[Return to Home Page] [Subscriptions] [Newsstands] [Contact Us] [Archives]

New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 23, 2005

New Scotland melée: Officials disagree over masterplan,visions vary for Route 85 corridor

By Holly Grosch

NEW SCOTLAND — After a bitter meeting among town officials last Tuesday, a new or updated comprehensive land-use plan for New Scotland seems far off.

Town board members, planning and zoning board members, and members of the Residents Planning Advisory Committee met to discuss RPAC’s recommendations within the larger picture of future development.

The committee’s report, 19 months in the making, was submitted in January. June 14 was the first time all the town’s governing bodies met together to discuss the findings and what the next step for New Scotland planning should be.

RPAC consisted of 12 residents with various professional backgrounds who did research, held 40 forums, sent out a written survey to every postal address in town, and held a visual-impact demonstration to gather the community’s perspective. RPAC’s final recommendations included rezoning suggestions, aesthetic guidelines, building designs, landscaping requirements, ways to encourage farming in the community, and ways to protect rural land.

The committee was commissioned by the town board to specifically address the northeast side of town, focusing on the route 85 and 85A corridor. The report also touched on town-wide planning.

Under attack"

Last Tuesday, a number of planning board members said they felt under attack and one attendee called the meeting a "lynching" of the planning board.

Planning Board member Robert Smith said the board already addresses a lot of the issues that were raised by the residents’ group. "I think we do a heck of a job with aesthetics," he said.

Planning board member Lorraine Tuzzolo said, "I think we’ve done a very good job." She went on to say that it is hard to consider all the ideas of all the residents. "We listen to you when you say there’s something you don’t like and we take it into consideration," she said.

"I don’t know where you want to go with this — look at existing zoning, look at changing existing zoning"" Robert Stapf, chairmen of the planning board, asked the town board members.

"The background on all of this is that our neighbors are now all imposing moratoriums, Bethlehem and Guilderland," Supervisor Ed Clark told the gathering, packed around a rectangular conference table set up in the middle of Town Hall.

"The only town exempt from this is Colonie, because they are already built out," Clark said.

He went onto say that he wants the town to prepare for development and not wait until there is a problem and then have to address it under stress.

"We don’t have a comprehensive plan," Clark said.

"I’m really agitated about that," Stapf said. He and other planning board members worked really hard on a 1994 master plan, he said, that plan was never approved.

"We took it and made zoning changes with it, " said Councilman Scott Houghtaling, a 12 year veteran on the town board.

Stapf was also on the defensive because, he said, he saw RPAC as a group that was formed as a backlash to Stewart’s convenience store and gas station being approved on Route 85.

Stapf said, for example, that he knew a parking lot being placed in front instead of the back of the store is a sore spot.

"Stewart’s worked with us very well, they were willing to change their whole look to come here," Smith said.

Dan Mackay, an RPAC member, said surveys showed residents have a wide range of visions for the corridor, but most said there is a need for more commercial activity in town.

"It’s the primary gateway to our community," Mackay said.

For this part of town, the planning and zoning boards may not be as effective at controlling how the commercial development comes in since there is no point of reference for how the corridor should be developed, Mackay said.

It’s a bad idea to just make decisions property by property, he said; inconsistencies will continue on the corridor.

"Zoning overall would address some of these issues... That’s what the report, for me, drives at," Mackay said.

Mackay said he hopes there is "political will in this town to examine this."

Stapf said he wanted to respond in defense of the planning board. For example, he said, the board worked with Stewarts way ahead of time, and the board told the company its usual franchise design didn’t fit with the character of the town.

Olsen’s nursery demonstrates the new character that the town is looking for, Stapf said. "Is it in writing" No, but that’s what we’ve been doing," Stapf said.

Currently, the planning in town is based solely on the subjective preferences of individual planning-board members, Mackey said; he would like to elevate it more and instead talk about planning from an objective perspective.

Even that night at the meeting, Mackay said, everyone heard Stapf talking "emphatically about a personal philosophy — how do we know that will still be there 5 years down the road," he said.

The town needs standards, Stapf said. The RPAC recommendations that speak in general terms, such as calling for aesthetic guidelines, don’t accomplish anything, he said.

Stapf said, when the residents committee started two years ago, he thought the intention was for the report to be added on as an addendum to the existing comprehensive plan.

"Maybe the town can modify RPAC and then use it to enhance the comprehensive plan," Stapf said.

"No theme"

Time and time again, when developers come before the planning board with their plans, Stapf said, "They say there is no theme" to the corridor. Stapf said the board works with builders’ designs to adjust roofs and to put in small windows to give a business rural charm, but he said the existing structures in town, like Stonewell Plaza, a 1950’s strip mall, don’t fit into that.

