Town looks at ways to involve public in scrutinizing plans for development

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Pyramid Management, owner of Crossgates Mall, propose building a 222-unit apartment-and-townhouse complex here, at the corner of Rapp and Gipp roads in Guilderland. There would be a sign here, letting passersby know of the plan, if the town passes a proposed change in its zoning regulations. 

GUILDERLAND — The town board has suggested and is considering a change to the zoning code that would introduce a new system of holding pre-application conferences and making provisions for supplemental notice, to bring various town department heads and the public into the development process earlier. 

The town board will continue a public hearing on the matter on Nov. 19. 

A draft version of this amendment posted on the town’s website describes the pre-application conference: A pre-application conference is recommended prior to submitting an application for site-plan approval, special-use permit, or planned unit development. The public is invited to attend.

The conference, which is non-binding, will include review of the concept, compliance with zoning-code requirements, and any potential site-plan and development issues. Applicants are encouraged to discuss the concept with adjacent and potentially affected property owners, hear their concerns, and consider mitigation measures early in the process. 

The amendment related to the supplemental notice says that, within seven days of submitting an application for site-plan approval, special-use permit, or planned unit development, and at least seven days before a scheduled public hearing, the applicant will post placards at the proposed site, each a minimum of 11-by-17 inches with at least 36-point font reading, “The property located at (street address(es)) is subject to an application by (name of applicant) for (project description). The application is available for public inspection at the building department.” 

In the initial public hearing on Sept. 3, Supervisor Peter Barber explained that the idea for the pre-application conference arose when he was doing research related to conservation easements, and ran across a provision for a pre-application conference in the zoning code of the town of Bethlehem. Guilderland’s proposal is like Bethlehem’s, he said. 

The notice placards are something Barber saw recently when he was visiting New York City, he said, adding, “There also have been a lot of comments from people that they want to be more involved.” 

Two residents spoke at the Sept. 3 public hearing, saying that they support the idea but wanted to suggest changes to give the conference more weight. 

Steven Wickham, the current head of the grassroots group Guilderland Coalition for Responsible Growth, handed out to residents in the gallery a printout of an edited version, with additions and strikeouts, to make the pre-application conference mandatory rather than optional. He had given copies to the board, he said. 

The group also suggested increasing from 7 to 14 days the minimum amount of time that must pass between the posting of placards at project sites and the holding of public hearings. 

Laurel Bohl, formerly of the Guilderland Coalition and now a candidate for town board, said at the hearing that she supports the group’s proposed changes and wanted to add more, which included: 

— Making it mandatory for all projects; 

— Requiring that the pre-application conference be noticed with publication in a newspaper and mailed to adjacent residents; 

— Requiring a threshold review of whether or not the proposal is in keeping with the comprehensive plan for that area; 

— Requiring the posting of a summary of the pre-application conference on the town website; and 

— Requiring that the project not appear before any board for at least 10 days after the summary of the pre-application conference is posted. 

In addition, Bohl suggested that a Residents’ Advisory Committee be created, with five volunteer residents and two alternates, appointed after an open-job posting and interviews.

Members would have no ties to employees in the town hall or any connection to the project under review. Each would serve a three-year term, staggered. After review, this committee would vote on whether a project accords with the comprehensive plan, and the reasons for members’ votes would be recorded. 

At the public hearing, Bohl had said that the findings of the committee should be binding on the boards and require a supermajority vote to overrule. She later amended this to conform with law, stating that committee findings should be “advisory,” but that they are to be “given serious weight” by the planning board, zoning board, and town board.

Bohl writes in her suggested amendment that, if the Residents’ Advisory Committee votes against a project, the respective board that next considers the project needs to make a threshold determination, on the record, of whether or not the project accords with the town’s comprehensive plan, and each single board member must describe his or her reasoning, on the record, with the results posted on the town website. 

Bohl wrote in an email to The Enterprise this week: “I like the idea of bringing in the residents’ viewpoint in a meaningful way to the local town government. Why would anyone be against that? Seems like Democracy in action.” 

She also wrote that these types of committees are not only legal, but quite common in New York State and said that Colonie, Bethlehem, and Saratoga Springs each has one; The Enterprise was unable to confirm this by press time.

One resident spoke at the public hearing against the changes suggested by the GCRG, saying, “Let’s not make government any bigger.” He said that some of the language the grassroots group suggested “is trying to infringe on the rights of property owners.” 

Thomas Remmert, chairman of the zoning board, rejected Bohl’s idea of a Residents’ Advisory Committee. “I don’t think it’s necessary,” he said. “We already have two resident committees: They’re called the planning board and the zoning board, and they already hold public hearings.”

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