Two years and many meetings in the making Sphere plans ahead

NEW SCOTLAND — Developers started laying the groundwork for a shopping center here years before the public was presented with a plan this spring.

Sphere Development LLC scouted out the old Bender melon farm property, at the corner of routes 85 and 85A, in late 2006, estimated Kurt Wendler and Gregory Widrick, both partners at Sphere.  A year later, the Cazenovia-based firm met with town officials.

On Dec. 17, 2007, Widrick and Wendler met with Planning Board Chairman Robert Stapf, Zoning Administrator Paul Cantlin, and Thomas Dolin, who had won the November election for supervisor and was to be sworn in to office in January.

“Anybody and everybody who goes through this process meets with me first,” Cantlin said on Tuesday, adding that it’s his job to guide people through the paperwork involved in completing an application to the zoning or planning boards.  People often come in with questions, he said, but, usually, they don’t end up filing applications and nothing comes of the inquiries.

“There have been more than one or two who were interested in that site,” Cantlin said of the Bender farm.  He concluded, “No one went the next step, except possibly this group.”

Sphere has not yet filed an application for the development nor has it closed on the 179-acre property, although it is under contract to buy the parcel, which was listed for sale at $4 million.  The company made a presentation on its plans for a 750,000-square-foot mall to the public, which spoke overwhelmingly against it.  Soon after, the town board voted unanimously to institute a six-month moratorium to allow time to consider bringing its decades-old zoning laws into line with its 1994 comprehensive land-use plan.

Both Councilman Douglas LaGrange and Dolin supported the moratorium since the first public meeting in March, which shocked Sphere.  “This is a man who, to our face, told us he liked the idea of development,” Wendler said of Dolin.  “He said, ‘I back your development,’ at the end of one of those informal meetings we had,” Widrick said, referring to a series of three meetings, beginning in December, between town officials and Sphere Development.

“That’s not true at all,” Dolin, a lawyer, responded yesterday through The Enterprise.  He added of his response to Sphere’s proposal, “I said it was legal.”

In a letter to the town, published in the Oct. 9 Enterprise, Sphere wrote, “It is important to keep in mind the fact that Sphere was induced to make its proposal because of the zoning which was adopted by the Town and which has been in place for well over a decade.  Sphere made its proposal not only in reliance on the zoning but only after it actively sought and received input from local officials.”  The letter goes on to say, “Far from discouraging Sphere, these officials were supportive and actively encouraged the proposal.”

“They’re entitled to their opinion,” Dolin said yesterday.  “If they received encouragement, it wasn’t from me.”  He added that he’d like to know who specifically they think it was who encouraged the firm.

Dolin didn’t recall the meetings well, but said the first proposal was vague and those that followed became increasingly specific. 

“It was a very routine set of meetings,” Widrick said this week.  “Supervisor Dolin attended all three.”

The normal course of development discussions is that the first meeting with town officials centers on the parcel’s history and available utilities, Widrick said, which was true of the December meeting in New Scotland.

Attending the meetings on behalf of the town were varying combinations of Stapf; Cantlin; Town Engineer R. Mark Dempf and engineer Keith Menia, both of Stantec Inc.; Dolin; and Councilwoman Deborah Baron — according to those at the meetings.

“One of the reasons we try to meet informally with some officials is because they are the people who are in the trenches, who understand the needs of the town, who understand the concerns,” Wendler said.  New Scotland officials identified three major concerns, he said — traffic, water, and sewer.

It can’t be determined at the initial meetings whether or not a project is feasible, Wendler said, because the studies haven’t yet been conducted.  In order to know how to manage the traffic impacts on routes 85 and 85A, the town or the developer would have to hire a “top notch” engineer to do an analysis, he said.

