Altamont Planning Board recommends full environmental review on Stewart’s rezone

What’s its impact? The Altamont Planning Board on Monday asked the village board that, when it takes up for a second time in September the rezone of 107-109 Helderberg Ave., it performs an in-depth environmental review of the project, something the village board did not do when it originally approved the rezone. Cross-hatching on this aerial view shows the size of the proposed project; the line at left with the duplex delineates the area that was originally zoned residential but became commercial in December.

ALTAMONT — As part of Stewart’s request for a zoning change that was already approved by the village board last December, the company’s application was again sent to the Altamont Planning Board for its review and recommendations. 

In December 2018, the village board voted, 3 to 2, to rezone 107-109 Helderberg Ave., from residential to commercial, which paved the way for Stewart’s to build a new shop on the site.

But a lawsuit filed in April by a group of Altamont residents against the village’s board of trustees and Stewart’s Shops prompted the company to reapply for the zoning change. In doing so, the company and village board will be able to address one of the two bases of the lawsuit: That the board of trustees failed to comply with the State Environmental Quality Review process.

The planning board was asked by the village board to review the proposal as if the December 2018 zoning change had never taken place and to base its recommendations as if the property were zoned residential, which it is not. 

The planning board’s chief concerns — the issues it wants the village board to take a deeper look at as it considers the rezone — are the size of the proposed building; the variances Stewart’s would need for a code-compliant project; and that board of trustees perform an in-depth environmental review.


SEQR primer

In New York State, most proposed projects, or “actions,” are required to undergo an environmental assessment, known as the State Environmental Quality Review, or SEQR, process, to determine if the project would have an environmental impact.

If it is found that the project would have an impact, it is classified as one of three actions — Type I, Type II, or Unlisted — according to the SEQR process, which is a series of questions that the “lead agency,” in this case, the village board, must ask about a proposed project.

The decision about the type of action in turn determines if the proposed project would be subject to a short- or long-form environmental review; the difference between the two reviews is the number and depth of questions that have to be asked to determine a project’s environmental impact. 

A Type I Action is subject to a long-form environmental review; a Type II Action requires only a short-form environmental assessment; and an Unlisted Action is subject to the whim of the lead agency, which can decide if a short- or long-form environmental review should take place. 

If, after the SEQR review is complete and the lead agency determines that the project would not have a significant adverse impact on the environment, then a “negative declaration” is made and the project is allowed to proceed without stringent environmental review.

A “positive declaration” would not kill the project; rather, it triggers the need for an Environmental Impact Statement. The impact statement describes the action; provides an analysis of all the action’s environmental impacts as well as an analysis of action alternatives; and identifies ways to reduce or avoid adverse environmental impacts. The statement may be prepared by either the applicant or a lead agency. After the statement has been reviewed, the lead agency will either have to approve the project or kill it completely. 

The Stewart’s project was considered by the village board to be an Unlisted Action and, when the board performed its environmental review in December 2018, it chose to use a short-form environmental assessment. 

But the village board used the short-form assessment to determine only the impact the proposed zoning amendment would have, it did not consider the impact construction of a new shop would have, which is because Stewart’s had not submitted a completed site plan.

The village board said in December 2018 it would let the planning board determine the construction’s impact. However, by looking only at the impact of the proposed zoning change, while allowing the planning board to eventually review a more complete site plan, the village board chose, in the words of the Concerned Severson Neighbors lawsuit, to “segment” its SEQR review, which state law does not allow. 

And so, at the Sept. 3 public hearing for the proposed zone change, it is likely that the village board will consider both the impact of the zone change as well as the construction of a new shop when it performs its SEQR review, but the planning board asked that, when the village board does perform its review, it uses the long-form assessment.


Planners’ concerns

The proposed size of the building has been an issue for the planning board ever since Stewart’s made its first presentation in January. At that time, the company was proposing a 3,700-square-foot shop to take the place of the current 2,600-square-foot store at 1001 Altamont Blvd.; the company subsequently scaled down the proposal to 3,300 square feet.

The planning board immediately took issue that the proposed store was even bigger than the shop on the corner of routes 20 and 145 in Guilderland, which is about 3,400 square feet.

On Monday night, the planning board said that the size of the building — 3,300 square feet — is still a concern, but acknowledged that there is probably a need to have a larger shop. Stewart’s is expanding its stores to accommodate new equipment for food-to-go services.

The planning board also said the parking plan had improved since the January proposal. 

Planning board member John Hukey asked that the village board, when voting on the rezone of 107-109 Helderberg Ave. in September, consider the variances Stewart’s would need for the project to comply with village code. 

In its most recent application submission, Stewart’s included a site plan that shows its new shop 13 feet away from a residential lot. 

Hukey pointed to section 355-38 in the village code, which says, “No building or other structure, except a fence, shall be closer than 50 feet to any lot in a residential district or any other lot used for residential purposes.” 

The company would have to obtain from the zoning board of appeals a variance of 37 feet.  

The planning board also went through the village’s comprehensive plan and looked at instances where the Stewart’s proposal might be in agreement with the comprehensive plan and where it might be in conflict, and asked that the village board consider those observations on Sept. 3.

Planning board member Connie Rue was concerned about the impact that the rezone and construction would have on the neighborhood; it’s not just that a home would be demolished but a commercial business would be encroaching on the Helderberg-Severson neighborhood, she said. 

Illustrating the ambiguity of the comprehensive plan, Tim Wilford, the planning board’s chairman, in response to Rue’s concern about encroachment, asked if there would be an impact to the village by not rezoning, saying that the plan also calls for the village to improve services to meet not only the needs of residents but also neighboring communities. 

Planning board member Deb Hext also asked that village board take into consideration an analysis that Stewart’s had included as part of its submittal package in its second application request for a rezone. 

The analysis was performed by Nan Stolzenburg, the village’s planning consultant, in 2015, the first time Stewart’s tried for a rezone, which failed with a split vote by the village board. Stolzenburg told The Enterprise this week that she has not been involved with the project since that time.  

In her analysis, Stolzenburg brought up that both the rezone and site plan review are subject to the SEQR process, adding that the processes can’t be segmented. 

She questioned whether a SEQR review of the rezone request could be performed without knowing more details about the physical project and its design, and came to the conclusion that “a full proposal for reconstruction … should be submitted so that the Village Board and everyone else knows what the actual project is so that the Village Board in its SEQR for the rezoning can ensure that the project will be compatible.”

Stolzenburg, in her analysis, wrote that the rezone “may be consistent” with the village’s comprehensive plan because the plan states that it is the village’s goal to maintain the Central Business District — which now contains both Stewart’s and 107-109 Helderberg Ave. — “as the major location for retail and services” in Altamont. 

She concluded, “It is my opinion, therefore, that the zoning change makes sense provided the site planning creates a new structure that meets all the other zoning requirements for design, lot layout, etc.”

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