Voorheesville board puts off moratorium

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Like a slum? That’s how one resident described this stretch of Maple Avenue in the heart of Voorheesville. The description came at a public hearing Wednesday night before the board of trustees backed off a six-month moratorium to suspend building gas stations in the village.

VOORHEESVILLE — Wednesday night, the village board deferred taking action on a moratorium that would have suspended the construction of gas stations in Voorheesville for six months.

Stewart’s Shops had signed a contract to buy Smith’s Tavern, a popular eatery on Route 85A in the heart of the village, and plans to build a gas station and convenience store there.

“We’ll be before the planning board on Tuesday night,” said Chuck Marshall, who works in real estate development for Stewart’s, just after the hour-long hearing closed.

“It’s very spineless,” said James Linnan, an attorney representing Smith’s Tavern, of the board’s decision. “A six-month moratorium is finite,” Linnan told The Enterprise after the hearing. “This is a never-ending narrative. “ He said the board’s message is: “Invest what you want. We can pull the rug out from under you any time.”

Asked if he would sue the board, Linnan said, “We have to wait till they do something.”

Voorheesville Mayor Robert Conway told The Enterprise on Tuesday that the village proposed a moratorium because of a longstanding concern about water contamination. Engineers are already at work, seeking a fourth well site for the village, he said.

“It’s more about zoning than water quality,” Marshall said both before and after the hearing.

Marshall maintains that the village doesn’t want two gas stations next to each other. A Mobile station is adjacent to Smith’s Tavern. “I’ve made an offer to the company that owns the Mobil station,” said Marshall, referencing Sunoco L.P. “Nothing’s come of it; they’re not interested in selling.”

Marshall also said that the parcel where Smith’s tavern has long stood is zoned for a convenience store with a gas station while the property where the Mobil station stands is zoned residential. “We are the permitted use for that property,” said Marshall.

However, the village attorney, Richard Reilly, said at Wednesday’s hearing, “It’s a special use under the zoning.” He also said, “Stewart’s is aware an owner doesn’t have a vested right to use a property until it is engaged in that use…If the board decides to change zoning, it has the right to do it; Stewart’s proceeds at its own risk.”

A crowd of 30 packed the village meeting room for Wednesday’s hearing. The speakers were divided, with some supporting Stewart’s — including its employees — and others in opposition to a second gas station in the village.

Susan Patterson presented the board with a petition signed by 823 people, opposing Stewart’s building at the Smith’s Tavern site.

Patterson said people have concerns about increased traffic, a trout stream that runs behind the property, and having two gas stations in the village.

She said Voorheesville had “no charm left.”

Smith’s Tavern is owned by John Mellen and Jon McClellend. “I love Jon,” said Patterson. “I love his business. But people who have lived here all their lives get a say.”

Angelia Relyea, a Voorheesville resident who works at Stewart’s, spoke just as passionately on the other side of the issue.

Relyea described herself as “a divorced mom with two children” who works two jobs while also going to school. “Stewart’s is an environmentally conscious business,” she said. “They’re not going to do something that gives them bad PR.”

Relyea told the five board members that, if they voted “yes” on the moratorium they would be hurting her and her co-workers “for underlying political issues.”

“We are people, just like you,” Relyea said.

Timothy Johncox, who works for Stewart’s on environmental compliance, came to the hearing with hand-outs on how the company handles petroleum storage, describing state-of-the art systems and training for employees to handle any emergencies.  “We’ve worked hard to achieve number-one in New York State for petroleum bulk storage,” he said.

Johncox also said that putting two gas stations together could be wise from an environmental perspective.

John Shepherd, who lives “a few doors from the Mobil station,” said of his immediate neighborhood, “It’s not good now.” He said, “It’s more about the culture of the area and the quality of life in the village.” He also said, “I am not for the moratorium…However the competition falls out, that’s the way it goes.”

In the end, the mayor said he wished he had a magic wand so that the owners of Smith’s Tavern could sell their place to enjoy their retirement and at the same time Stewart’s could be kept at bay.

Conway said he had done some “soul searching” and worried “in our haste to put in a moratorium, we’ve taken authority away from the planning commission and the zoning board of appeals.”

Conway recommended, “I would like to see the moratorium put on hold; let Stewart’s move forward with what they’re doing.”

Trustee Richard Straut seconded the mayor’s motion. “The process the project will be reviewed under will be robust,” he said.

