In Guilderland, developers rule, residents be damned

To the Editor:

I am extremely disappointed not only with the Hiawatha development decision, but with the whole process involved since its inception.

The recommendation by the Guilderland Planning Board and the recent decision as stated by the zoning board of appeals ignored or misinterpreted the valid points put forward verbally and in writing by concerned residents.

The need for senior housing in addition to the 772 units existing, approved or under consideration in the town of Guilderland, is not supported by the master plan as cited in the decision. Not only does that document contain 20-year-old data, the table pertaining to the senior housing question is labeled as statistically insignificant.

The Hamlet Neighborhood Plan, which supersedes zoning codes, recommends the preservation of specifically identified green infrastructure parcels, not just a part of them. The zoning code specifies maximum height of buildings regardless of the land elevation upon which they sit; whether they are six feet higher or lower than nearby structures.

Claiming that this apartment complex is suitable in the proposed location is acceptable because there are already multiple apartments in the area begs the question: When is enough, enough? Must Route 155 be turned into continuous apartments from Western Avenue to the Voorheesville town line?

If any of the board members rendering these decisions lived in the immediate Hiawatha vicinity, would they be so cavalier in saying that the project will have no effect on their property values or their ability to sell their home? So much of the rationale stated in the decision as read on the evening of the approval is pathetically inaccurate.

In the final analysis, one-and-a-half year’s worth of carefully researched input from several town residents was completely and utterly ignored.

Dropping a medical complex from the Hiawatha proposal, as well as lowering the height of the buildings from four stories to three, thus negating the project designation as a Planned Unit Development and moving it out of the hands of the town board was a reflection of the developer biting off more than he could chew rather than being a nod to local residents as was publicly stated.

It was clearly the developer’s backup plan all along. In the last meeting prior to reading the decision on the proposal, the acting chairman of the zoning board of appeals did at least acknowledge the existence of the verbal and written statements from townspeople, which was in contrast to the stoic planning board that appeared to hear our comments as an annoyance to its preconceived conclusions.

As for the whole process of considering development in the town of Guilderland, developers rule, residents be damned. And, it’s still ongoing.

We did learn a great deal about how our town government operates and none of the experience was comforting to say the least. Apparently, when a developer has a proposal, it is handled by a representative of the applicant who not only has prior experience with town officials, but is most likely already on a first-name basis with them.

The proposal is discussed in private in order to meet administrative details, not necessarily in terms of “planning,” the criteria for which are decided at the higher echelons of town government while cherry-picking the master plan.

By the time the proposal sees the light of day, in this case approximately a year later, much of it is a forgone conclusion only requiring the perfunctory public laundering to be legal. A recent interaction between Pyramid and Westmere Terrace residents gives a glimmer of hope of how development should proceed.

Due to the structure of town government, a development proposal that is not a planned unit development only needs the OK from the planning and zoning boards composed of appointed individuals culled from political and personal positions and are without term limits.

None of the board members hold elected positions and are therefore not accountable, yet they make decisions that affect the town for generations and decades to come. Two of the bodies — for conservation and the other for land use — are of curious interest.

The Conservation Advisory Council is not an automatic participant in project proposals despite the potential effect on the environment. The Land Use Advisory Committee, which advises other boards, has individuals from those other boards sitting as members. Thus, that board is in fact advising itself! Other members are Realtors with obvious interests.

In secondary education, the lessons of Civics 101 teach that, in our democracy, government is divided into three branches constituting a system of checks and balances. While even at the county level, there exists both an executive and legislature representing districts, at the town level, there is only a supervisor and councilpersons, all of whom deliberate in unison. Since council members are elected at large, it is noteworthy that the Guilderland Hamlet, the location of the Hiawatha project, is not represented on the town board.

Not only are there no checks and balances in our town government, those elected do not necessarily make the important decisions. To function in a democratic manner, the council, elected by district, should meet separately from the supervisor; the boards and committees should be advisory-only; and all final decisions on development should be made by the council and signed off or vetoed by the supervisor with the possibility of override.

The town needs to immediately start the process of reconsidering the master plan. Also, it needs to consider charter review within state law to bring a democratic process to our town government, including considering if partisan politics have any place at the town level.

Let the debacle of the Hiawatha project, the loss of the last pristine green space in the center of Guilderland, be a lesson to gain some semblance of sanity for the future of the town. Most importantly, for the time being, townspeople must be involved early and often in development considerations. They, the taxpaying residents, not the developers, are of primary importance.

Frank Casey


Editor’s note: At its May 15 meeting, the Guilderland Zoning Board of Appeals approved changing a residential zone to a multiple-residence zone to allow Hiawatha Trails at 6051 State Farm Road to proceed with building 256 apartment units for older residents.

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