Advice sought Board picks five to shape town rsquo s future

By David S. Lewis

NEW SCOTLAND – Public uproar over a developer’s plan to build a big-box mall led the town board to adopt a six-month moratorium on commercial building over 30,000 square foot.

Last Wednesday, the town board appointed a five-member advisory committee which includes long-time New Scotland residents with experience in feasibility studies and real-estate law: J. Michael Naughton, Liz Kormos, John T. Biscone, Cynthia Eliot, and committee chair, Roselyn Robinson.

The town board, through phone conversations and e-mail correspondence, determined that each member would make a personal appointment to the committee, in an attempt to create a well-rounded board with the collective experience to help the town update its commercial-zoning code, bringing it in line with the comprehensive plan adopted in 1994.

“It was not a perfect solution,” Thomas Dolin, the town supervisor, said of the process of appointing the board.  “Realistically, it was probably the only way we would have been able to agree on five people.  There are three lawyers; I don’t know if that’s good or bad.  Being a lawyer myself, I am not going to comment.”

Dolin expressed confidence in the committee.

“They certainly have the qualification and abilities to deal with the subject matter.  I think they were all listening to the public; they’ll certainly be able to reach a consensus and come up with something the town board can work with.”

Dolin said that, with commercial application being suspended for only six months, there was an urgency to get the committee off the ground. 

Taking resumes and applications “would have been the ideal and normal way to go about it, if we had more time; but, for instance, this board is going to meet tonight,” said Dolin.  “It would have been a luxury, in my opinion.  We would have easily consumed a month, assuming we could agree on them, and that we wouldn’t just revert back to this format.

“I don’t know what the likelihood of success would have been; I suspect we would have returned to this method,” he concluded.

Naughton

“I see this as a tremendous opportunity for the town to re-examine the zoning laws,” said J. Michael Naughton, Dolin’s nominee, of his role on the committee.

“I want to be responsive to the views expressed by the people at the hearing, regarding the commercial district and what the want in that area,” said Naughton, a lawyer.  “I heard a lot of people talk about the need for mixed-use and the concerns that big-box or power-center development of that scale would not be appropriate for that site.”

The 179-acre site is at the intersection of routes 85 and 85A.  Naughton was a leading voice of New Scotlanders for Sound Economic Development, the citizen-activist group that formed in response to the Sphere Group’s interest in developing the Bender melon site.  His background is in land-use and zoning law and includes a 1998 case between Wal-Mart and the town of North Elba in the Adirondacks.

According to Naughton’s biography, available on the town’s website, Wal-Mart sued North Elba, the town in which the village of Lake Placid is located, when its planning board denied the mega-retailer permission to build.

“There was a separate case challenging a local law that limited the size of the retail establishments in the area,” said Naughton during a telephone interview on Wednesday.  “I believe that case was dismissed as moot, because the planning board decided to deny the permit.”

“He asked me if I wanted to be on it a day or two before the last town board meeting,” said Naughton of Dolin’s invitation to be a member of the advisory committee.  “I had offered to be on the committee before the public hearing; I let him know that I was interested.”

Dolin said that Naughton had come highly recommended, and that his résumé spoke for itself.

Kormos

“She has a tremendous amount of knowledge when it comes to lining up developers for a specific area and situation.  She’s one that, though some people might disagree, factually she’s ideal for promoting some kind of commercial growth in that area that fits, and she has the expertise of working all over the country,” Councilman Douglas LaGrange said of Liz Kormos, of Kormos and Company, LLC, his appointee.

“That’s a lot of applicable knowledge that will lend itself to tailoring just what needs to be in the zoning with what is in the comprehensive plan,” he added.

Kormos agreed with LaGrange’s assessment, and pointed to her knowledge of market feasibility and modern development trends.  She is a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, the association devoted to promoting mixed-use walkable communities.

“I think I can specifically address viability from my experience in working with developers, and I know a fair amount about other projects that have been developed in other parts of the country,” she said.

