Letting developers decide what’s good for the town is like letting a 6-year-old buy the groceries.

Hanging over our desk is a color poster given to us as a gift. It features bold words, attributed to American anthropologist Margaret Mead: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Over the decades, we’ve seen those words come true as various small groups of citizens we’ve covered have brought about change. One such group in Guilderland — FORCE, for Friends Organized to Reject Crossgates Expansion, later changed to Friends Organized for Responsible Community Expansion — raised enough ruckus two decades ago that Crossgates Mall abandoned plans to more double in size to be one of the largest malls in the nation. Those protests, in turn, led to Guilderland drafting its 2001 comprehensive land-use plan.

We’re pleased now to be able to report in news stories on a group of citizens formed this year, Guilderland Citizens for Responsible Growth, and also to publish letters from its members

The group formed when a large complex was proposed, of apartments and offices, on what had been a golf course across Route 156 from Guilderland’s middle school. This fall, our Guilderland reporter, Elizabeth Floyd Mair, took a wide look at the building boom in town, with proposals for more than 1,200 apartments.

“I grew up in Guilderland. I’m used to it being family homes, not transient apartments,” said attorney Laurel Bohl, one of the core members of the group, who lives on Western Avenue near the proposed Winding Brook Apartments.

About two-thirds of the town’s roughly 15,000 housing units are single-family homes; the rest are apartments or duplexes. We’ve lived in Guilderland long enough to remember when it was mostly farmland. Change happens.

What’s important is to see that growth occurs in a way that enriches the town. To our way of thinking, apartment dwellers can add to the richness of Guilderland. Many of the apartment dwellers in town come from other countries, adding diversity and cultural depth to our community. Also, apartment dwelling is generally a more environmentally responsible way to live.

There are ways to build apartment complexes that are attractive both for the residents and for the dwellers of nearby single-family homes. And a town’s zoning code can make sure this happens.

We’ve frequently written in this space of the values of mixed-use districts, like the one New Scotland recently adopted in its hamlet plan, in which retail and residential spaces commingled. This spawns walkable communities that are both attractive and environmentally sound.

There are certainly legitimate concerns when a slew of projects is proposed, as the citizens for Responsible Growth has pointed out, all within one mile of an already-busy stretch along Route 20. Members of the group have, on our letters pages, called for “a pause” — a time for stakeholders to come together and map out a neighborhood plan for that one-mile stretch.

That request sent us to review the neighborhood plan, developed 11 years ago for the “Guilderland hamlet,” in which stakeholders were helped by professional planners and engineers. The plan details everything from suggested greenery to projections on traffic increases, including for the intersection of Route 20 and winding Brook Drive — the mile-long stretch now under consideration.

Having a plan is meaningless unless its codified into law and enforced. Pausing to develop another plan is not the solution.

The quasi-judicial boards charged with hearing requests for building projects need to adhere to the law, which at two years old, is relatively new. We’ve noted that many times the town’s planning and zoning boards acquiesce to developers’ requests rather than standing firm on what the law outlines.

A perfect example occurred earlier this year with a senior apartment proposal for Johnston Road where the zoning code allowed for only two-and-a-half stories. The planning board chairman — concerned about setbacks and stormwater runoff — rather than requiring the project be scaled back, suggested the complex seek a variance to build the complex at three stories. The variance was granted.

A neighbor of the proposed complex was justifiably upset. “I don’t believe the zoning board should be considering economic viability as a basis for granting a variance,” he said.

A zoning code, like any law, is a contract. It is drawn up and approved by representatives of the people for the good of a community.  Members of a town’s zoning and planing boards interpret the code and have some leeway. Granting too many exceptions can set a bad precedent.

We urge that each member be intimately familiar with the code, with the plans on which it was based, and with the projects being reviewed.

At last Thursday’s town board meeting, Bohl, who is an attorney, gave a lengthy discourse on relevant parts of Guilderland’s zoning code.

She said, after the meeting, many people told her they had no idea that, for example, the ordinance includes this: “wooded areas and single trees with a diameter of 12 inches or more, as measured three feet above the base of the trunk and other significant existing natural features ... should be preserved to the maximum extent practical.”

Bohl also read a section on how retaining trees and vegetation protects and controls soil erosion, helps drainage, and preserves natural beauty. Bohl noted further that, under site plan design, it says open space in new projects is to be “an integral component of the design scheme rather than a remnant of the development process.”

Board members need to be aware of and enforce what the code outlines.

In addition to Guilderland’s own law, state law must be considered, too. The State Environmental Quality Review Act defines Generic Environmental Impact Statements as being used to look at a number of separate actions in a given geographic area which, if considered singley, may have minor impacts but, if considered together may have significant impacts.

There would certainly be a cumulative impact with five apartment complexes being built in such a small area.

Guilderland was without a town planner for a critical two years as the economy was rebounding from the recession. Kenneth Kovalchik is now on the job and has said he’ll make a presentation on Dec. 18 on the planned and proposed apartment complexes. We’ll be eagerly listening and reporting on what he has to say.

In the meantime, we urge the town to elect to do a full Generic Environmental Impact Statement as the state law allows. This would ensure that the cumulative effects are considered while pausing to develop a plan may not.

Finally, we urge board members to have backbone: As you interpret the law, and are listening to the developers that come before you, keep firmly in front of your mind the people you are representing — your first obligation is to the residents of Guilderland.

laurel.bohl
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Joined: 03/06/2018 - 15:34
Clarification

I would like to thank the Altamont Enterprise for giving this subject its attention and focus. It is a subject that deserves a hard look from board members and residents alike. I would just like to clarify what could be seen as a misleading quote from me in this Editorial. I did grow up in Guilderland, when it was mostly single family residences, but we still had many very nice apartment complexes (Heritage Village, Presidential Estates, Regency Park, etc). I myself stayed in an apartment when I was in college. I am not against apartments in Guilderland at all. And I must emphasize that I strongly welcome and embrace diversity in our town, which I am very glad to see is increasing. I take offense to any implication to the contrary. By "transient" I meant simply that living in an apartment is often a short term situation, not a lifetime situation. That's all. A town should have a mix of types of accommodations, definitely. What I am concerned with is the sudden burst of numerous apartment complexes within a particular one mile radius on a very busy part of the western avenue corridor, on a dead end road no less. There needs to be some real thought given to the wisdom of this, especially environmental, traffic and safety concerns. I am not anti-growth at all; but there are many, many better spots for such high density projects. And as for the pause, GCRG is merely asking for a pause in the Town Boards' ability to rapidly issue rubber stamp approvals on these projects in order to allow time to come up with a 2019 plan for this area would allow the town members, developers, and residents to actually examine the wisdom of doing this massive development in this one highly sensitive area (the last plan was over 12 years ago, times have changed dramatically), and the pause would also allow for a Generic Environmental Impact Study to be done, something we all seem to agree is the smart thing to do. Thank you for allowing me to set the record straight.

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