Score round one for the law

The residents of Westmere Terrace who brought a suit against Pyramid Management Group and the town of Guilderland are happy that Albany County Supreme Court Judge Peter Lynch decided in their favor — an apartment complex that would have changed their neighborhood along with plans for a Costco Wholesale store have been stopped, for now.

“The little people won ...,” Kevin McDonald, one of the Westmere Terrace residents who brought the suit, told our reporter Sean Mulkerrin. “We went up against a large corporation and, you know, these things are hardly ever on the side of the residents.”

Pyramid went for the jugular. The company sought sanctions, claiming the residents’ suit “was completely without merit in law and was undertaken primarily to harass the defendant.” Judge Lynch turned that on its head, however, stating such claims from Pyramid were “frivolous and summarily rejected.”

Pyramid told us it plans to appeal — Lynch’s Nov. 20 decision was at the lowest level of the court’s three-tiered system — and is “confident” it will win at the Appellate Division

We’re not so sure. Lynch’s 77-page decision, based on arguments presented by the plaintiff’s attorney, James Bacon, are specifically grounded in the law.

This is more than a David-and-Goliath story. Lynch’s decision is not just a victory for the Westmere plaintiffs who said they were standing up for their neighbors; it is also a victory for the law.

As such, we strongly urge those in Guilderland government to take their own hard look at the town’s planning and zoning procedures. Judge Lynch ruled that the Guilderland Planning Board had not complied either procedurally or substantively with its obligations under the State Environmental Quality Review Act.

He found that the planning board violated the procedure defined by the acts as well as the “hard look” test, a three-part test that requires an agency reviewing an action to: identify the areas of environmental concern; analyze the areas of concern to determine if the action may have a significant adverse impact; and support its determination with evidence.

Lynch found that Guilderland’s planning board improperly left the zoning board — which had the sole responsibility of issuing a special-use permit for Costco — out of the process.

Lynch also found no evidence of a “scaled-down alternative” to the ‘maximum-build scenario” Pyramid had proposed with 222 residential units and a Costco.

In April, after Pyramid had clear-cut trees to make way for Costco before the environmental-review process was complete, Bacon prepared a federal suit for the same plaintiffs, which was tossed as “not ripe for adjudication.” Bacon told us in April that, under state law, a lead agency is to look at alternatives then act to choose among alternatives that minimize environmental harm.

At that time, Guilderland Supervisor Peter Barber told us he was confident that the town’s planner and zoning inspector had “followed the right procedures.”

Residents, Barber said, had wanted higher-density development, apartments and shops, closer to existing retail, which would keep traffic off of Western Avenue. “That was the goal,” Barber said, aligning with Smart Growth principles. Barber gave the example of someone who would park her car at Macy’s and then “walk across the street” to shop at Costco.

Barber did not return calls from Mulkerrin, seeking his response to Lynch’s decision, but we hope Barber and every other town official connected with zoning and planning gives the document a close read.

Lynch’s decision is rife with examples of how the Pyramid review should have been handled differently, which applies to review of other projects in town as well.

The planning board, Lynch writes “utterly failed to even address, let alone require, a viewshed analysis of the high-rise buildings.” Instead, the planning board “simply accepted” Pyramid’s claim  that “no alternative land uses are permitted west of Rapp road” since the town had established a transit-oriented development district, known as a TOD.

The “historical and cultural significance” of the Rapp Road Historic District, Lynch wrote, “cannot be overstated, and, in turn, cannot be ignored under the hard look test.” With the closest homes just a few hundred feet away from proposed five-story buildings, the planning board failed to consider “any alternative with reduced building height.”

 The historic district is a neighborhood of small homes, many of them hand-built by African Americans who arrived in the pinebush, largely from Mississippi, during the Great Migration.

Pointing out that the draft environmental impact statement adopted by the planning board in February claimed Pyramid’s projects would not be “out of character with the area, rather they are authorized pursuant to Town of Guilderland’s TOD district,” Lynch asked, “Since when do high-rise buildings comport with the character of historical one story bungalows.”

Lynch also cites comments made by the Albany County Planning board as examples of Pyramid misleading the Guilderland Planning Board because Pyramid’s misrepresentation was used by the board when it was making its final decision.

Pyramid had told Albany County in May 2018, half a year after the company planned to build a Costco store, that the residential neighborhood that the company had bought up — now known as a ghost neighborhood — would be used for “first floor commercial, upper floors residential apartments/condos; perhaps a civic component as well.” 

Actually, Lynch writes — noting that Costco “is not a civic component” — “the Costco site plan was prepared as early as November 1, 2017 but apparently not disclosed.” On scrutiny, Lynch wrote, Pyramid offered the board information on which to base its decision for which no actual evidence existed.

We understand that Pyramid, as a business, exists to further its own interests but furthering Pyramid’s goals should not be the role of the town’s officials. 

Crossgates Mall opened in 1983 with about 875,000 square feet. In 1994, it added 650,000 square feet. In 1998, when Pyramid had plans to build an eight-story hotel and recreation facility at Crossgates, more than doubling the mall to about 3.6 million square feet, massive citizen protests led the town not to approve the required zoning change.

In 2017, Pyramid partners said they were looking to diversify as shopping trends changed from in-store to online. Pyramid opened a five-story 192-room hotel in front of the mall, on Western Avenue in 2019.

We understand that the pandemic has been hard on Crossgates Mall as it has on malls across the country. We also understand that Crossgates serves as a major provider of sales-tax revenue for the county and its municipalities.

Nevertheless, Pyramid is not above the law. And the Guilderland residents who are appointed to serve on the town’s zoning and planning boards need to follow the law as they review plans that affect all of the residents of Guilderland.

Thomas Hart, one of the plaintiffs, said that, if the suit hadn’t been brought, Pyramid’s current projects would have been approved without residents knowing about “all the shady deals and shady decisions that were made.”

 The quasi-judicial zoning and planning boards need to follow the law and give at least as much heed to residents’ needs as they do to developers’ goals.

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