Altamont ZBA sets May 14 public hearing for Stewart’s variance requests

 Stewart’s Shops was before the Altamont Zoning Board of Appeals

— From Stewart’s Shops
Seeking a change: Last week, Stewart’s Shops was before the Altamont Zoning Board of Appeals to explain why the company needed five area variances to build a new store on Altamont Boulevard. The zoning board set a public hearing for the variance requests for May 14. 

ALTAMONT — Village residents on May 14 will have a chance to voice their opinions on variance requests made by Stewart’s Shops in the company’s latest step toward trying to build a new store at its Altamont Boulevard location.

In December 2018, the Altamont Village Board voted, 3 to 2, to rezone from residential to commercial a parcel of land that Stewart’s owns at 107-109 Helderberg Ave., paving the way for the company to build a new store on its adjacent sites.

At the January planning board meeting, Stewart’s presented its concept for the parcels, and was told that the size and siting of the proposed building were problems for the board.

Stewart’s had two options:

— Take the plan, as is, to the zoning board and make a case for why Stewart’s needed variances to build a new shop, or

— Take the planning board’s feedback and come up with a new site plan that conformed to the current zoning.

The company chose the former.

At the April 9 zoning board of appeals meeting, Chuck Marshall, a real-estate representative and project manager for Stewart’s, made his case for why the company needed five variances to build a new 3,340-square-foot shop.

“We went to the January planning board meeting and it was determined at that point that we can’t do this project without variances,” Marshall explained to members of the zoning board. “So it [was] best to identify what those variances were going to be, and then seek them.”

The variances Stewart’s was seeking included:

— A variance for 17 feet of relief for a new fuel canopy and 89 feet of relief for a new store on the Altamont Boulevard side of the lot;

— A variance for 18 feet of relief for a new fuel canopy on the Helderberg Avenue side of the parcel;

— Side setback relief of 110 feet from 111 Helderberg Ave. for a new fuel canopy;

— Eighty-eight feet of relief for lot width; and

— An interpretation regarding parking.

For the first two variances, Marshall said, relief was needed for improved traffic circulation. “One of the fundamental flaws” of the current shop, Marshall said, is that the gasoline pumps are situated in such a way that, if a car is fueling at the pumps facing Altamont Boulevard, other cars can’t freely circulate around the outside perimeter of the site.

With the variances, Marshall said, a new gasoline canopy could be constructed further back from the lot lines along Altamont Boulevard and  Helderberg Avenue, allowing for better traffic circulation.

The 89 feet of relief Stewart’s is seeking on the Altamont Boulevard side of the lot, Marshall said, would allow the company to situate the new shop where the home at 107-109 Helderberg Ave. currently sits. This would allow cars to circulate around the outside of the new gas canopy as well as in between the canopy and newly located store.  

In the central business district, according to the village code, “Zero lot lines are permitted. Where a side yard is provided, it shall be a minimum of 12.5 feet and a maximum of 20 feet.”

The variance seeking 110 feet of relief on the 111 Helderberg Ave. side of the parcel for the new fuel canopy, Marshall said, is because, in the village code, an accessory structure — a secondary structure on the same lot as the principal building — in a non-residential zoning district has the same setback restrictions that a principal structure would.

For Stewart’s, that means the proposed gas canopy, an accessory structure, is treated as if it were a principal structure and, so, according to the code, the maximum that the canopy could be set back from 111 Helderberg Ave. is 20 feet (the new store would be set back 13 feet). So, to be able to locate the gas canopy as it is shown on the site plan, the company needs 110 feet of relief.

The variance is seeking 88 feet of relief for lot width, Marshall said. “To me, this variance really only exists on paper,” he said, because Stewart’s is required by the village to combine the adjacent lots. The new lot would have a width — which is measured along Helderberg Avenue — of 168 feet. So, even though the proposed lot width exceeds the village code by 80 feet, he said, the variance should be granted because combining the separate properties is “required by the assessing unit.”

Criteria

Before Marshall had explained why Stewart’s should be granted variances, zoning board Chairman Maurice McCormick explained to the packed room that, when the ZBA is deciding whether or not to approve a variance request, there are five criteria that inform its decision.

“Because sometimes, with zoning applications, people think it’s a popularity contest,” McCormick said. He said that a decision isn’t made “just because everybody wants something or everybody doesn’t want something. We have criteria that we go by, and it’s worked pretty well ... over all these years.”

