truly provide for a 20-foot buffer. There has not been any support from any of the neighbors … It’s substantial physically, and also in terms of setting a precedent ... I think it affects our sense of community and connection. It clearly has a physical effect on the neighborhood and we’ve already agreed that [the variance request] is substantial and self-created.” 

McCormick voted with Provencher. 

Board members Tresa Matulewicz, Danny Ramirez, and Sal Tassone voted to approve the variance. 

“Even though it’s a major impact, I can’t see any way around it,” Ramirez said;

—  The second variance granted by the board now let’s Stewart’s build its new store farther from Altamont Boulevard than what is currently authorized by code.

In the Central Business District, according to code, the maximum distance from Altamont Boulevard that the new shop could be built is 10 feet. Stewart’s new store would now be built 104 feet from the road.

Provencher was the only board member to vote against the variance; and

— The third variance permits Stewart’s to build its new shop and gas canopy on a smaller lot than what the village code says is needed.

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

Again, Provencher was the only board member to vote against the variance. 

In May 2019, Stewart’s asked that Provencher, who has been on the board for two decades, recuse herself from anything having to do with the project because she had spoken against it in public. Provencher claimed that she spoke out against the process and not the project, and did not recuse herself.

Matulewicz had also made public comments about the project — she was in favor of it — but her comments were made before her appointment to the board. 



At both the planning and zoning meetings, the issue of the trees being taken down at the Stewart’s-owned 107-109 Helderberg Ave. was discussed.

Planning board John Hukey asked Building and Zoning Enforcement Officer Lance Moore if Stewart’s was able to take down the trees at the property without a site plan. 

“I’m a little upset,” Hukey said, because Stewart’s took down a tree on an embankment that is within two feet from a stream. 

Moore said that the stump remained in the ground which secured the embankment, adding that he couldn’t stop Hukey from taking down a tree on his property. 

Chuck Marshall, a real-estate representative for Stewart’s, said that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife guidance that was part of the village board’s State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR) determination requires tree-clearing to be completed by March 31. This regulation is to protect northern long-eared bats that may live in the trees when they come out of hibernation in the spring.

Marshall added that, in a June 2019 letter, the company indicated that tree-clearing would have to be complete by March 31 to comply with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife guidance. 

At that point, someone named Claire busted into the conference and said that Stewart’s went ahead and took down the trees without approval, after which planning board Chairwoman Deb Hext reminded her that it wasn’t a meeting where the public was allowed to speak. 

Allyson Phillips, the attorney for the planning and zoning boards, said that the reason Stewart’s was able to move forward with taking down the trees prior to the planning board’s site-plan review was because the village code doesn’t prohibit someone from cutting down trees on their own property or require any pre-approval to do so.

And by leaving the stumps in place, Phillips said, it doesn’t qualify as ground disturbance within the meaning of the Department of Environmental Conservation stormwater regulations, so it’s not something that was required to  be reviewed and approved before the action took place.

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