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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, July 3, 2008
Welti welcomes planning challenge in New Scotland
By David S. Lewis
NEW SCOTLAND The committee appointed to assist the town board in revamping its commercial district’s zoning code will be assisted by a planner from Behan Planning Associates, Mike Welti.
When a developer revealed his plans to build a 750,000-square-foot retail center on New Scotland’s old Bender melon farm, citizen uproar prompted the town to enact a six-month moratorium on commercial development over 30,000 square feet. The moratorium is intended to give the town time to align its sparse zoning code with its 1994 comprehensive plan, which leaves most of the town’s control over development to the discretion of the planning board though the permitting process.
While the comprehensive plan describes the community as having a “rural character” and being poorly suited for large-scale, regional development, commercial development of nearly any size and shape could meet the lean requirements of the zoning code.
Welti, a 20-year resident of the Capital District and a professional planner for 12 years, has worked with such firms as Saratoga Associates and The Chazen Companies, as well as with Behan in the past. He returned to Behan Planning Associates three months ago.
Recently, he has worked on drafting zoning for the town of Bethlehem. Welti was the project manager and the main planner for Bethlehem's comprehensive plan, in preparation for the vast Vista project, the 1.4-million-square-foot technology plant, situated on the western side of the town. Nearly 25 percent of the development will be located in New Scotland, if the town board approves the new Mixed Economic Development District for that area, which is currently zoned for two-acre residential lots.
“I am very proud of the Bethlehem comprehensive plan, I think that project was difficult and there was a lot of pent-up frustrations, regarding planning use in the town, and there was a lot of interest,” said Welti.
“I think ultimately we came up with a plan that the town board was able to feel very comfortable with and if you look at what they’ve done since then, they’ve been thorough about implementing the things in the plan. That’s something I am very proud of.
“So I am familiar with the mixed-use district on that side of the border, and some of the issues involved with that project,” he concluded.
Will the new district, if approved, affect his work on New Scotland's current commercial zone?
“I don’t know that it will,” said Welti.
“We are talking about an area that is already, and has been, zoned commercial for many years,” he continued. “The discussion the other night seems to suggest people were interested in keeping some level commercial activity viable in that district, and we are just trying to figure out how to balance that with [New Scotland's] comprehensive plan.”
Welti’s mission is to share his experience as a 12-year veteran of Capital District planning.
Welti said his mission is very specific, and does not include the MEDD. He is charged with setting agendas for the Citizens Zoning Advisory Committee, and helping it draft the language for the revised zoning for the town’s commercial district, most of which is located near the intersection of routes 85 and 85A, near the Bender melon farm the site of the proposed retail center. His first meeting with the committee, chaired by Roz Robinson, was on June 18.
“For me, it was interesting my first time meeting with that group,” he said. “Nice to see that everyone is very knowledgeable and not afraid to talk about how they feel about the issues.”
At the meeting, representatives of The Sphere Group, the Cazenovie, N.Y.-based developer whose interest in the farm site resulted in the citizen uproar, listened and participated while Liz Kormos, an instrumental member of New Scotlanders for Sound Economic Development, the citizen group most vocally opposed to the development, showed several diagrams to the committee illustrating the scale of the Sphere project, contrasting it with other local developments. The Enterprise asked Welti whether the proposal would play significantly in the CZAC agendas.
“The mission of the committee is focused more on the entirety of the commercial zoning district, but it is not unexpected to see that people kind of turn to that proposal,” he said. “It was a significant proposal, and it will have that effect on people.”
Signs urging the town to adopt the moratorium are still visible, here and there throughout New Scotland, but a sign could be seen in almost every yard before the public hearing, attended by over 800 citizens. A petition signed by 2,200 people was presented to the town board, as well as nearly three hours of testimony, all but one speaking against the development.
“I think we need to keep looking at the big picture,” said Welti. “I don't think we need to be overly focused on that proposal.”
The Enterprise asked whether the town's comprehensive land-use plan would remain relevant with the new development and the changing economy.
“It might be a good idea to look at that bigger picture,” said Welti.
“The plan is a 1994 plan,” he said, “And we typically recommend that it’s between a five- and 10-year period before you revisit that plan.
“New Scotland is sort of at the edge where some of the larger changes have recently occurred in our region,” observed Welti. “It certainly wouldn’t be inappropriate to re-look at it at this time.”
Welti said that, despite those considerations, he thought the plan was still a valuable document.
“It seems to me that there’s probably a lot in there that’s still relevant today as far as the vision that people have for their community,” he said. “Whether the the policies and recommendations are still all up to date as they could be, or whether they could be refined a little further, well, that's another question.
“But that’s a process; that, as you know, takes some time and some resources to do. The Bethlehem plan took about 18 months to accomplish, and it was quite a process,” he concluded.
Welti said that, as far as he was concerned, the New Scotland plan is suitable for his job.
“For the purpose of the project I am working on, the town board and the planning board and those statements about the policies of the commercial district remain appropriate,” he said, “And so that is the basis I am using for my work.”