After two decades of service, Chairman McCormick not reappointed to Altamont ZBA 

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Former Altamont Zoning Board of Appeals Chairman Maurice McCormick built up his intimate knowledge of the village, his grasp of its uniqueness and what needed to be protected, on walks throughout the village with his dog, Brody. McCormick served on the zoning board for over 20 years. He was not reappointed this past March.

ALTAMONT — Maurice McCormick, the chairman of the Altamont Zoning Board of Appeals for the past 15 years, was not reappointed to the board by Mayor Kerry Dineen at the end of March.

“I wasn’t planning on leaving,” McCormick said.

At the April meeting of the Board of Trustees, Dineen said she was asked about appointments and if board seats were ever rotated. “I think what brought it up is [that] Stewart’s especially had a lot more people that are involved and want to be involved in the boards,” the mayor said in April.

The convenience store’s plan to expand has caused controversy in the village for several years. After an earlier village board rejected the corporation’s request to rezone a residential lot as commercial, the current board — on a second vote engendered by a legal challenge — passed the rezone, 4 to 1.

At one time, McCormick said, it was difficult to get people to serve on the village’s planning and zoning boards.

Appointments are anticipated at the village board’s May meeting for McCormick’s former seat as well as the zoning board’s alternate, which was left vacant in March when Sal Tassone took over for Isaiah Swart, who resigned in January. 

McCormick, too, saw Stewart’s as the reason for not being reappointed to the zoning board, but for different reasons.

The changing of the designation of Stewart’s proposed Altamont Boulevard project from a convenience store, “which would have been more lenient on the variances,” McCormick said, to a gasoline service station, “that was the beginning of my end probably — and that’s fine.”


Two decades of service

McCormick had originally been appointed to the village planning board by Mayor Ken Runion in 1998, he said, but that appointment lasted only about a year because the board wasn’t busy at the time.

McCormick was then appointed to the zoning board, which at the time “did everything,” McCormick said; the zoning board performed a lot of the functions the planning board currently performs, which is something that changed only a few years ago. 

Asked what made him take the original appointment, McCormick said, “It sounds kind of corny, but you fall in love with the village,” driving home along Route 146 after a hard day’s work, “you can feel the air change.”

McCormick works in Albany, at the county courthouse. He has built two homes in the village.

Many in Altamont don’t realize how valuable the character of the village is, McCormick said, because some villagers are willing to let Stewart’s do what it wants. The company was not leaving the village, he said, no matter what the zoning board did. Stewart’s understands how valuable Altamont is, how unique it is, he said.

And as suburban sprawl springs up all around the village, McCormick said, Altamont remains an oasis, a Mayberry of sorts — idyllic. 

“And you’ve got to protect that,” he said.

For over 20 years, the zoning board has tried to maintain the character of a village that gets a little closer to Albany every day, he said. 

The zoning board never had found itself the center of controversy because it’s always given out variances and put out restrictions that were fair — there were never letters to the Enterprise editor bemoaning decisions made by the Altamont Zoning Board of Appeals, he said.

People understood, McCormick said, meetings were never adversarial because the board was fair. 

But McCormick, it would appear, has no qualms poking the bear.

One time, he said, he went to the village hall to pick up some maps and the mayor was there, and she said she wanted to move quickly with the Stewart’s project and wanted to do a joint planning-zoning board meeting to get it done.

McCormick said he told her that would not happen. 

“That pissed her off,” he said.

That McCormick didn’t want to hold a meeting, Dineen agreed, but not about the type of meeting, and her view diverged from his on a few other details as well.

“When it comes to planning board and zoning board meetings, I have zero input into whether or not the boards have a meeting or the timing of the meetings,” Dineen wrote to The Enterprise in an email. “Quite some time ago, the idea of holding a pre-concept public meeting for the Stewart’s application was something being discussed in the building department.”

The pre-concept public meeting, Dineen says, wouldn’t have replaced any zoning and planning board meetings, nor would it have fast-tracked the process. She claims, “It would have extended the process.”

McCormick, according to the mayor, “Did not want to have this meeting and that was his decision to make.”


The ups and downs 

For McCormick, the best part about being on the zoning board was when residents would show up with their set of (mostly-compliant) plans and the board would apprise them of which variances they may need while saying: We can work something else out. “Then the applicant says, ‘Hey that’s great, that’s even better,’” he said.

That has happened a few times with garages. 

A resident tore down a garage on Main Street and wanted to put up another building, he said, which was thought to be too big. But then, as you look throughout the village, there are quite a few accessory buildings — old barns — that are quite large that are behind people’s homes, McCormick’s house included, he said. 

Now the too-big building isn’t too big — it’s not out of character, it fits, and the redesign is even better for the neighbor than the original design, McCormick said, “So it works.”

McCormick built up his intimate knowledge of Altamont, his grasp of its uniqueness, and what needs to be protected in the most rote and man’s-best-friendliest of activities — taking his dog for walks throughout the village. 

His most contentious time on the board, McCormick said, has been the Stewart’s ordeal of the past year. 

His big thing over the years was that, as the chairman, he ran the meetings, but he would tell everyone that he was just one vote — and he wanted to hear everyone’s opinion. He didn’t want anyone to feel intimidated about speaking his or her mind.

“I may say something that you didn’t think of and people say things that other people don’t think of, and it creates a great discussion,” McCormick said of open deliberation among the board members. 

