Plans dead Possible moratorium for big-box buildings

Plans dead?
Possible moratorium for big-box buildings

By David S. Lewis

NEW SCOTLAND – Plans for a big-box mall in this still-rural town may have to wait.

After hearing the concerns of many New Scotland residents last night, the town board voted unanimously to hold a public hearing May 7 on a moratorium that would halt all commercial development in town.

In a session punctuated with catcalls and boos, residents voiced concerns over an application being made before the moratorium went into effect and about the impact on local business and town character.

Town board member Richard Reilly said, if the moratorium passes, it would not be possible for the Sphere Group to proceed with development during the moratorium, which would also halt pending applications; this was affirmed by the town lawyer, L. Michael Mackey, and the town supervisor, Thomas Dolin.

“Considering we’ve been trying to fix our zoning laws for years, what level of confidence do we have that a fixed moratorium of six months will be enough?’ asked Gary Bates of Voorheesville.

The moratorium is in reaction to the proposed development of the old Bender melon farm, at the intersection of routes 85 and 85A.  If passed, it would allow town officials time to review the commercial zoning laws and decide whether they are adequate.

The current zoning laws do not limit the kind of development that could take place there, making the 179-acre farm worth considerably more than its assessed value of $734,700.  The asking price was reported earlier this year to be around $4 million, according to Platform Realty, the Realtor brokering the deal.  The property is presently accessible by just two roads and has no municipal sewer or water. 

Town officials were approached individually in February by representatives of the Sphere Group, the Syracuse-area developer purchasing the property. Although Sphere co-founder Gregory Widrick told The Enterprise that the visits were for “information gathering purposes,” several town officials were shown a rough sketch of a potential development on the property. Widrick said, “It wasn’t even a sketch; it was a feasibility plan.” He said it was just to see whether that was a type of development permissible

The sale was set to close last Monday. According to Widrick, it has not.  He said that there are “title issues” on which he could not elaborate for unspecified legal reasons, but indicated that the title issues concerned the railroad track that cuts across the northeast corner of the property; Widrick said that the track cuts about 45 acres off the corner of the property.  He said that the delayed sale has nothing to do with the proposed moratorium.

Widrick acknowledged that there were two tenants already “committed” to the project, provided that the Sphere Group could work out the permitting and other requirements.  He also acknowledged that this is the real reason Sphere is encouraging the town to forego a moratorium at this time. Widrick would not reveal the identity of the “tenants” already signed on, but he did say that there would have to be a box or “anchor store.”

“Anchor stores,” said Widrick, “are what make the more desirable developments such as a ‘walk-able town center’ section of the development sustainable.

“Otherwise there wouldn’t be enough revenue to support the rest of it,” said Widrick.

Sphere Group architect Chris Santoli echoed that sentiment.

“You can’t have Easter Sunday without Good Friday,” he said, referencing the inevitability of a big-box store being included as part of the development.

Santoli graduated from Princeton and has worked on developments such as the Louisiana Boardwalk, the Jersey Gardens Mall, and the Time Warner Center in New York City.  Like Widrick, Santoli has worked for the Pyramid Group, the developer that built Crossgates Mall in Guilderland.  He described the style of development he wanted to design for the Bender site as a “stand-alone,” which would feature one or two big-box stores and a “town center” with smaller shops and such attractions as a movie theater and a performing-arts center. 

Around 200 residents attended last night’s meeting; the town has about 10,000 residents. But Widrick said that “in a town of 4,500 residents”, neither the 200 people last night nor the nearly 300 residents at the March 26 special meeting, were representative of the town’s wishes as a whole but rather of the “small number of people opposed to any development at all.”           

Robert H. Feller, a Bond, Schoeneck & King attorney who specializes in environmental law and is representing the Sphere Group, encouraged the town and board not to pursue a moratorium now because it would “shut down the whole process.”  He suggested that it was too early for a moratorium, and that it would prematurely close down lines of communication.

“A moratorium means that the planning board is not going to grant permits or sit down with us to do studies for road work or character surveys,” he said.  “We’ve been looking beyond the four corners of this zoning law to something that would be a win-win for everyone.”

More New Scotland News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.