2010 in review New Scotland

Commercial size-cap law still in limbo as plans for home developments mushroom

NEW SCOTLAND — A three-member town board majority rode in to office this year with momentum to cap the allowable size of retail buildings, but by the end of the year the issue had sifted to the bottom of the agenda.

Having won an election that hinged on land-use and the shape of future development in town, Supervisor Thomas Dolin and councilmen Douglas LaGrange and Daniel Mackay had interpreted their win as a mandate for a 50,000-square-foot cap on the size of single stores and a 100,000-square-foot cap on shopping centers.

The trio also replaced in January the long-time planning board chairman, Robert Stapf, who had supported the opposing ticket, which held a laissez-faire approach to development.  The new chairman is Charles Voss, a professional planner who has been on the board since 2005 and was supportive of the winning ticket’s platform.  Another supporter, Jeffrey Baker, was named as the lawyer to the planning board, replacing Louis Neri, the husband of former Councilwoman Margaret Neri, who had been in favor of larger allowances for retail development during her time on the town board.

Further change came to the planning board in June, when the town board voted to reduce the number of members from seven to five — a change that will take place over the next two years as neither of the next two seats that open will be filled.

After months of heated public debate on size caps in early 2009, a bill with a 50,000-square-foot cap on single stores and a 100,000-square-foot cap on shopping centers stalled after it went through several machinations, which ultimately resulted in larger cap sizes, and then met with disapproval from the county’s planning board because it did not address the density of retail development that could be built in the town’s sizeable commercial zone.

About a year later, early in 2010, Mackay proposed a size cap bill with the original numbers.  A crowd that nearly filled the high school auditorium then saw the bill defeated since a protest petition had been filed by the owners of more than 20 percent of the land in the commercial zone; the bill needed a supermajority — or four votes — to pass.  It went down 3 to 2, with Councilman Richard Reilly and Councilwoman Deborah Baron voting against it.

Of the couple of hundred people in attendance at that public hearing, about 30 of them spoke, 25 of them arguing for the law with the same assertions they had been making since Cazenovia-based Sphere Development had proposed a Target-anchored shopping center on the old Bender melon farm two years before.

After the defeat, Mackay said, “I wasn’t elected to take one shot at this and then wait two years until the next election.”

He said this month that he has met with both Reilly and Baron to discuss a new proposal that might satisfy them.  After the bill’s defeat in March, Reilly said he’d like to see that part of the commercial zone, around the intersection of routes 85 and 85A, handled differently than the rest of the town’s commercial zone, which is located a few miles away on the Helderberg escarpment.

“Treating those two areas of the town that are zoned commercial differently is something that had been discussed and, I want to say, almost accepted by Mr. Welti and the folks on CZAC,” he said, referring to Michael Welti, the professional planner whom the town hired to help guide its Commercial Zone Advisory Committee in its charge to advise the town board on updating zoning code to reflect its master plan.

“You would almost just create a Commercial A and a Commercial B and leave A alone and that would be up on the hill and make the changes to just B,” Reilly said.

Baron has expressed apprehension at the possibility that residential development could eat into the commercial zone.

“My big concern is: How do we handle residential?” Councilwoman Deborah Baron said in March.  She cast the final vote that tipped the balance against the size-cap bill.

Baron has regularly expressed concern over using the town’s commercially zoned property for residential development.  “I don’t want to say none, because I understand we have to compromise,” she said, explaining that, rather than seeing large houses built on 10-acre spreads, “I’d like to see clustering.”

At least five new residential developments are in various stages of planning around the town, which would add over 200 houses to the landscape.

The Kensington Woods development will bring 169 houses to Hilton Road, just off of Route 85A near the commercial zone, and Country Club Estates and Country Club Estates II could bring 54 houses to the other side of Route 85A near the Colonie Country Club.

Next to where the road would be for the second Country Club Estates proposal is a 7,200-square-foot barn built by Frank Osterhout in 1898.  Currently, the barn is used by the country club to house maintenance equipment, but it will be moved or demolished to allow for another building lot, John Biscone, the lawyer representing Country Club Partners, told the planning board during a September meeting.

“I don’t know how they’d move it,” Building Inspector Paul Cantlin said of the barn, adding that he had heard an estimate of $45,000 to fix just the roof, which is slate.

Edie Abrams, a resident active in planning issues who lives in the 85A corridor, has proposed that the community work with the country club to find a way to preserve the barn.

With three developments proposed for that corridor and two elsewhere in town, Patricia Snyder, who sits on the town’s newly formed ethics board, asked the planning board if the town ever takes a comprehensive look at the cumulative effects of proposed developments rather than looking at each one individually.  Each proposal requires various impact studies to be performed by the developer, but the town does not examine the combined impacts of the developments before approving them.

“I agree with your concept,” Planning Board Chairman Charles Voss said, explaining that there is no mechanism to allow for the board to consider the combined impact of the developments.

When the size-cap bill in 2009 met with disapproval from the Albany County Planning Board, it recommended that New Scotland undertake a general environmental impact study to set up a framework for assessing growth and development.  A large part of the town’s commercial zone, which was affected by the bill, runs along Route 85A, in the same area as the three proposed housing developments.

Asked if the town would consider conducting a study of the area, Supervisor Dolin quoted an estimate of $50,000.  It “may get to the point where the next developer has to do something like that,” he said.

In March, the Capital District Transportation Committee awarded a $42,500 grant to New Scotland to study transportation and land use in that area.  The town will contribute $12,500, for a total study budget of $55,000.

There are three basic goals for the project, said Katy O’Rourke, who helped identify the grant and submit the application for it:  First, to develop a general vision, or master plan, for the area; second, to get help with updating the town’s zoning code to reflect the master plan; and third, to get help with design guidelines.

Just south of the 85A corridor, upscale residential development could take root in the now rural landscape off of New Scotland South Road if water comes to the area.

In the fall, Bruce Boswell proposed a 15-house subdivision, called “Creekside,” on a roughly 30-acre piece of land off of Miller Road.

“It’s all geared on the fact of getting this [and] getting the water,” said Dominick Arico, an engineer for Boswell Engineering, referring to issues with the subpar Miller Road and negotiations with the town of Bethlehem to make water available.

Since New Scotland has no municipal water system, residents in some areas are able to buy water from the neighboring town of Bethlehem, which has a reservoir located in New Scotland.

Several residents own large tracts of land in that area, some of whom have plans for development also.

“I am envisioning a bigger plan out there,” said Salvatore Fiato, who owns about 100 acres of land adjoining the proposed Creekside development.  “I’m waiting to see what happens to Boswell,” he said of his plans.

“I think that part of town over there has great potential for development,” planning board member Robert Stapf said at an October meeting.

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