Senior-housing law should be part of a cohesive whole

All of us will get old some day if we don’t die first. So it behooves us to pay attention to the provisions being made now for the elderly, even if we aren’t there yet.

The generation known as the baby boomers continues to be the pig swallowed by the boa constrictor, making its way as a giant bulge through the length of the snake. When the boomers were children, schools were built to accommodate the bulge. Many of those schools later had to be closed or scaled back after the bulge had passed through.

Now boomers are reaching retirement age and developers are scrambling to meet the market. The profile has emerged of empty nesters, their children grown and gone, who no longer want to care for a yard or home. Many of our towns have projects underway to accommodate this growing market, which is different than the facilities that provide nursing care for the elderly who need it.

Developers generally build what sells, and what they can make the most profit on. It’s up to the government to impose restrictions or requirements that serve the citizens.

The town of New Scotland currently has no provision in law for senior housing. Everyone agrees it is needed.

A bill has been proposed, with a public hearing scheduled for Sept. 12, that would allow developer Charles Carrow to build 15 duplexes behind a medical complex he built on Route 85, the town’s major thoroughfare. The 6.9-acre site has the potential for both town sewer and water, unlike much of New Scotland. Because the site is zoned for commercial use, residential development would not be allowed without the floating zone for senior housing proposed in the bill.

Robert Baron, husband of Councilwoman Deborah Baron, would act as the project contractor for the development if the plans are approved. Councilwoman Baron has said she will recuse herself from voting on the bill because of the conflict of interest, apparently leaving a board evenly divided along party lines.

We hope the deadlock will lead the town board to take a larger look at how senior housing might best fit into the town. A model we like is that exemplified by Troy Miller in two senior-housing projects he has built in local villages — Altamont and Voorheesville.

Both are small and integrate seniors into village life, rather than isolating them in a compound by themselves. The residents can walk to such amenities as the library or post office or restaurants in Altamont. In Voorheesville, the residents in the about-to-be completed Severson Manor will be able to walk to the nearby church or park or grocery store. In both cases, they will continue to be a part of the fabric of community life.

A resident in the now-completed Altamont complex, which mirrors the surrounding Victorian architecture, regularly walks to the nearby village park to play his saxophone in the gazebo there, delighting villagers of all ages.

Two very involved New Scotland citizens — Edie Abrams and Katy O’Rourke — brought their concerns about the proposed senior-housing bill both to the town board and the public, through the pages of The Enterprise.

Abrams stressed problems with the vagueness of the bill, asserting it doesn’t actually serve the elderly, and she supplied examples from many municipalities that have more concrete stipulations in their laws — ranging from requirements for affordable housing to requirements that buildings provide passages for wheelchairs and grab bars or people who have difficulty walking.

O’Rourke outlined her views on how placing senior housing in a commercial zone would erode the tax base. And she believes the law is illegal since she thinks it was drafted to allow a particular project.

Councilman Richard Reilly, who drafted the bill, told our reporter Rachel Dutil that last August Carrow had requested the town adopt a senior overlay zone and he provided copies of ordinances from other towns to the New Scotland Town Board members. Reilly has been working on the draft for a year, he said.
"If this is how we treat our favored applicants, I’d hate to be an applicant that isn’t favored," said Reilly.

We would hope our elected leaders would favor their citizens over any applicants. Citizens have been largely absent from this process.

In fact, last week, Carrow declined discussing any specifics of his plan with our reporter until after the law was passed.

Both Abrams and O’Rourke worked on the Residents’ Planning Advisory Board, a group we have lauded before and will do so again. The citizens on that committee, headed by John Egan, labored for 19 months to produce a 40-page report that has lain fallow for more than two years.

The committee gathered information from a wide variety of experts and documents, but, most importantly, surveyed New Scotland residents — through mailed forms and in over 40 community meetings. The committee focused primarily on the northeast section of town where New Scotland’s two major thoroughfares — routes 85 and 85A — intersect. The town’s northeast section, closest to the city of Albany, will be the site of a tech park and is, therefore, the most likely to be developed.

The committee returned its report to the hands of the board that sent it on its mission, but no changes were forthcoming. The town last went through the master-planning process in 1994; development pressure has intensified since then, and views and elected officials have changed.
A more recent committee reviewed the town’s master plan last year but came up with no real conclusions. "While there may be some benefits to an update of the plan," said Reilly who served on the committee, after the review was complete, "there’s no need or basis for an overhaul." The split over the senior-housing bill has made it clear that the town needs to take a long, hard look at its future.

A law about senior housing should be part of a cohesive whole. A good master-planning process gives a town the chance to publicly work through its priorities — from resource, traffic, and environmental concerns to social concerns like the need for affordable housing or viable community centers or senior housing.

The graying boomer bulge is going to grow in the next few decades. Drafting a law that will affect such a large segment of the town’s people should involve input from citizens as the Egan committee did. We would hope the resulting law would be concrete enough that it could be applied consistently — without favoritism, for the good of the citizens in our community.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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