Edie Abrams, an advisory committee member, asked Stapf if another modern building, like the former Saab dealership, were proposed, couldn’t the builders read the RPAC report to get a taste of what residents want"

At planning board meetings this spring, Stapf told developers to take a look at, the RPAC report to get a sense of the development styles the town would prefer.

Douglas LaGrange, a planning board member who also was a member of the residents committee, said that not a month goes by without the planning board keeping the RPAC report in mind, "This report has been incorporated in town decisions," LaGrange said.

Planning board members said that, once the Omni doctors’ office is built at the Tee-Time golf site, the community will see how the board has worked with developers to make their project’s appearance fit in with the hamlet and rural character of New Scotland.

Aesthetics is something the board addresses regularly, Stapf said. Under the State Environmental Quality Review Act alone neighborhood character must be reviewed, he said.

He said the board also works with landscaping and parking. "We have a lot of control," said Stapf.

"If you don’t want an operation you can make it economically unfeasible" for them to move in, Stapf said.

Town attorney Michael Mackey said that, by law, every use has to be allowed in some place in each town.

New Scotland, Stapf said, "could start an economic-development office to see if we can get people to come in."

Forming an economic development office, which would market the town to desired businesses, was one of RPAC’s recommendations, which most town board members previously told The Enterprise New Scotland could not afford.

Supervisor Clark had said that current town employees could fill promotional duties, without having to create a new department.

Houghtaling said that, at one time, New Scotland did have an economic development office, but its job was to help existing businesses, not recruit new ones.

Storm town hall"

Stapf dominated the discussion most of the night, speaking more than any other town official.

Clark told Stapf, "You say you’re only one vote, but I haven’t heard the other votes." Clark looked around the table at the other planing and zoning board members.

Clark asked if the others saw value in the committee’s recommendations.

"I’m one individual with a loud mouth right now," Stapf said, but, as soon as the town board makes changes to the zoning ordinance, there will be a lot of landowners storming into Town Hall, he said.

Zoning board member William Hennessey said that he was generally in support of using RPAC as a planning tool, and using the report as a mechanism for decisions.

Zoning board Chairman Ronnie Von Ronnie said he would prefer a document that addressed zoning on a town-wide basis rather than by quadrant. He added that residents from the southwest part of town did not feel involved in this 85, 85A report.

Smith said he had reservations about the report, because only 12 percent of the town’s residents returned the survey. "Why didn’t others respond"" he asked.

"Our standards are very high in this," Smith said. But, he said, the town can’t dictate what kind of businesses can come in without having to deal with litigation.

Visions for the corridor

Besides disagreeing over the RPAC recommendations, town officials even shared differing visions of what the corridor can become

Stapf said, "Our topography is not conducive for commercial."

"The community doesn’t even support Nichols’," he said referring to a supermarket in Voorheesville, "They’re hanging on... they’ve cut back on employees. Hopefully they’ll be able to stay around."

"There’s quite a bit of turnover at Stonewell... We lost the car dealership," Stapf said, illustrating how New Scotland’s commercial venues are hurting.

Twenty percent of Bethlehem’s real property is commercial and New Scotland’s is only 4 percent, Clark said.

"All of our commercial land is close to being used up for residential," Clark said.

He thinks that, when developers come in with the money, they are the ones who can make water and sewer happen.

"We’ve lost a lot of interested developers because it was too costly to put in piping," Smith said.

The town can’t even get water for one church over on Krumkill, Stapf said, referring to the Assembly of God.

"I think it’s great to say ‘save commercial’... but we’re lucky to have any at all," council member Deborah Baron said. This is an age where people go shopping at malls and drive to Crossgates, she said.

Clark acknowledged that the town has to have people to serve with its commercial development, but, after New Scotland fills up its commercial zones with houses, where will commercial projects be built" he asked.

Stapf responded defensively. "If you’re telling me I’m wasting my time... then I’ll tell you what you can do with it," he said.

"I like what Donald Zee is doing," Stapf said of Amedore Homes’ proposal for senior townhouses on Route 85. "I look at it as a positive tax base for the town and school...I also look at it as spin-off for commercial."

"I think the present ordinance makes sense," Stapf said.

"What are we offering commercial businesses" to attract them to New Scotland" Smith asked. He said a lot of municipalities are offering tax incentives to desirable developments. "It could be a great commercial corridor," Smith said.

Comprehensive plan"

John Dearstyne, an RPAC member, said that regional planning experts emphasize that in order for a comprehensive plan to be a working document, it must be updated and reviewed. The RPAC report recommends that the comprehensive plan be updated every five years, after its formation.

In terms of zoning changes, Stapf said, "Always the silent majority shows up when we take money away from landowners limiting what they can do with property."