But now, he feels board members come to meetings with their decisions almost-already made — then advocate for one side, rather than being unbiased.

McCormick thinks the three variances for Stewart’s that were passed on March 31 were passed due to peer pressure placed on board members, a lack of  board-member experience, and the fix being in — decisions were made on the project before all the facts were heard.


‘... beginning of my end ...’

It was clear from the beginning that Stewart’s was a project that some elected officials as well as some appointed board members wanted, McCormick said. 

That’s why he wrote the letter to the Enterprise editor that he did, in which he said he was not against a new Stewart’s being built in Altamont; McCormick’s concern was over the the size of the store (proposed to be 3,340 square feet whereas the current shop is 2,700 square feet) and its proposed location so close the house at 111 Helderberg Ave.

“I probably go over this Stewart’s thing in my head every day of the week,” McCormick said. “On different things I could have said, maybe different ways I could have worked something to get people on the board to look at it differently — I mean, I do, I go over it every day.”

It’s a bad project, McCormick said, particularly its size; he thinks Stewart’s could have been forced to put a smaller building on the site.

Driving through Altamont, you see the restored train-station-turned-library, the buildings that house the yarn shop and Veronica’s restaurant, McCormick said, and then you see the same Stewart’s that they have in Latham. And Stewart’s is going to make some design changes, like matching some of the architectural details of Altamont Corners — but the size and location, it didn’t have to be, he said.

Or maybe he’s just wrong about all of it — and down the road the project will look great, he admitted.

In May 2019, the zoning board voted unanimously to overturn Building Inspector Lance Moore’s classification of the project as a convenience store and classified it instead as a gasoline service station. Under the village code, a convenience store has just one requirement for a special-use permit compared to 16 for a gasoline service station. 

However, as a convenience store, the project would have needed six variances, whereas the that gasoline service station project that was approved by the zoning board in March required three variances — albeit with a much-debated variance, at least on the part of McCormick and board member Kathryn Provencher, which ultimately allowed Stewart’s to build its new shop 30 feet closer to the adjacent residential property than the zoning code allows.

During that May meeting last year, had the board taken two votes — one at the beginning of the meeting and another at the end, there would have likely been two very different outcomes, due in large part to the board’s 20-year veterans.  

Provencher, as McCormick had been, is a two-decade member of the zoning board. Her term ends next year and McCormick thinks her not being reappointed is guaranteed.

At the beginning of that May 2019 meeting (the recording of that meeting is available in the online version of this story), McCormick opened up discussion and asked members to weigh in with their opinions. 

Swart, who has since resigned, wanted to call Stewart’s a convenience store, based on Stewart’s company history. Tresa Matulewicz said she could “see” Swart’s argument but wasn’t definitive on a determination one way or another. 

Danny Ramirez, who was appointed to a five-year term as the board’s chairman in April, said Stewart’s “leans more toward” the village’s definition of a gasoline service station, but then he said he “tended to lean toward” classifying the project as a convenience store. BecauseStewart’s only dispenses gasoline, he said, “There’s nobody there servicing your vehicle, per se.”

McCormick asked board members not to think the of  “service” in gasoline service station as on-site oil changes and brake jobs, because that wasn’t the definition (Provencher also pointed out the village code had a separate designation for automobile repair garages without gas) — the code says a gasoline service station may include those things, just as it may include a convenience store.

After more deliberation, it became clear that the project had been misclassified by Moore and the board overturned his decision.  

Earlier this month, Matulewicz, Ramirez, and Tassone voted to approve each of Stewart’s three variance requests; McCormick voted for two of the variances but against allowing the company to build its new shop 30 feet closer to the adjacent residential property than code allows. Provencher voted against all three variances.

The project’s redesignation, McCormick maintains, “Would have been more lenient on the variances [and] … Was the beginning of my end probably — and that’s fine.”

Dineen disagrees with the notion that McCormick wasn’t reappointed based largely on how he handled the Stewart’s situation. “Not at all,” the mayor wrote to The Enterprise in an email, “and I am disappointed that was his take-away from our conversation.”

Dineen wrote that she spoke with McCormick about wanting to get more residents involved with boards because, as she had said at the April meeting, there has been increased interest in them in part because of Stewart’s. “Historically, that has not been the case and members of the zoning and planning board would generally renew and agree to extend their terms another five years,” the mayor wrote.


What’s next for the village

This one Stewart’s project goes back to at least 2015; it’s sapped board members of hundreds of hours of their time and the village of thousands of dollars in court fees, with little to show.  

Asked her thoughts about how these processes can be moved along — and not only new businesses, but for small businesses in the village likely to be impacted by COVID-19, Mayor Dineen wrote:

“I do not believe that we need to change the process we use to approve new businesses in Altamont. The  application process to acquire a Special Use Permit can be accomplished in two to three planning board meetings. The Stewart’s application was, and is not typical in any way. This particular application had components that involved all of our municipal boards so it was much more involved.

“I am definitely concerned with maintaining and supporting our current business community; The Village will be working with Johnathan Phillips of Phillips Hardware and Troy Miller of C.M. Fox for a social distancing event they are hosting to celebrate the businesses of Altamont. There will be more information to come, but basically the main purpose is to shine the light on Altamont businesses and have the community unite to get them through a tough time so we can all benefit moving forward.”


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