Altamont Village Board asks judge to toss Stewart’s lawsuit

ALTAMONT — With a public hearing on rezoning residential property so Stewart’s can expand just days away, the Altamont Board of Trustees has asked Albany County Supreme Court Judge James Ferreira to dismiss the lawsuit filed by a group of village residents against both the board and Stewart’s Shops.

The village argues that the Concerned Severson Neighbors has failed to show that the rezone was illegal and, contrary to its claims, that the village board had undertaken a thorough and legal environmental review of the rezone request. 

The village board set the date for a public hearing at its July meeting; it filed its motion to dismiss the case on Aug. 7.

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. (A recording of the entire December 2018 board meeting is available here.) 

In April, the Concerned Severson Neighbors filed a petition with the Albany County Supreme Court seeking to annul and vacate the December 2018 law, because, the suit claims, the village board violated state law by segmenting the State Environmental Quality Review process when it considered only the potential impact rezoning 107-109 Helderberg Ave. would have, and did not take into consideration the potential environmental impact the construction of a new store would have. 

Second, the suit seeks to have the zoning of 107-109 Helderberg Ave. revert back to its original residential designation because, as a commercially-zoned parcel, it is not in accordance with the village’s comprehensive plan, and, therefore, a case of illegal spot zoning. 


SEQR review

Addressing the first component of the suit, court documents state that the village board had, in fact, taken “a hard look at environmental impacts and provided a reasoned elaboration supporting its negative SEQRA declaration,” and, further, “the village board did not segment its SEQRA review.”

Building its defense by citing existing case law, the board of trustees, according to court papers, says that a negative SEQRA declaration will hold up against “judicial scrutiny” if the lead agency — in this case, the board of trustees — can demonstrate that it identified areas of concern, “took a hard look at them,” and factored those areas of concern into its decision-making process. 

“The record reflects that the Village Board did in fact identify areas of environmental concern and take a hard look at environmental impacts,” the court filing states. 

Citing further case law, the village board says that its obligation under the SEQR process “must be viewed in light of a rule of reason.” And that it’s not a must that “every conceivable environmental impact, mitigating measure, or alternative” be identified and addressed to complete the SEQR process.

Court documents state that the village board methodically made its way through the short-form environmental assessment and that, “ultimately, the Board concluded that a moderate to large impact might occur as a result of the rezoning with respect to (a) conflicts with the Village’s adopted land use plan or zoning regulations, and (b) changes in the use or intensity of use of land. 

“These answers were logically required because the very nature of the rezoning was to change the zoning code and allowable uses for [107-109 Helderberg Ave.]”

The village board, according to court papers, argues that it had “fulfilled its obligations” by identifying environmental impacts that would result from the rezone and construction — which the Concerned Severson Neighbors filing said the board hadn’t done. 

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. 

The village board, in its Aug. 7 court filing, refutes that it segmented its SEQR review.

Again citing case law, the board of trustees asserts that, when undertaking the SEQR review process, even if the specifics of a proposed development are not known, the lead agency is “entitled to make reasonable assumptions about what development might occur” on the rezoned property. 

“Here, at the December 12, 2018 meeting at which the rezoning was considered, Mayor [Kerry] Dineen announced that while the Village Board was only there to vote on the rezoning, it was required to consider the more specific proposal which Stewart’s had proposed,” the board of trustees argues in court papers. “The Village Board thus did not segment its SEQRA review during the rezoning process.”


Spot zoning

On the second component of the lawsuit, the board of trustees contends that the rezone is not a case of illegal spot zoning nor is the rezone inconsistent with the village’s comprehensive plan. 

Spot zoning refers to the rezoning of a parcel of land to a use category different than the surrounding area, usually to benefit a single owner or a single development interest. “Zoning changes are not invalid merely because they are initiated primarily for the benefit of the owner of a single parcel,” the village board argues, citing case law.

The board of trustees asserts that the rezone was compatible with the surrounding area because 107-109 Helderberg Ave. is directly adjacent to a commercially-zoned property. Additionally, the parcel immediately across the street, Fredendall Funeral Home, the board says in court papers, is zoned commercial. 

Further, the rezone “represents an expansion of the contiguous Central Business Zoning District,” the board of trustees says. “All five existing uses around the adjacent five-corner intersection of Main Street, Prospect Terrace, Altamont Boulevard, and Helderberg Avenue are commercial.”

 The rezoned property, 107-109 Helderberg Ave., is also directly adjacent to a residentially-zoned property.

The village board, in court documents, says it “found no conflict” between the rezoning request and the village’s comprehensive plan, further citing its planning consultant, Nan Stolzenburg, who, in 2015, 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. 

The rezone could be consistent with the comprehensive plan if the new shop to be built by Stewart’s, among other things, meets all the village’s zoning requirements and is designed to match the existing architecture of nearby buildings, Stolzenburg, wrote in her 2015 analysis. 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.”

The village board argues, “It is well-settled principle that ‘zoning determinations enjoy a strong presumption of validity, which can only be overcome by a showing that the decision to rezone was unreasonable and arbitrary.’”

The board of trustees asserts that the Concerned Severson Neighbors failed to show the rezone was invalid, unreasonable, and arbitrary. Even if the rezone is considered dubious, the board of trustees maintains, that’s not enough of a reason to reverse it.

More Guilderland News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.