Kormos said that LaGrange had approached her with the idea of a committee during the town’s push for a moratorium.

“When there was discussion about the whole committee idea, I responded that I would be happy to serve,” she said.

Kormos said she thought the committee had been given a clear direction and plenty of guidance from the various studies that had already been conducted.

“I am taking a very open approach; I think our charge is very clear, and we are going to start with the comprehensive plan,” she said.  “I think the comprehensive plan has some clear direction, and there’s also the RPAC study, which was completed,” she said of the Residents’ Planning Advisory Committee.  “And I think there’s a visual impact study that has been done, as well.

“All those will give us directions as to what kind of development should be allowed, and encouraged, in that corridor.”

The Enterprise asked whether Kormos believes the current zoning code to be a beacon for large-scale commercial development.  She said yes, it is.

“I think, by the lack of having any kind of detail in what types of commercial development we want in the corridor, leaving it wide-open the way it is, we inadvertently attracted a big box because we didn’t have anything in the code indicating we didn’t want that kind of development,” she said.  “The comprehensive plan and the RPAC said one thing, and the zoning code didn’t say anything; it was actually silent.” 

Biscone

When Councilwoman Peg Neri asked John T. Biscone to serve on the committee his response was, “It would be an honor to serve,” Neri said of the long-time New Scotland resident and attorney.

Formerly the town attorney for New Scotland, Biscone has served for nearly 30 years on the Albany County Planning Commission, said Neri. He was also the town supervisor for Coeymans before moving to New Scotland three decades ago.

“He seems to have a tremendous amount of experience, real estate and real property issues in his law practice; he brings a wealth of knowledge,” said Neri. “The committee was charged with a very particular task; I think you need to have people who are experienced in zoning law.

“I think John’s experienced in zoning and land use, he’s open minded, and I think all of his experience enables him to see the big picture,” she said, and added that he is someone who believed in “giving back.”

Neri indicated that she hadn’t taken the nomination lightly.

“He wasn’t my first choice, to be honest. I talked to lots of different people,” said Neri. “I talked to Bruce Houghton, an architect by training who has done some development, and is a long-time resident. He declined for personal reasons, but he would have been an asset to the committee.”

Neri said she also approached John Egan, who has headed the RPAC.

“He was been involved in the RPAC committee years ago. He would not have been able to serve, under this rule of [Governor] Paterson’s administration, because he is the commissioner of the Office of General Service for New York State, and would not have been allowed to serve.”

She said she had also considered Dean Sommer, who was involved with NS4SED, and with ChucK Voss, a senior planner with C.T. Male Associates, P.C. Voss, who is on the town’s planning board, worked with Doug Lagrange and others to design a potential concept plan for the Bender site that would have included mixed-use residential and commercial development.

Neri drafted the advisory committee’s handout for the May 14 board meeting, which detailed the committee’s charge. Neri said she got much of the language regarding the governance of the committee from the RPAC commission, and the charge came from the wording of Local Law D, the resolution that defined the goals of the six-month moratorium.

Neri said the committee hadn’t been rushed, and that she felt the project was conducted openly.

“I don’t think it was rushed at all. I think the public asked us to do something, and we’re responding,” she said. “I think the committee was formed with the utmost regard for the people of New Scotland, so that the committee would be considered objective by fair minded people.

“That was the objective,” she concluded.

Eliot

Councilman Richard Reilly nominated a member of the planning board, Cynthia Eliot. The decision caused some controversy at last week’s town board meeting, as Eliot had voted against the moratorium.

At the time, Reilly said that Michael Welti, a senior planner with Behan Planning Associates, LLC, had advised the board that a member of the planning board be included on the committee. However, Welti told the board that the recommendation had been made in case the comprehensive plan was found deficient. The moratorium was enacted to give the town time to realign the zoning code with the comprehensive plan, not to change the plan itself.

Reilly decided to stand by his nomination. He explained his reasoning in a phone interview.

