Jon Phillips vs. the Guilderland Coalition for Responsible Growth

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

After initially requesting to hang four illuminated signs, Phillips Hardware was approved for one framed banner.

GUILDERLAND — For months, Jonathan Phillips tried to get signs approved for his hardware store and gas station/doughnut shop/mini-mart project at the corner of routes 146 and 158.

One obstacle, in Phillips’s view, on his path to approval has been the Guilderland Coalition for Responsible Growth, and during a recent zoning board of appeals meeting, he said the grassroots group had been trying to discredit him. 

Phillips, who feels bullied by the coalition and thinks it is anti-developer, said he’s starting his own organization.

To aid him in his endeavor, he’s reached out to Smart Growth America, a not-for-profit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. that itself is a coalition of advocacy groups supporting “transportation and development policies that favor high-density, mixed-use communities,” according to InfluenceWatch

Asked about a timeline for his new pro-growth group, Phillips said he had just sent in his paperwork and is waiting for a response.

In January, Phillips was before the zoning board seeking a variance from the town law that allows businesses only two signs with an area not to exceed 50 square feet — Phillips had been looking for four illuminated signs that would total 128 square feet.

That request met with unanimous pushback from the board, which landed Phillips back before its members in early February with a request for two lit signs that covered half the square footage, to which the board was more receptive. 

Phillips requested a postponement for the Feb. 16 meeting, and then told The Enterprise a few days later he was putting the proposal on hold to focus on his sign variances for his project at the corner of routes 146 and 158, which were approved by the zoning board in March

Also at the March meeting, Phillips sought and was granted two temporary banners, each 32 square feet in area, to hang outside his hardware store: one advertises services provided by the hardware store itself and the other promotes specialty brands carried by Phillips. 

The banners, which on May 4 he asked to make permanent, have become a bone of contention between Phillips and the Guilderland Coalition for Responsible Growth. 

Thomas Remmert, who chairs the zoning board, explained at the meeting that Phillips’s request was for four signs (this included his already-freestanding sign, which counted as two), while town code allows for three, and would be in excess of the permissible area for signs of 50 square feet (the area of the already-freestanding sign).

On May 18, Phillips was granted permission to hang one framed sign advertising in-store services.  


Gray’s view

Robyn Gray, who chairs the coalition, said at the May 4 meeting that she was speaking only as a resident and not on behalf of her organization. She said Phillips’s proposed signs would create a public hazard because they could be “too large, [and] somebody could slam on their brakes and say, ‘Oh, I need to go in there, they carry Carhartt.’ And they pull off the road.”

Or conversely, the sign could be “too small,” Gray said. “So they all of a sudden slow down to try to read it as to whether they want to stop there or not,” she continued. “So either way you look at it, advertising signs like these are going to cause a hazard to drivers and those people that are behind them.”

She went on, “The other thing that really struck me was that he said the only thing he cares about is his family and his business, which to me, says he really doesn’t care. And … the code for the town doesn’t matter. He wants that variance, and he will do anything that he has to, to get that variance.”

Gray cited as an example an earlier meeting where Phillips received approval for signs at his gas station/doughnut shop/mini-mart project at the corner of routes 146 and 158. 

After acknowledging that Phillips had reduced his sign request and received the approval, Gray said, “As soon as that happened, he was out the door in the hallway, loud, very loud, to the point where” the door was closed so others could hear.

Gray continued, “And what was the last item of business? The last item of business was granting him the temporary signs. And he wasn’t even in the room to say thank you, or to even know … that his temporary signage had been approved. That right there shows he wants what he wants.”


Phillips responds

For his part, Phillips said he just forgot that the temporary banner was on the agenda. 

“I didn’t walk out of here as a disrespect to the board or anybody. I just thought I paid a permit and a fee to put [up] two banners for 14 days. I didn’t think with everything else I was dealing [with] in the town, that that was really going to be a major issue,” he said. “And I didn’t even think I had to get, like, a full stamp or present on it. I just thought I filed and I get a permit and I paid my fees and I thought I was fine with the town.”

In fairness to Phillips, Remmert said, applicants seeking signs or temporary banners do not have to attend the meetings where their requests are being addressed. “It’s more procedural,” he said.

Phillips also addressed things said about him by the Guilderland Coalition for Responsible Growth. The coalition had said Phillips bullied the town into giving him what he wanted. 