The five criteria used by the zoning board are:

— Whether the variance request would create an undesirable change in neighborhood character or cause detriment to nearby properties;

— Whether there are ways for an applicant to achieve the same level of benefit without having to seek an area variance;

— Whether the requested variance is substantial;

— Whether the proposed variance would adversely affect a neighborhood or district’s physical or environmental conditions; and

— Whether “the alleged difficulty was self-created, which consideration shall be relevant to the decision of the Zoning Board of Appeals, but not necessarily preclude the granting of the area variance.”

When Marshall had finished his presentation, McCormick said, “I don’t really see a problem with it, but I’m just polling the board here if anyone has a problem with it. But it looks kind of practical.”

McCormick also asked Marshall, specifically, what makes the building he was proposing unique from all other Stewart’s stores.

Marshall first responded that the building and its architecture don’t have much to do with the relief he was seeking, but then said that the company has attempted to match the front porch of Altamont Corners, which runs the entire length of the building.

Convenience store or gas station?

Chapter 355 subsection 38 of the village zoning code lays out special standards and requirements for a number of uses — for example, a bed-and-breakfast inn or a car wash — that are to be followed in order to obtain a special-use permit.

For a convenience store, the only special requirement in the village code is: “Outdoor storage of any stock or other material or outdoor display or sale of any goods shall be prohibited, unless stored or displayed within four feet of the building perimeter.”

A gasoline service station has 16 special standards and requirements.

By definition, the village code states that a convenience store may be included as part of a gasoline service station.

The incongruity between the number of standards and requirements that a gasoline service station and a convenience store have to meet in order to receive special-use permit, led board member Kathryn Provencher to question Lance Moore, Altamont’s building and zoning-enforcement officer, why he had made the determination that the project Stewart’s was proposing was a convenience store and not a gasoline service station.

On Tuesday, The Enterprise also asked Moore to explain his determination.

“Stewart’s is not a service station,” Moore told The Enterprise. “You can’t go there to get your tires changed, have your car inspected, and that’s what service stations do; Stewart’s doesn’t do any of that. It sells amenities that might be tied into the automobile industry.”

Stewart’s business model has changed over the years, Moore said, citing another chain of convenience stores in the area, Cumberland Farms, to further his point. “[Cumberland Farms] has grown from a convenience store to something with more options, and also has gasoline,” he said.

At the October 2018 planning board meeting, Moore praised Stewart’s for help he’s received from the company and its employees on volunteer projects he’s coordinated, and has said he has a personal relationship with the owners of the company.  

When asked if his relationship with the company affected his decision-making, Moore responded, “Absolutely not.”

“In my case … I think they are a good neighbor — but it does not affect my decision at all in Altamont,” he said.

“I realize that I am the building inspector but I am also a businessman, so I tend to make business decisions,” Moore said. “But I do not at all — I would never use that as a qualification for my determination.”

Clarifying a key point

After more discussion at the April 9 zoning board meeting about Moore’s interpretation of the Stewart’s project, John Hartzell, the zoning board’s attorney, explained that the proposal’s interpretation jurisdiction lies with the village zoning-enforcement officer, but is subject to appeal.

“There is no appeal of his determination for this board now,” Hartzell said.

Stewart’s current proposal before the zoning board, Hartzell said, is reliant upon Moore’s initial interpretation. “That’s not to say somebody else wouldn’t have a right to appeal that determination,” he said, of challenging its designation as a convenience store rather than a gasoline service station. Stewart’s, of course, will not appeal the determination because it fits with the company’s plan for the site, Hartzell said.

Next steps

By the end of the two-hour meeting, the zoning board had compiled a list of items that it asked Marshall to clarify or inquire further on, and then report back to the board, including:

— Amending the site plan to show the height of the building;

— Providing a ratio that shows the amount of floor space used by Stewart’s to operate the store compared to the space that customers use to purchase goods;

— Updating the lighting plan;

— Adding a vinyl-fence enclosure around the mechanical equipment in the rear of the building;

— Providing the board with information about how loud the building’s mechanical equipment would be;

— Attempting to re-situate the proposed new building so that there is a buffer area of at least 20 feet along the boundary line between any residential and business district, as the village code states;

— Installing a bike rack on the site.

— Providing parking-space information of similarly-sized stores; and

— Finding out if an increase in the size of the store would lead to an increase in employment or an increase in the number of man-hours worked.

 

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