“I think it is appropriate to have someone on there with a detailed knowledge of our zoning laws,” said Reilly. “It’s not unusual; when we had the RPAC, Doug LaGrange, who was on the planning board at that time, was on the committee,” he said.

“I’ve been liaison to the planning board for more than eight years, and during that time I have been very impressed with Cynthia,” he said. “I believe she always brings an open mind to issues.

“She’s articulate, and she is able to work well with others,” Reilly said of Eliot. “I think it’s important to have at least one member of the committee that has some significant experience not just with land-use issues generally, but with our code and our comprehensive plan specifically,” he said.

Reilly also said it was important to have different perspectives on the committee. “I think it is important that it is balanced, that no one perspective should dominate the committee,” he said. “I think it is a good, and well-rounded committee…And I look forward to seeing what they come up with.

“It’s a committee of five people. It reflects a number of different perspectives. Will these five people represent precisely each and every individual’s perspective?” he asked. “Probably not, but I think they can provide a perspective that is well-rounded and balanced.”

He concluded, “I’m very optimistic that they will. Not only do they represent a variety of perspectives, they are also reasonable individuals…They will seek common ground.”

Robinson

Councilwoman Deborah Baron chose Roselyn Robinson for the advisory committee. “She’s eloquent and articulate, and very experienced,” said Baron of her nominee, a former president of the Voorheesville Parent-Teacher Association, and a member of the town’s board of assessment review.

“She’s very fair-minded…Her personality speaks for itself,” she said. “I appreciate her intellect.

“My family ran a grocery store; we were here when Duffy Mott was making applesauce,” Robinson said of her history with the town.

At its May 14 meeting, the town board selected Robinson to chair the committee. When The Enterprise asked why she felt she had received the leadership position, she said casually, “Someone had to do it.”

She went on, “I would consider myself very organized…Probably to a fault, if you ask my husband.”

Robinson said that the advisory committee’s first meeting, scheduled for May 21, the day she was interviewed, was a chance for the committee to get organized right out of the gate.

“I would like to get a calendar set up for the next few months so people can plan their summers,” she said. “Already, it’s hard to get five people together, particularly busy people, so tonight will be more of an organizational meeting. Handing out these packets, which include the RPAC report, the town’s zoning laws, the comprehensive plan…It’s quite a thick packet,” said Robinson. “I wanted everyone to have it, to look over it before the next meeting.”

Robinson said her plans for the meeting also covered reviewing the committee’s charge and establishing rapport within the committee.

“I think we have to go through the charge given to us by the town the other night,” she concluded, “and make sure we are all on the same page; and again, everyone has the same material.”

Outside help

Dolin said he met with a planning consultant in early April.

“I met with him at that time, merely to see if he was interested and would have the time,” said Dolin.  “That was based on my personal feeling that, following the February board meeting, we needed some outside professional advice.”

The planner, Mike Welti of Behan Planning, LLC, introduced himself at the May 14 town board meeting.  Welti said that both he and the principal of the company, John J. Behan, were formerly employees of Saratoga Associates.

The planner would, if hired, perform in a consulting capacity, as a resource for the town board and the advisory committee.  Several board members agreed that having an outside perspective could be valuable.

The Sphere Group contracted Saratoga and Associates to engineer the concept proposal presented at the April 30 special meeting of the town board.  The firm is also involved with developing code for open spaces in neighboring Bethlehem as a result of the Vista development project there.

 “Half the planners in AlbanyCounty have worked for Saratoga Associates,” said Welti.  Kormos said she was comfortable working with Welti.

“I used to work for a developer.  Does that make me too developer-friendly?” she asked.  “I don’t think so.  I think it allows me to know more about how a developer works, and I think that’s useful.”

Dolin concurred, and said that Welti’s job was so specific as to preclude any possible conflicts of interest.

“I think he has very defined tasks, he is being retained for a very specific purpose, and those won’t involve him making judgments that would be in conflict,” he said. 

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