“When you’re going to make accusations — publicly — and send out communications — publicly — which I have copies of which the Coalition for Responsible Growth has done, I have a right [to respond],” he said. “It’s a minority that comes out in these meetings and tries to discredit you. You want to talk about signs, great. Maybe I’m not following the rules; I think I am. But that’s stepping out of the boundaries of what a coalition [does], as far as I’m concerned ….” 

When asked to comment on Phillips’ May 4 meeting remarks, Gray told The Enterprise she “wouldn’t dignify anything that he had to say with a formal response.”

Phillips said during the meeting the coalition was anti-developer and pro-regulation.


Gray’s rejoinder

Gray was asked if her group was anti-development, to which she responded “No. Not at all.”

Asked if she could remember a project that the coalition immediately came out in favor of, she could not. When it was pointed out that having difficulty  remembering a project the coalition had supported made it look anti-development, Gray said, “That’s a good point. I’m not going to disagree with you on that.” 

After thinking about it some more, Gray said the coalition had supported Beacon Meadows, a now-dead 65-unit project that was to become Guilderland’s first development for people aged 55 and older, adoptive families, and young adults with developmental disabilities.

In separate follow-up emails, Gray said the coalition had also supported the Airgas project in the Northeastern Industrial Park and the Great Oaks apartment-complex project off of Church Road. 

Phillips on May 4 said he didn’t even hang the temporary banners until sometime around March 30. He said he asked for permission on April 12 to leave the signs up past the 14-day approved period for the banners, until the May 5 meeting so the town could receive public feedback on them, but was told by Jacqueline Coons, Guilderland’s chief building and zoning inspector, that the board wanted them down. 

Coons confirmed Phillips had contacted her on April 12, and that someone had complained about the signs. The zoning board’s attorney thought it would be prudent for Phillips to take down the signs until a decision had been made, which he did, according to Coons.


Who is bullying?

At the May 4 meeting, Phillips brought up the Guilderland Coalition for Responsible Growth’s email forwarded to him that encouraged its readers to contact Coons and the town board about the temporary banners, and also questioned the mission of the coalition in general. 

“The fact that they … questioned our timeline to the banner, I have no problem with that. As citizens, as people, you got a right. If you see something in town [that] doesn’t make sense, come forward … [but] I’m watching these meetings, I saw the meeting about Panera Bread.”

During a recent morning meeting, dubbed Coffee with the Town Planner, where Kenneth Kovalchik updated residents on a number of planning-related issues, a member of the coalition complained that the free refreshments provided by the town had been from Panera Bread instead from a local shop. 

“I’m seeing a pattern … This coalition is not representing the majority of the residents in this town.” Phillips said the coalition in its email called him a bully, but it’s the coalition, Phillips asserted, that is doing the bullying. He then read from a May 25 addendum to the coalition’s weekly newsletter about his temporary banners that the coalition said were hanging for longer than they were originally approved for.

The email said in part: “The signage at Phillips Hardware on Route 158 was given approval to have 2 temporary signs on the front side of his building.  The approval was given on March 16, 2022. It is now April 25, 2022. We have written the Town Board as well as Ms. Coons asking that she have Mr. Phillips remove the signs as per the temporary signage approval for only 2 weeks.”

Phillips then read: “This is a perfect example of a local business owner who chooses to bully the town into giving him what he wants, and yet he has no respect for the zoning laws or requirements that are in place. I am sure that he will say he forgot or wasn’t thinking,” he stopped reading and said, “We do agree, I did admit because I am vulnerable. It’s OK to admit you’re wrong. I did forget about the banner when I left and I had to be here. But it sounds like that wasn’t a huge infraction.

“I mean, that’s a big serious infraction in town…” Phillips said with apparent sarcasm. “These statements were false.” 

A vainglorious Phillips then ticked off all that he’s done for the town, which, to his credit, is an extensive list. 

Phillips often includes many of his good deeds when speaking to the board when he’s out of compliance. He was asked why that was. 

He conceded in the normal course of action his good deeds amounted to nil when it came applying for a sign variance. He also noted often it was others who came to speak in his defense who spoke about all he’d done for the community, but added he also felt the need to defend himself against comments of the coalition, which he said was saying he didn’t do anything for anybody.

As an example, he pointed to Gray’s comments during the May 4 meeting about Phillips wanting what he wants when he forgot and walked out of the meeting yet still received approval for his temporary signs for his hardware store. 

