Residents weigh in as CZAC considers commercial building cap

NEW SCOTLAND — More than 150 residents turned out last Wednesday at the high school performing arts center to tell the five-member Commercial Zoning Advisory Committee how they want the town to be zoned for large-scale retail plazas.

“We’re not trying to achieve consensus,” said planner Michael Welti of Behan Planning Associates in Saratoga. The town hired Behan to run the workshop and report its findings back to the town board. “We’re not voting, and it’s not about being the loudest,” he said.

CZAC had requested an extension of the townwide six-month commercial building moratorium so that it could present a complete report to the town. The moratorium was created after Sphere Development presented a plan for a 750,000-square-foot big-box retail plaza on the site of the former Bender melon farm in one of New Scotland’s small commercial districts, causing widespread protests in town. Under current zoning laws, the retail plaza would be allowed.

Welti said that the goal of the committee is to incorporate the 1994 comprehensive plan into the zoning law to create “appropriate and sustainable development” in the commercial zone.

Overall, Welti said, the zoning does not reflect changes and distinctions within the comprehensive plan.

The moratorium may be extended through March 2009 from its current end date in November 2008, if the town board approves the extension after a public hearing next month.

“We’re really trying to get from everybody their opinion of what’s been suggested, so far,” Welti told the crowd last Wednesday. “This is a conversation about the town’s commercial zoning district. We are not dealing with any one proposal here tonight. [The committee’s] function tonight will be to listen.”

Mixed use

Welti said that the workshop would focus on the New Scotland hamlet area.

“This is a commercial district,” he said. If large-scale residential development is allowed in the area, it “could consume the commercial district. Hamlets like New Scotland allow mixed-use buildings, he said.

“Hamlets don’t have boundaries in New York State,” he said. “They’re kind of ideas.”

“Mixed use must be compatible to residential,” said Kenneth Carlson, a New Scotland South Road resident, in one of the groups. “That’s the way the ordinance has to be written. This is a tremendous step forward for residents of the hamlet.”

Following a program that Behan has used before, the planning staff split the audience into smaller groups of 20 to 40 and sent them to five separate classrooms where staff members recorded general comments.

The audience applauded and cheered resident Alex Orens, who objected to the format.

“Why and who wants to divide us up in groups? You want to divide us. I think we should all hear it at one time,” Orens said.

“We’re not going to debate it now,” Welti said.

In one room, 18 residents ranging from their early 20s to their retirement years shared their views with landscape architect Cynthia Behan.

“I don’t feel like changing my lifestyle,” said a resident of Route 85, across from the proposed big-box plaza. The group asked Behan if the 750,000 square-foot project was no longer under consideration.

“I wouldn’t put it that way,” Behan said. She suggested that the group members speak about what they thought was positive or negative about CZAC’s proposed recommendations on promoting mixed-use commercial zones and possibly capping the size of commercial projects.

Signs supplied by a grassroots group, New Scotlanders 4 Sound Economic Development, calling for a cap of 50,000 square feet have been posted across town.

CZAC ideas

Welti summarized the premises CZAC had put forth before the workshop. The committee would recommend a building cap between 60,000 and 100,000 square feet on all retail or wholesale trade in the commercial zone, and exclude commercial operations that could be a regional draw, Welti said. The cap would be large enough to allow existing businesses, like Olsen’s Nursery, to continue to grow, he said.

CZAC suggested flexibility in the size of the cap, depending on each applicant, but each separate group, after meeting again to combine notes, requested solid cap numbers and no flexibility.

“People like the size cap…to preserve the small town character,” said local environmental attorney Dean Sommer. “It says what we want, not what a planning board wants.”

Resident Christine Galvin said that flexibility is a negative, and that, if larger projects were to be allowed, the original cap should be higher.

“The cap should be the final limit,” Galvin said. Behan asked her group if, for example, they would support flexibility on a 60,000-square-foot cap if a Rite Aid were proposed with its standard 62,000-square-foot plan.

“Then, we don’t want it,” Galvin said.

Residents also expressed concern about the loss of open space and the amount of blacktop that could be placed in the commercial zone. Some wanted a single-phase project, instead of phase development. Most favored a cap between 40,000 square feet and 70,000 square feet.

A suggestion to turn the commercial zone in the New Scotland hamlet into a botanical garden for the state capital received scattered applause.

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