Stewart’s Shops to sell former Smitty’s

Enterprise file photo
For Sale (soon): After months and months of seeking approval, Stewart’s will place for sale the former Smitty’s Tavern at the intersection of routes 85A and 156 in Voorheesville. 

VOORHEESVILLE – The village has yet to adopt its comprehensive plan, and already it’s having an affect.

As soon as next week, Stewart’s Shops could put the former Smith’s Tavern on the market, said Chuck Marshall, who works in real-estate development for Stewart’s.

Voorheesville is in the process of updating its comprehensive plan, which it would then use for guidance when it updates its zoning laws.

Under the proposed comprehensive plan, the area near the intersection of routes 85A and 156, encompassing roughly the Mobil gas station, the former Smith’s Tavern, the Voorheesville Elementary School, and Voorheesville firehouse – which is situated in the Vly Creek floodplain – would be rezoned as the “Creekside Commercial District.”

That new district, under the proposed plan, would not allow for a Stewart’s Shop let alone one with a gas station attached.

That’s because as a “use,” Stewart’s Shop “does not promote the desired character for this district.” Specifically, it is a “Formula Business,” which according to the plan is “required by contractual or other arrangements to be virtually identical to businesses in other communities because of standardized architecture, services, merchandise, decor, uniforms and the like.”

Other prohibited uses would affect a Stewart’s from being built as well. The plan recommends against businesses that “store petroleum and/or chemicals” or are “petroleum dispensing.”

The specific prohibited uses cited in the May 2018 draft  of the plan – like the provision against formula-based businesses – did not exist in the November 2017 draft.

The May 2018 draft has an Appendix, 15 pages long, that lays out in detail “concepts for new zoning districts proposed in plan” that is not in the November 2017 draft.

After Stewart’s had received the latest zoning proposal, Marshall said, it sent a letter to the village to voice its concern that the village created a number of non-conforming uses in the proposed district, citing the Mobil Station and elementary school as examples.

The second concern was the provision against formula-based businesses, Marshall said, so even if Stewart’s had complied with the zoning, it would not have been allowed to build a shop.

Marshall said that Stewart’s price tag for the building will be slightly more than the $850,000 it has already sunk into it; $750,000 for the building and $100,000 in municipal review.

Marshall was asked if he expected Stewart’s to make its money back, and he said that he did not know. “That’s the fundamental difference between municipal plans and the market. We bought it in a market-based transaction and now the village has created an outlier in the market,” he said.

History

Stewart’s proposal to build a new shop in Voorheesville is part of the reason the village decided to develop its first comprehensive land-use plan.

In September 2016, the Voorheesville Village Board held a public hearing on a six-month moratorium to prevent any new gas pumps in the village. Mayor Robert Conway said at the time that the village proposed the moratorium because of longstanding concerns about water contamination.

Marshall then responded,  “It’s more about zoning than water quality.”

Marshall maintained that the village didn’t want two gas stations next to each other. “I’ve made  an offer to the company that owns the Mobil station,” he said, referencing L.P. Sunoco. “Nothing’s come of it; they’re not interested in selling.”

At the September 2016 hearing, Richard Reilly, the village attorney, said, “If the board decides to change zoning, it has the right to do it; Stewart’s proceeds at its own risk.” Stewart’s made its application that month.

Ultimately, the village board, after the contentious September hearing, deferred taking action on a moratorium. After the hearing, Conway told The Enterprise, “We’ve been asking ourselves: Is the current zoning sufficient?”

The village had also been dealing with a controversial proposal for a planned-unit development that would have allowed St. Matthew’s Church to build an apartment complex next to the church on Mountainview Street and would have applied as well to the other half-dozen tracts of 7.5 acres of land in the village.

Later in September 2016, the village board decided to appoint a committee to work with a paid consultant to create a comprehensive land-use plan, which has led to the current zoning proposal.

In April 2017, the planning commission held a packed hearing on granting the special-use permit where 13 of the 21 speakers opposed the Stewart’s plan, five favored it, and three were in between. Most of the concerns focused on increased traffic, flooding, and safety. Some residents expressed loyalty to the family-run Mobil gas station, and others expressed regret that the village’s only sit-down restaurant, a long-time community gathering place, was being sold.

The sale of the property closed on May 27, 2017. Owners Jon D. McClelland and John H. Mellen sold the property to Stewart’s Shops Corp. for $750,000, according to Albany County records, which also show that McClelland and Mellen purchased the property in 1991 from Frank L. Smith Jr. and Gertrude R. Smith for $220,000.

Asked in May 2017 what would happen if Stewart’s did not get the required permit, Marshall said, “We’ve never encountered that, so we don’t have a plan.”

In June 2017,  the village’s planning commission said it would pursue in-depth environmental review of the project, despite a threat from Stewart’s Shops to sue. The commission had concerns about pedestrian safety as well as about flooding and erosion.

“We decided to do a full-blown SEQR review,” said the commission’s chairwoman, Georgia Gray, referring to the State Environmental Quality Review process.

“We made crystal clear in our letter, we don’t think you have the lawful authority to go down that path,” responded Leah Everhart, a lawyer with Miller, Mannix, Schachner & Hafner of Glens Falls, representing Stewart’s.

Everhart wrote in a letter to the commission, “We are aware of no other Stewart’s Shop across the State (of which there are over 300) ever being subject to a Positive Declaration.”

The planning commission proceeded with its review; Stewart’s did not sue.

The attorney representing Smith’s Tavern, James Linman, back when the village nixed the moratorium, called that decision “spineless.” Linman had said then, “A six-month moratorium is fine. This is a never-ending narrative.” He said the board’s message is, “Invest what you want. We can pull the rug out from under you any time.”

— Melissa Hale-Spencer wrote the section on history.

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