Church resurrects plans for apartments, residents raise concerns, board postpones

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Saint Matthew’s Church at 25 Mountainview Street in the village is surrounded in back and on the side by a total of 7.7 acres. A public hearing is ongoing on a proposal to set up planned unit development districts in Voorheesville that would apply to sites of at least 7.5 acres with public water and sewer as this site has.

VOORHEESVILLE — The village board on Wednesday evening, faced with a room full of disgruntled residents, made no decision on a proposal for a planned unit development district but, rather, kept the public hearing open until its next meeting.

The proposal was made in response to plans St. Matthew’s Church has for rental apartments on 7.7 vacant acres next to the church at 25 Mountainview Street in the village.

The planned unit development district, or PUD, would provide for a mix of new residential, commercial, or manufacturing uses in an area of land not less than 7.5 acres, which is served by public sewer and water systems. Board members and the village attorney, Richard Reilly, stressed throughout the hour-long public hearing that the PUD could apply to a half-dozen other parcels in the village.

“The application would have to be in harmony with the surrounding area,” said Reilly in response to concerns that, if the St. Matthew’s project didn’t go through, the land could be used instead for commercial or industrial development.

Questioned by a village zoning board member and a village planning board member — both feeling cut out of the process — Reilly said it was important to “keep the authority and ultimate decision-making with the board of trustees.”

“This doesn’t short-circuit environmental and traffic review,” said Trustee Richard Straut.

Pastor’s view

Christopher DeGiovine has been the pastor at St. Matthew’s for two years and he told The Enterprise last week that he had heard about plans for a development a decade ago that hadn’t materialized.

He spent the last quarter of a century at The College of Saint Rose in an “administrative and facility role.”  He’s 65 now and remembers, while at Saint Rose, hearing about plans for a senior retirement complex in Voorheesville, which he thought he might be interested in living in.

When he became the pastor at St. Matthews, he said, “I heard the concerns, especially from seniors as they age, finding it hard to stay in their homes. They want to stay in the town and need affordable housing,” he told The Enterprise. “I started a committee. The committee decided it was a good idea.”

The committee worked with Paul Nichols of Paragon Real Estate advisors. Nichols was out of town this week and said he couldn’t comment until next week.

Working with Nichols, the committee, which met “for months and months,” said DeGiovine, first looked at subsidized senior housing. “Federal funds are drying up and hard to get for New Scotland,” he said, because of its “high income level.”

“Paul did a demographic study on who would be interested,” DeGiovine said and the plan was to build 40 rental units of  “market-rate housing so seniors can afford them.”

DeGiovine, who was not at Wednesday’s hearing, went on, “If we can’t fill it with seniors, we’d invite others.” While some “high-end places” are available locally, DeGiovine said, “There’s a dearth of affordable places for seniors who have lived here their whole lives.”

Asked about the proposal for a planned development district, DeGiovine said, “We went to the village to look at the zoning. Changes had to be made,” he said, to accommodate the project. “We talked to the village board about how to proceed….The board suggested a planned unit development…The village board decided that would be the easiest way to proceed.”

DeGiovine went on, “Once we have the planned unit development law in place, we can go ahead with our project and announce everything.”

He anticipates it could take a year or two to go through the process.

DeGiovine also said, “Paul Nichols and I have said, ‘We’re not going to do this if no one wants it.’”

Asked about the church’s role in the project, DeGiovine said, “The church doesn’t have the financing nor the expertise to handle it.” The church will sell the land, 7.7 acres, to the developer, he said.

“We’ll have a mortgage kind of agreement,” he said, where the church will be paid, over a period of time, for the land.

“Many parishioners are asking, ‘When will you build it?’” said DeGiovine, stressing that the residents need not be Catholic. “Anybody is welcome,” he said.

Problems with process?

Kenneth Connolly, a retired judge, lives at 6 Danbury Court not far from the church. Last week, he circulated a letter about Wednesday’s hearing to people living within 500 feet of the church, he said. “I walked to every house; no one had heard of it,” Connolly said of the planned unit development district.

Connolly is a member of St. Matthew’s Church and said at the end of Sunday’s service, when DeGiovine typically makes announcements, he said something like, “We can go ahead with our hearings soon because the zoning change is going to happen.”

Connolly thought, as he sat in church,  “Wow, he knows the result before the jury has decided.”

Connolly stressed to The Enterprise, “I’m not opposed to the development. I am opposed to how it’s been done.”

Although the village placed a legal notice in The Enterprise before a July 26 hearing on the planned development district, Connolly asserted it wasn’t published the required 10 days before; he was the only one at the hearing.

Actually, as village Clerk Treasurer Linda Pasquali pointed out at the hearing, the law requires publication five days before and the village met that deadline.

“There is no application,” said Connolly. “This is a proposal the village board came up with themselves and the village board will approve. It’s so unfair, I’m amazed by it.”

The most heated exchange at the hearing was between Connolly and Mayor Robert Conway.

“We’re going through a charade here,” said Connolly, adding, “I’m really angry….The process is fatally flawed.”

“I strongly, strongly disagree with your implication this was done underhandedly or not in the light of day,” responded the mayor.

Josette Guastella brought copies of state law to the hearing and said that residents living near the church, like herself, should have been informed about the hearing, but weren’t. Reilly responded that the requirement was to inform neighboring municipalities and that both Guilderland and New Scotland had been informed.

In the end, the mayor said that while technically requirements had been met, the perception was that citizens hadn’t been informed so it was best for the board not to make a decision on Wednesday but to keep the hearing open. The other board members agreed.

Other concerns

Several of the score in attendance spoke of property values being lowered if the apartment complex were to be built.

Jane Newman said her son had recently bought a house on Danbury Court. “Could they sell their home?” she asked, citing an example of a house in Guilderland that predated the neighboring apartment complex but had been languishing on the market for a year.

Lynesta Osborne said her backyard abuts the field next to Saint Matthew’s. “It’s a lovely backyard with deer and chipmunks,” she said, stating her family had moved to Voorheesville from New Jersey to raise their three young children.

“I saw my hometown destroyed by development. It’s not something I want for my children,” she said.

“Who suffers? We do,” said Guastella. “I’ve lived here 35 years. I’d hate to see the complexion change.”

“It seems like we’re being treated like second-class citizens in Salem Hills,” said Toni Goetz. He said the trend is to put multi-family dwellings near Salem Hills with its older homes rather than near the newer, more expensive homes.

He also said, “Ten years from now, with your fast-track system…Mr. Reilly will be a little older and he’ll say the middle of the town is multi-family homes…There’s nothing inconsistent with more…It’s a slippery slope.”

“Compressed housing is profitable; it’s where the money is,” he said. “We don’t want to live in a place we moved away from.”

Another resident asserted “half the people in the room” attend St. Matthew’s Church and that building the complex could weaken the church in the long run if parishioners moved away.

After the public comments had stopped, longtime Trustee Richard Berger said to the crowd, “You came here because it’s a small community.” He said of the proposal before the board that Saint Matthew’s “asked us to look into it; we did…We’re looking at every place it will impact…We’ll keep it open until everybody feels comfortable with the process.”

Trustee Straut said he hadn’t seen St. Matthew’s proposal. “I think it’s premature to look at it,” he said. “I don’t see it as a fast-track process,” he said of the proposal for a planned unit development. “It would be a thorough review...It doesn’t mean there’s a green light.

“We all live here,” said Trustee Jack Stevens. “We’re neighbors. We love this more than you,” he said of Voorheesville. He concluded of the PUD proposal, “It’s an extra layer to protect what we have.”

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