But Phillips said just because of his family’s community service, “I never was asking for, ‘Oh, because we do this, we should get a sign bigger than everybody else.’ I was still following the variances and codes.”

After 135 years in business, he said, “our name matters” and “our brand matters,” and he was defending both even though he felt he shouldn’t have to.

“I shouldn’t be defending myself, in all honesty. That’s kind of ridiculous. I should just be a member of society and living my life, you know?” he said. “Our family is a positive contributor to Guilderland. Does that matter or not? I don’t know. It matters to me and my family. It matters to some people, and it doesn’t have to matter to everybody.”

Gray said, if Phillips had been more upfront with his neighbors about his sign proposals, didn’t “piss them off,” had “a little different demeanor,” instead of acting “holier-than-thou,” maybe he wouldn’t have to tout all his good deeds.

In March, Gerd Beckmann, who lives not far from the hardware store at the Appel Inn complex on Route 146, submitted to the board a 38-page document that contained, among other things, a petition with the names of 35 of Phillips’s neighbors with standing who were against the signs for his gas station project. 

Asked about the bullying accusation, Gray said what she wrote was an observation, adding, “He was bullying because he didn’t stop. Every time, he just kept going, going, going.”

Phillips, when speaking at meetings, tends to be long-winded. The zoning board spent approximately four hours and 50 minutes on Phillips’s sign requests across four meetings; about a third of that time, 90 minutes, was listening to Phillips himself speak. 

Gray also noted that Phillips had been “very shrewd” during the May 4 meeting because he’d allowed others to speak before him, so they couldn’t rebut his remarks. When his sign request came up on the agenda, Phillips had initially declined to offer the board an update on his application, as is typical of an applicant.

Phillips told The Enterprise he’d been instructed by “intelligent people” who attend board meetings that his process for six months should be to sit and make notes. “I want to hear what everybody has to say, positive and negative, before I speak; that’s not being shrewd,” Phillips said.

He cited as an example being able to respond to Gray’s comments at the May 4 meeting when she said he had been rude walking out of an earlier meeting in which he had received an approval but didn’t stick around for the hearing on his temporary banners because he just forgot they were on the agenda. “Well, if I spoke first, I wouldn’t have been able to address and correct that,” he said.

Gray happened to be the first person who spoke during the May 4 meeting.

In the three meetings other than May 4 where a Phillips sign proposal appeared on the zoning board agenda, Phillips’s sign maker, Tom Wheeler, was the first to speak on the project, followed by Phillips in two of the meetings; in the third meeting, one of Phillips’s partners on the gas station project spoke second.

Gray reiterated that she wasn’t speaking for her group; she was speaking only as a Guilderland resident. 

Phillips made the point that Gray’s words as a resident match those in the coalition’s newsletter. 

“When Robyn Gray writes the stuff and sends it out from the coalition, she connects the coalition to her personal views,” Phillips told The Enterprise. “If she wrote that about me and she said, this is Robyn Gray’s perspective in a coalition newsletter, then it’s Robyn Gray’s perspective. But when she puts it under the coalition, she’s making it the coalition is sending that out.”

On May 4, Phillips read through the coalition’s mission and goals, and wondered what he did to run afoul of those ideals and aims. “They made a mistake targeting me,” he said. Phillips said he was told to be quiet, he almost had all his approvals, and the coalition would just move on to its next target. 

“Well, no thank you,” he said. 

“I don’t care what signs I get. I don’t care what goes on in my life. I’m not going to sit here and be idle when I’ve been attacked,” he said.

“As a result, we request that a retraction of these false and insulting statements be issued to all that receive this inaccurate information,” Phillips said at the meeting. 

Phillips reiterated his calls for a retraction in a May 19 interview with The Enterprise, but the coalition had already issued one following the May 4 meeting, in its May 8 newsletter.  

The newsletter said in part there had been a “very contentious discussion where Mr. Phillips made accusations against GCRG and was offended by our statement in a previous newsletter. We agreed to retract the statement, and we stand by that, but it should be noted that these were observations. Please consider this a formal retraction.”

Phillips concluded during the May meeting, “I’m not going to sit here and let this coalition, in my eyes, continue to go bully — where they say I’m the bully — you’re bullying neighbors, they bully [the] town, they bully [during] meetings, I’m going to take a stand against this.” 

But, in the end, as both sides acknowledged, it’s just signs. 


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