Village plan offers a ‘roadmap’ forward

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Main Street and back roads: The comprehensive plan is seen as a road map that will aid the village in its decision-making for the next 10 to 15 years.

VOORHEESVILLE — More than a year after a planned unit development district slated for Saint Matthew’s Church had many village residents crying foul over the process of approval, a presentation of the Village of Voorheesville Comprehensive Plan to residents was met with a mostly positive response at a public hearing on Wednesday, Nov. 29.

“It was an opportunity for the community to take a step back, look at where we are, and really where we want to be as a community as it relates to development,” Voorheesville Mayor Robert Conway told The Enterprise this week. “It’s an opportunity for residents to weigh in on the direction they would like to see the village move towards.”

The comprehensive plan committee will now review the public comments from the meeting as well as those comments made in writing, and incorporate them into the plan. The committee would then present a revised plan to the board of trustees, which would then review it and decide whether to accept or reject it.

If accepted, the village board would hold another public hearing to receive any further public input, and then the board would vote to adopt or reject the plan.

The best-case scenario for completion of this process is a few months, said Conway.

“If everything moves along and nothing dramatic comes up, I would think, within three months, maybe,” he said.

A comprehensive plan does not carry the weight of law; instead, it “identifies goals, objectives, principles, and policies for the immediate and long‐range protection, enhancement, growth, and development of a community.”

Nan Stolzenburg of Community Planning and Environmental Associates, a consultant who worked on the plan, likened the village’s comprehensive plan to a business plan.

“It would outline what your goals are for the future and what you needed to do to get there,” she told The Enterprise.

It is seen as a road map that will aid the village in its decision-making and “is designed to play a pivotal role in shaping the Village of Voorheesville for the next 10 to 15 years,” according to the plan itself.

The plan offers a vision and a set of goals that capture “the values of you, as a community, and what you want for your community … They are very important because they set the tone and direction for everything else in the plan,” Stolzenburg said in her presentation at the hearing.

It gives residents the opportunity to plan for a direction that they want to take the village, Stolzenburg said, and would put into place, the policies and programs to help meet the needs of the community.

Given the perceived non-inclusive origin of the comprehensive plan, there was a lot of emphasis placed on village-resident involvement.

“I feel like it’s important for people to know that this is a comprehensive plan that was driven by public input. This wasn’t a small group of people who came together to decide what was best for the village. We had a tremendous amount of public participation in the process,” Straut told The Enterprise.

The information in the plan was driven by the desires and input of the community, he said.

And the village was very involved.

At the public hearing, Stolzenburg said, “Voorheesville, I love you, you are one of the most involved communities I’ve seen in the 25 years I’ve been doing planning.”

The success of a plan comes from the support it receives from the community, said Stolzenburg. The community invests in saying what it likes and doesn’t like, and in defining issues and needs.

An actively engaged community, like Voorheesville — which really put a lot of time and effort to help with the process — will lead to more success at the end, she said. “Because they’ll work to make the plan more than just a piece of paper.”

What’s in the plan

The comprehensive plan makes 67 recommendations.

“Some are quick fixes and some are going to take some time,” Stolzenburg said.

Major recommendations include:

—  Implementing streetscape improvements as detailed in the “All Aboard Main Street Revitalization Plan” developed by the village in 2015;

—  Landscaping and other amenity improvements at the rail-trail head on Grove Street and promoting the village as a bike‐friendly place: Voorheesville is at the head of the Helderberg-Hudson Rail Trail, so it has the village has prioritized it — by investing in it. A pavilion was recently installed, echoing the train station that once stood nearby, and there is talk of a viewing platform modeled after a train platform, said Straut;

The idea is to be able to attract bikers to the downtown area for bite to eat or visit shops, he said.

“There’s a thought that a bike shop could do well — people come to Voorheesville as a hub to go biking,” said Straut;

— Enhancing marketing and promotion: Straut said the village is also looking to revamp the sign law. He said that local businesses would like to be able to put out sandwich-board signs to advertise a daily special or other deal;

—  More coordination and communication with the town of New Scotland to promote growth patterns beneficial to both communities, and to promote town‐wide biking: One example of inter-municipal coordination that Straut highlighted was his work with Douglas LaGrange, supervisor of New Scotland, to make requests for proposals to replace existing streetlights with light-emitting diodes, which he said would be a real cost-saver;

— Programming to enhance street trees and sidewalks;

— Updating of stormwater planning, instituting methods to mitigate flooding, and further protect water quality and recreation in the Vly Creek;

— Adding more flexibility in allowing for use of two‐family homes in some districts, mixed use buildings on Main Street, and use of accessory apartments;

— Using the conservation subdivision design method to ensure that new, major subdivisions include protection of open spaces and the environment in the residential-agricultural district;

— Promoting small-business and activities: Straut highlights simplifying the steps to starting a business in the village.

Of the building-permit process, for example, he said, “If somebody wants to come into the village and start a business that would require them to renovate a building,” he asks, “how can that process be streamlined?”

There is a process, he says, but the village wants to make it easier for people to understand. Straut says there has been talk about putting together a packet of information that will explain, step-by-step, this process.

He says the the comprehensive plan included an economic analysis that determined what kind of business would be desirable for the village.  