"Don’t ask me what to change; I think things aren’t bad," Stapf said.

He said he can’t believe that the town board never officially adopted the 1994 comprehensive plan, he thought for sure it had been accepted.

Town Clerk Diane Deschenes said she looked every where and could not find a town board resolution adopting the plan.

Town Attorney Michael Mackey, who was involved in the town when the comprehensive plan was created, said the comprehensive plan resulted in the current zoning, and the ideas of the comprehensive plan where implemented through specific zoning. A comprehensive plan provides information, not rules or regulations, Mackey said, so it wasn’t truly significant that the comprehensive plan wasn’t adopted because for all intents and purposes, that plan molded the laws, he said.

Clark said that Tuesday’s meeting, and the town board’s forming RPAC, were not criticisms of the planning board.

Planning board members Smith, Lorraine Tuzzolo, and Stapf all said that, to them, it sounded like it was.

Interpretations change, Stapf said. Zoning Administrator Paul Cantlin has a running list of things that are not clearly defined, he said; the zoning board is the constant.

Stapf recommended that the town take another look at the 1994 comprehensive plan and accept and approve it. Make a few changes, he said, add some of the RPAC recommendations, but work on the wording so there are exact guidelines.

Von Ronnie said that he thinks there is a lot of confusion over the job of the zoning board of appeals.

"We handle any appeal with regards to use and zoning law; that is our sole job. We don’t offer opinion," he said. He also said the he has worked closely with planning board members and stated, "They have always done a superb job."

"I’m not so sure the committee is not questioning the quality of the planning board," Von Ronnie said.

He said, after reading the RPAC recommendations, it sounded like it was, "setting goals and guidelines, for setting guidelines."

"I’m in same boat as Bob, [Stapf] I don’t understand," Von Ronnie said, saying he didn’t understand the purpose of the RPAC report.

"I wanted it to be a limited document," Abrams said, addressing the committee’s large scope. "I do believe different areas of town should have their own committee." She also agreed that some recommendations were too broad, and she said she can see how people are confused because the language isn’t specific enough. But, she said, the hope is for a more comprehensive vision for New Scotland rather than the parcel-by-parcel approach that is taken now.

"There’s more to this town than 85A," Smith said.

Councilwomen Andrea Gleason suggested forming different advisory committees for different sections of town. The original idea was to divide the town into its four quadrants and let the people in those four districts decided what they want in that section of town, she said.

"That is total socialism!" Smith said.

Smith and Stapf both thought that current zoning law address and regulates town zoning well.

Abrams asked, what about the specific things in the recommendations that are not in town law, like developing a plan to protect the view of the escarpment.

"It’s in the comprehensive plan," Stapf said, again referring to the 1994 document, and then asked Abrams if she ever read the Escarpment Report.

No, she said.

"It’s in the comprehensive plan," Stapf said, raising his voice and waving the 1994 document up in the air again, in obvious frustration, a common scene throughout the night.

"I offered to come in," Stapf said of being a guest speaker at RPAC meetings. He added that he gave a few short presentations at the first few RPAC meetings about the various planning documents that he uses, and the town has. But, he said, he knew fairly soon he was wasting his time, because the committee became so off kilter from the original task.

LaGrange said he remembered at the first meetings of RPAC Councilman Houghtaling told the members "we want specifics."

High tensions

Katy O’Rourke had joined the meeting as a audience member, she spoke out from the gallery asking Stapf to use a nicer tone, she said she was put off by his attitude.

Stapf’s wife, Lynn, who was also in the audience, told O’Rourke that she was out of line for saying anything because she wasn’t there the whole meeting and didn’t witness when it "became a lynching" of the planning board members.

The room looked as though it was going to turn into a yelling match when Clark stood up from the table with his arms gently raised, elbows bent, palms facing outward and said, "We didn’t throw any bombs here."

He said he called the meeting because, too often he hears other towns say, "Why didn’t people plan for this" Why didn’t they think ahead""

Clark said, while the planning and zoning board members are doing an excellent job on what they are charged with doing, the town needs to prepare for the future. "It’s a simple attempt to look ahead," he said.

"I’m sorry if anybody took it personally," he said. "It’s not realistic to say New Scotland will never change." One day water and sewer will come, he said, and all things have to be considered. "Maybe we have to re-zone," he said.

"I don’t want moratoriums," which will make everything stop said and it will be "very traumatic for us," Clark said.

Having this discussion was quite contrary to criticizing the planning board, he said; the boards are doing a terrific job.

"Don’t beat us over the head," because the 1994 comprehensive plan was never adopted by a previous town board, Clark said.

"I’m still convinced it’s a final document," Stapf said. "This was supposed to a 25-year plan," He added: yes, it needs to be revisited.

[Return to Home Page]