 “Although a formal application has not been presented to the Town at this time, the scope and depth of the questions being posed to Stantec are substantial and require a significant effort to convey the most accurate information,” says a Jan. 25 letter from Dempf and Menia, both of whom were at the early meetings and work for the town’s engineering firm, Stantec.  “The effort being requested goes above and beyond that of the general Planning Board term contract.”  The letter goes on to say, “Stantec Consulting Services, Inc., will assist Town staff with technical services associated with potential commercial development in the areas of Route 85 and 85A,” work that they estimated would cost $10,000.

Almost a month after that letter was written to the town, Cantlin forwarded it to Sphere with the request for an escrow account to cover the costs, “in order for them to pursue your request for a technical review of your site plan application.”

Sphere did not set up an escrow account because, said Wendler, “You can’t put an escrow account in place until you’ve formally come into the town with a plan.”  His firm did not submit a formal plan because of the moratorium on commercial construction over 30,000 square-feet that took effect in May.

“I don’t know who would have authorized Mr. Cantlin to send that,” Dolin said of the Feb. 19 letter, adding, “Maybe Mr. Stapf.”  He said that he has heard of the letter but has not yet seen it, concluding, “The supervisor’s office isn’t involved in that.”

Robert Stapf did not return calls for comment.

“It’s nothing out of the ordinary,” said Widrick of the escrow request.  “If you’ve got all these developers that are constantly coming in to throw these pie-in-the-sky plans in front of the town, rightfully, the town shouldn’t have to pay for those.  That should be a cost borne by the person coming in requesting that development.” He quickly added that, “We definitely weren’t going to put that money down after Supervisor Dolin now all of a sudden does a 180 and starts calling for a moratorium.”

Dolin says that he has supported the idea of a moratorium since February.  Although he is awaiting the recommendation of the Commercial Zone Advisory Committee, put together in May to examine the town’s zoning with respect the its comprehensive plan, Dolin thinks the 50,000-square-foot size cap that has been a subject of debate on the committee seems “consistent with the directions of the comprehensive plan.”

Sphere maintains that it needs a 137,000-square-foot anchor store to make the development viable, but would be willing to scale back its plans for the whole mall by half.  “We could keep it under the 350,000- to 400,000-square-foot range,” Widrick said.

Of the plan for a 750,000-square-foot mall proposed in April, Wendler said, “Our initial plan was for a lot more, but, after hearing the concerns of the citizens, we toned it down.”

Sphere made its plans public last spring after its partners felt they had had enough informal meetings that they felt comfortable enough to go forward, Wendler said. 

The Enterprise broke the story about plans for the mall on Feb. 28, 2008.

There were also issues like water availability for the site that the developers wanted to explore.  Regarding the possibility of approaching the neighboring Town of Bethlehem for water, Widrick said that the authority of the Town of New Scotland was needed, “so that’s when we thought we needed to bring this out into a public light and get the process of approval started.”

“There’s been no request,” said Bethlehem’s supervisor, John Cunningham, this week.  Since Bethlehem has its reservoir in New Scotland, it has an agreement to sell water to buildings within 150 feet of the water main that carries water to Bethlehem.  Since the Sphere development would be more than 150 feet from the main, Cunningham said, “They’re not a required customer of the town.”

According to Widrick and Wendler, who cited New Scotland’s comprehensive plan, there is sufficient water on the Bender property.

“I would be very surprised if a high-yield well could be installed on that property,” said Kevin Phelan, a geologist who has been on New Scotland’s water committee for over 20 years.  He said of the Bender farm, “It is not situated on a productive aquifer.”  Although the proposed Kensington Woods residential development isn’t far from the Bender site, he said, that site, which has ample water, sits on a different, unconsolidated aquifer.

When Sphere was looking for property in 2006, Wendler said, “We knew there were certain key tenants — specifically Target — that were looking within that market area and we went on a hunt with our number-one criteria being commercial zoning.”

“We’re not trying to park this thing… in an area that has not been zoned for what it is we’re trying to do,” he said.  “With that in mind, our sites became fairly limited as to what we could actually look at.  There are very few, limited sites that have that much acreage zoned commercially.”

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