That information could be taken and marketed to potential business owners, he says. With the economic analysis, the village would be able to show potential owners that there is a demand for the type of business or service they offer.

“One is, for sure, a restaurant,” Straut said of a potential business that residents want and would do well in the village. Smith’s Tavern closed earlier this year, selling to Stewart’s Shops.

There was a huge demand in the feedback from residents for a café or family-friendly restaurant, he said;

— Planning for capital improvements on a five‐year rolling basis;

— Evaluating sewer expansion to Main Street locations: “A couple of things we’re working on already … We commissioned a study to look at implementing sewers along Main Street — the village’s business district,” said Strout.

Currently, the the village doesn’t have public sewer going to those businesses, they each have their own septic system, which can be limiting, Straut said.

The report looks at the feasibility of extending sanitary service along Main Street.

The extension of sewer service could then help solve another problem in the business district — parking.

By installing sewer, the area behind businesses would be freed up, because that is where their septic systems currently sit. Straut said the village board is talking about possibly approaching existing business owners and working out a deal to create public parking;

— Railroad noise abatement: Straut said that there’s a program through the Federal Rail Administration that allows for the implementation of so-called quiet zones, which some residents have pushed for, for years.

The way the railroad crossings on Main Street and Voorheesville Avenue are currently configured, a train has to blow its whistle when it comes through town.

What the town is looking at is is installing a “four-quadrant gate system.”

Currently, the crossings at Main Street and Voorheesville Avenue have gates that come down across only the oncoming travel lanes.

Straut said, if two gates came down on each side, blocking both lanes, then the train wouldn’t have to blow its whistle, unless the engineer had a safety concern.

This has been in the works for a while, he said. And with nearly all the parties — state, federal, village, county — on board, it could be done soon;

— Improving access to Vly Creek for recreation; and  

— Updating zoning and subdivision laws so that new development is consistent with community character; ensures that business districts are sensitive to different needs in different locations; adjusts lot dimensions and development standards so new development will match existing neighborhood character; limits heavy industrial uses; limits multi‐family uses to a proposed new mixed-use (business and residential) zoning district near Foundry Road with strict development standards; and protects wetlands, floodplains, and other natural resources.

What’s next?

Zoning changes is where Straut and Stolzenburg agree the village can act quickest.

“Typically, the regulatory changes that are recommended in a plan are easiest, because they [the village board] have the capacity to do them: They have an attorney, they have a planning board. It’s not a huge investment in time or funds to get the job done,” Stolzenburg said.

“As soon as we get through the public hearings and the adoption of the comprehensive plan, I expect that we will start tackling the zoning changes immediately,” Straut said.

Straut said the board would “look to rewrite the zoning all at once,” which he said would be a four- to five-month process.

“We see the vision — and we want to implement the vision all at once,” he said.

Asked if he anticipates pushback for such an ambitious goal Straut said: “It’s naive to say that there won’t be somebody who has some concerns about it.” But he expects that the public will support the plan.

Straut points out that there is another public hearing scheduled for the comprehensive plan and that any zoning changes recommended by the plan would also have to go through another public-hearing process.

“We’re not going to jam it down the public’s throat. This is not about the board or committee dictating; it’s about our community having something they can support,” he said.

Saint Matthew’s

“About a year ago, the village board had put forth a proposal to implement a new law to allow for a Planned Development District,” said Straut.

The concept of a Planned Development District is to allow a developer to come in and propose a development that does not strictly meet the zoning for that area, but it would allow the developer the opportunity to come in and propose it.

In Voorheesville, the proposal was for rental apartments on 7.7 vacant acres next to St. Matthew’s Church at 25 Mountainview Street in the village.

“We went to the village to look at the zoning. Changes had to be made,” he said, to accommodate the project. “We talked to the village board about how to proceed….The board suggested a planned unit development…The village board decided that would be the easiest way to proceed,” Pastor Christopher DeGiovine said in August 2016.

Residents came to an August 2016 public hearing to voice their displeasure.
Kenneth Connolly said of the planned unit development district, “I walked to every house [within 500 feet of the church]; no one had heard of it.”

Josette Guastella brought copies of state law to the hearing and said that residents living near the church, like herself, should have been informed about the hearing, but weren’t. Richard Reilly, the village’s attorney, responded that the requirement was to inform neighboring municipalities and that both Guilderland and New Scotland had been informed.

At the time, Conway said that, while technically requirements had been met, the perception was that citizens hadn’t been informed so it was best for the board not to make a decision.

This week, Conway told The Enterprise: “I think what happened was, we had, and have, zoning and planning laws on the books that we thought were addressing the village’s needs.”

“There were a lot of changes that occurred — when I say changes, I mean changes in thinking as far as planning and zoning,” he said, adding, “And we had not really kept up with it.”

Conway said that the component that was missing was the educational piece, and he thinks that is what the comprehensive plan really delves into.

“While it wasn’t the driving force … I think the Saint Matthew’s proposal helped to kind of crystalize and really firm up, in our minds, that a comprehensive plan was needed,” Conway said.

“I think by putting together the plan and going through that process, it allowed people to become better acquainted and really think deeply about what it is, they would like to see happen with the village,” he said.

Instead of  “a patchwork of decisions,” the comprehensive plan offers “decisions based on a roap map,” Conway said.

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