Altamont Village Board delays Stewart’s decision until October

— From Leon Rothenberg based on Google Maps
It’s slowly getting there: Stewart’s proposal for a new shop on the corner of Altamont Boulevard and Helderberg Avenue took a half step forward this week when the Altamont Board of Trustees decided it needed more time for its environmental review, and said it would take up the project again at its October meeting.

ALTAMONT — Trustee Michelle Ganance had the most frustrating and futile of jobs at Tuesday’s public hearing on the rezone of 107-109 Helderberg Ave.: Adhering speakers on both sides of the issue who have made the same arguments for nearly a year to a two-minute time limit. Speakers for the most part, after the third or fourth warning from Ganance, acquiesced.
About 80 residents attended the public hearing. Of the roughly 30 people who spoke, more favored the rezone, from residential to commercial so Stewart’s can expand, than opposed it— a marked contrast to the previous public hearing on the issue.

After the hearing, the five members of the village board deliberated for about an hour and ultimately decided that they needed more time with their environmental review. So the board made no determination on the rezone, and said that it would again take up the project at its Oct. 1 meeting, which is set to start at 6:30 p.m., half-an-hour earlier than normal.

This was the second time that Stewart’s Shops had requested to have the property it owns at 107-109 Helderberg Ave. rezoned from residential to commercial — a request that the village board has fulfilled once already

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

A lawsuit filed in April by a group of Altamont residents against the village board and Stewart’s prompted the company in July to reapply for the zoning change. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the Concerned Severson Neighbors, have since withdrawn two of the six claims they had made in the suit (see related story).

Wait till next month

After the public hearing, the board discussed whether it would complete a short- or long-form assessment review to determine the environmental impact that the project might have. Because of the nature of the project, the village board had its choice between the two. 

Both the village planning board and the village’s planning consultant, Nan Stolzenburg, recommended that the board of trustees use the long-form environmental assessment review. 

Some board members said there would be little gleaned from a long-form assessment that was not known already. 

As the board began its discussion, it soon became clear that more time was needed to go through the short environmental assessment form, in part because the board had, just a day earlier, received a new in-depth review of the proposed zoning change from Stolzenburg; she had also prepared an analysis of the project when it was first proposed in 2015. 

With the ink still drying on Stolzenburg’s 30-page analysis, the board decided it would be too hasty to both go through an environmental review and make a decision on the rezone.

The public hearing

Trustee Dean Whalen made sure to thank everyone who commented during the meeting, and praised the tone and tenor of comments residents, drawing a distinction between them and recent events that have occurred at meetings in some surrounding towns. (A recording of the entire September board meeting is available here.)

The village received 27 emailed comments; 11 were against the rezone, 14 were in favor, and two letters requested a scaled-down project. In December 2018, the village received 34 emails; 19 were against the rezone, 13 were in favor, and two asked the village to slow down its approval process.

Resident Martin Burke also filed a protest petition with the board. 

The protest petition is a mechanism that only certain landowners can use, which would require three-fourths of — or in the case of a five-person board, four out of five — board members to approve the rezone. Such a petition must be signed by the owners of 20 percent or more of the area of land included in, adjacent to, or directly opposite the cite of a proposed change.

Most of the comments, from both proponents and opponents, had been expressed before at board meetings, in Facebook groups, and in the pages of The Enterprise. 

Carol Rothenberg, who lives in the house next door to 107-109 Helderberg Ave. and is a member of concerned Severson Neighbors, said that Altamont’s village, planning, and zoning boards had repeatedly heard about the effects that the rezone would have on the Helderberg and Severson Avenue neighborhood, and, “ultimately, the village landscape.”

While she and other village residents value Stewart’s, Rothenberg said, she didn’t want a much larger store — which, she said, would be 20 feet from her property line and 40 feet from her bedroom window — because she would be directly impacted by its noise and light. 

Kathryn Farry spoke in favor of the rezone, and took to task some recent letters-writers whose missives had been published in The Enterprise. 

Referencing a letter written by Betty Head that said the Stewart’s expansion would hurt local restaurants, Farry said, “That the expansion would have a significant impact on the current restaurants in the village, I think this is a little dramatic.

“As a woman who is five months pregnant, I can tell you that, if I have a craving for Chinese food, I will not be going to Stewart’s, but will continue to support Bamboo Garden. The best bagels are at Hungerford, and, as for pizza, that is still a debate in our house: Paisano’s versus Village — Stewart’s [expansion] will not change any of this.”

Farry welcomed a larger building, citing the Stewart’s store at the corner of routes 146 and 20. “I have been there often,” she said, “[I’ve] never had an issue with parking and never had to wait for gas.” She also welcomed “a larger parking lot where I don’t have to jump out of the car while my husband circles the building … .”

Editor’s note: Kathryn Farry is related through marriage to reporter Sean Mulkerrin.

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