Stewart’s again looking to expand Altamont store

ALTAMONT — Stewart’s Shops is again proposing an expansion that would require a zoning change, a measure that the village board rejected in a split vote three years ago.

At its monthly meeting, on Nov. 7, the board set a public hearing, for Dec. 12, on the Stewart’s request to rezone the property it owns at 107-109 Helderberg Ave. from residential to commercial. That property is adjacent to the current Stewart’s location on the tri-corner of Altamont Boulevard, Main Street, and Helderberg Avenue.

“I thought the community spoke on this issue two years ago and the village board listened, and voted to deny expansion into the neighborhood,” said village resident Kristin Casey at the Nov. 7 meeting. “So I’m wondering why it’s even coming up again?”

Trustee Dean Whalen told Casey that the reason the issue is again before the board is because the property has a new owner and has the right to request a zoning change.

The village’s comprehensive plan, adopted in 2007, recommended that the property’s zoning be changed from light commercial to residential. The recommendation became law when the village adopted new zoning regulations, in 2008.

Chuck Marshall, who works in land development for Stewart’s, said that the new plan submitted to the village will align more closely with Altamont’s existing architecture, citing the former train station that now houses the Altamont Free Library as an example.

“So, there’s a larger porch,” Marshall said. “There’s particular elements that were for the village for Altamont, but again, that’ll be discussed if the zoning changes are approved.”

Another concern with the 2015 proposal, Marshall said, was the number of gas pumps. Under the new proposal, the store will continue to have only two pumps.

In 2015, the property’s then-owner, Peter Baumann, applied to change the zoning of 107 and 109 Helderberg Ave. from residential to commercial.

Baumann had entered into a sales contract with Stewart’s that would have allowed the company to expand its shop. At the time, the village board was told that the expanded shop would be similar to the one at the intersection of routes 146 and 20 in Guilderland.

In October 2015, in a tie vote, 2 to 2, a motion to rezone 107 and 109 Helderberg Ave. — a two-family Victorian home — from residential to commercial was denied.

Trustee Whalen and Mayor Kerry Dineen had both been trustees when the vote was taken, in October 2015. Whalen opposed the motion; Dineen was in favor of it. The other members of the board — Nicholas Fahrenkopf, Michelle Ganance, and John Scally — are new since then.

With a full board, Marshall said, the company decided it was time to take another chance on rezoning.

Baumann sold the property to Stewart’s in August 2016, for $217,500.

In October 2016, the store received a “standard upgrade,” for an estimated $150,000, which included new flooring, new lights, new counters, and an updated bathroom.

On Sept. 24 of this year, Stewart’s filed an application with the village seeking a zoning change for its property at 107 and 109 Helderberg Ave. from residential to commercial.

According to the application, Stewart’s would build a nearly 4,000-square-foot building on the site; Marshall said the store would be closer to 3,700 square feet. The current building is about 2,400 square feet.

“The reality is, the smaller stores don’t function as well as the larger footprint [stores],” Marshall said, because it’s difficult for cars to circulate and maneuver on the smaller lots. He said that was one reason that the company purchased the old Smith’s Tavern in Voorheesville. The existing Voorheesville store, across from village hall, has a small footprint and no gas pumps.

Voorheesville recently adopted a comprehensive plan, which caused Stewart’s to put its Smith’s Tavern property up for sale.  Under the new plan, a Stewart’s Shop is prohibited as a “Formula Business.” Also, the new plan does not allow for petroleum storage or dispensing in the area along the Vly Creek.

Casey had told the Altamont board on Nov. 7, before it approved the public hearing, “We will go through the same efforts as last time to provide the broad community input. You know how much work we did to get you to listen.”

Michael McNeany, who lives in the neighborhood into which Stewart’s is looking to expand, told the board he is opposed to the expansion and also questioned why it has again become an issue.

“I also want to point out that Stewart’s is doing nothing to maintain that property, and I’m kind of wondering if they’re looking to drive it into the ground until people don’t care about this unsightly piece of property … And eventually they wear us down to the point where we don’t have a public hearing … But each time it comes up, I’m going to stand up here and voice my objection,” McNeany said.

Casey questioned why the board hadn’t shared the information with the community, and said, “It would have seemed a courtesy to at least let the public know.” She added that an adjacent property owner had not been notified either.

“If I were cynical, which I only am sometimes, I might think that the timing of this, during the holidays, was intentional to lower community involvement,” Casey said. “But I do say that I know Dean [Whalen], I know John [Scally]. I don't believe that is what happened. So there must be some kind of pressure being put on you by Stewart’s.”

When public comment ended, Dineen addressed the timing and transparency of the application.

“We received the application at the last part of September,” she said. “There is a process in our code that we have to follow; the process in our code has us refer this to the planning board first.”

Dineen said that the planning board had met in September before the village received the application and didn’t meet again until the end of October, adding that the application also had to be sent to the Albany County Planning Board for its input as well.

“We didn’t pick a certain day; we didn’t pick a certain month,” she said. “This is exactly as it happened; that’s what I can tell you.”

Dineen said that notifications were to be mailed following the Nov. 7 meeting.

Stewart’s will be giving a presentation at the Dec. 12 public hearing, she said.

Before the vote to approve the public hearing, Whalen asked Justin Heller, the village attorney, what would happen if the board didn’t approve the public hearing.

“I think they have the right to be heard and they can pursue that in a court,” Heller answered.





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