The other trustees agreed.

Outside the village hall, Georgia Gray, chairwoman of the village planning commission, was walking her beagle. She had stayed away from the hearing to avoid any conflict of interest.

“We can do it,” she said of the commission ability to review Stewart’s application.

She went on about her board, “We’re pretty rigid; we go by the book.” She said the commission is cognizant of both environmental and community concerns. “We have engineers help us,” Gray said.

Original water concerns

On Tuesday, Conway went over the reasons for the proposed moratorium with The Enterprise, focusing on concerns about village water. He said that Voorheesville currently has three wells, all located within 200 yards of the railroad tracks in the Grove Street area.

The main well pumps 600 gallons per minute, he said, and the others pump 400 and 200 gallons per minute.

“There is always concern about contamination if there were an accident on the tracks with a spill of contaminants,” said Conway, noting that the wells are only 60 feet deep and close to the tracks.

“We have two water tanks to store water to use for pressure for the fire-suppression system,” Conway said of the village hydrants. The tanks would also serve as a backup supply in an emergency.

The village water supply is also connected to the town of Guilderland’s, and the water can flow both ways when needed. Guilderland routinely buys water from the city of Albany but hasn’t been able to since Albany had a water main break this summer, still under repair. So Voorheesville, through the interconnect, is currently supplying Guilderland with 200,000 gallons a day. “We charge the going rate,” Conway said, noting the interconnect is not meant to be a money-maker but, rather, a backup in case of contamination or other emergency.

“With all the news on PFOAs in Hoosick Falls,” Conway said of the perfluorooctanoic acid found in water there, “we tested ours for our peace of mind. We were fine — no PFOAs.”

But, he went on, it “highlighted the unknown and the fragility” of water sources.

About 1,800 people currently use public water from Voorheesville, both village residents as well as outsiders, said Conway. The water system, he said, will “grow as much as the village grows; it can potentially supply all the undeveloped land in the village.”

In 2008, the village had its engineers, Barton & Loguidice, conduct a water-source capacity study for Voorheesville. (The village later switched engineers when Straut, who works for Barton & Loguidice, became a Voorheesville trustee.)

“The analysis indicates that there is sufficient water source capacity to supply potential build-out development within the Village,” the 2008 report says, “and that build-out of the Village would commit 100% of the current permitted water source capacity with no excess available for additional out-of-Village customers.”

The report made two recommendations to increase capacity: reducing leakage, which accounted for 32 percent of the amount pumped, and upgrading the well system

On Tuesday, Conway stressed that the moratorium would be “temporary while we’re searching for another well site.” He went on, “Once we site it, we’ll need a protected area proscribed, surrounding the well, with extra precautions.”

Asked about the timeline, Conway said, “We’ve engaged our engineers to begin the search; it’s already underway.”

The mayor also said that the moratorium “doesn’t stand in opposition” to Stewart’s plans for a convenience store and gas station where Smith’s Tavern now stands. “It’s a step-back moment. We understand the ramifications it has,” said the mayor. “It’s not an outright ban.”

If a new well site is found outside of the area where Smith’s Tavern and the Mobil station now stand, “no harm, no foul,” said Conway. “If the well site is within Smitty’s area, it may require more precautions.”

Asked about the likelihood of siting a new well next to a gas station, Conway said,  “Anytime you have buried tanks, there’s potential for a problem. It’s regulated by the state. As far as I know, there’s no problem with the Mobil.”

The mayor concluded, “We’re not looking to increase capacity. We’re looking at is as a back-up so we’d have an additional well if, God forbid, there’s a calamity.”

As a way of saying that development follows water, Conway said, “I always tell people: The town of New Scotland, with a population of about 10,000, is between two towns — Bethlehem and Guilderland — with populations of about 35,0000. Figure out why.”

At the same time the village board is considering the moratorium on gas stations, it is also considering a planned unit development that would allow St. Matthew’s Church to build an apartment complex next to the church on Mountainview Street and would apply as well to the other half-dozen tracts of 7.5 acres of land in the village.

Conway said of the village board members, “We’ve been asking ourselves: Is our current zoning sufficient?” When it comes to developing a first-ever comprehensive land-use plan for the village, he said, “We’re kind of on the fence about it now.”

He went on, “There’s always room for improvement. We don’t want a crazy quilt of regulations and zoning laws. We’ve had preliminary discussions on some type of comprehensive plan.”

More New Scotland 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.