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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 18, 2009

Sphere weighs in
Neri bows out, Morrison steps in

By Saranac Hale Spencer

NEW SCOTLAND — One incumbent is out of the race for town board and a newcomer has announced his candidacy.

First-term Democratic Councilwoman Peg Neri, who had initially planned on defending her seat in the upcoming election, has decided to bow out after concluding that she does not have the support of Democratic Superintendent Thomas Dolin, who is seeking re-election, and the town’s Democratic Party leaders.

Stuart Morrison, a political newcomer and native of New Scotland who owns Morrison Engineering in Voorheesville, has announced that he will run for one of the two seats up for election in November.  A member of the Independence Party, Morrison said that he will not seek the Democratic line, which will be determined on Tuesday, June 23, at the party’s caucus.  The Democratic Party has 2,356 enrolled voters in New Scotland, according to the county’s board of elections, while the Republicans have 1,699, the Conservatives have 174, and the Independence Party has 307.

The Independence Party hasn’t yet made endorsements in New Scotland, said Paul Caputo, the chairman of the Albany County Independence Party and vice chairman of the New York State party.  He expects that the party will announce its candidates within a couple of weeks.  It has held off, he said, because of the debate over development, sparked by the plans from Sphere Development to build a shopping center, anchored by Target, in part of the town’s commercial district, which is currently used as farmland.

“I’m on the side of the not big boxes, for lack of a better word,” Caputo said, referring to the large chain retail stores that have been central to debate in New Scotland over the last year.  Caputo agrees with Dolin on the contentious 50,000-square-foot size cap on a single retail store.  Neri had supported a bill drafted by Democratic Councilman Richard Reilly that included an 85,000-square-foot cap.

Neri, Reilly, and Democratic Councilwoman Deborah Baron often vote together, making up a three-member majority on the board.

“That is the one thing I want to avoid,” Morrison said of having bills “railroaded through.”  His motivation for running comes largely from watching the inaction on the town board over the years and its unwillingness to heed the voices of constituents, he said.

“I guess I just want to bring honesty and transparency to the town board,” he said, explaining that he plans to learn more about issues facing the town as the campaign wears on.

Morrison is in favor of a 50,000-square-foot size cap and added of the process to update the town’s zoning to reflect its 1994 comprehensive plan, “I think the minutia is important.”  He cited the design guidelines to be created by the planning board as an example.

As of yet, Morrison hasn’t decided if he will be campaigning with anyone — Republican Councilman Douglas LaGrange; Republican planning-board member Charles Voss; Republican Roz Robinson, who says she will force a primary for the GOP line; and Democrat Daniel Mackay are all seeking seats on the town board while Dolin and Republican Karen Moreau are vying for superintendent.

Morrison shares similar views on development — the defining issue for this election — with LaGrange, Voss, and Mackay.  If he finds that he is splitting votes with those candidates in such a way that it may tip the balance of the overall make-up of the town board, Morrison said, “I may step down at that point.”

Neri chose to step aside, she said, because of the lack of support she was getting from the Democratic party and because “it was too much of a toll, too much of a battle.”

She supported Dolin in his first run for supervisor two years ago, she said, and was surprised by his lack of support in her bid for re-election this year.  As evidence, she cited his support for LaGrange, a Republican — the pair have worked closely over the last year since they share similar views on development although they are in different parties and both are up for re-election this year.

“Tom Dolin caters to the secret agendas of special interest groups and ‘influential’ individuals,” wrote Neri in a letter to the Enterprise editor this week.  She explained this week that she was not referring to the citizens’ group New Scotlanders 4 Sound Economic Development, but to former members of the Residents’ Planning Advisory Committee, which was established by the town in 2003 and charged with making recommendations on how to maintain the “existing atmosphere and natural beauty of the town of New Scotland.”

Although she has often been at odds with NS4SED since its founding about a year ago in response to Sphere’s plans, Neri recognized its contributions to debate.  She acknowledged the important role of citizens’ groups in democratic discussion.

It’s not NS4SED that has a secret agenda, Neri said, but she suspects that remnants of the RPAC are using NS4 in a larger scheme to control the zoning in the Northeastern quadrant of town.

“It all depends on New Scotland”

In March of 2008, representatives from Sphere Development, based in Cazenovia, made a presentation to the town board and a packed hall of citizens, laying out an idea for a shopping center to be located at the intersection of routes 85 and 85A.  Since then, zoning code and laws governing development in the commercial zone have dominated town discussion.

A group of residents opposed to the development formed New Scotlanders 4 Sound Economic Development and 2,400 residents signed a petition calling for a moratorium so that the town’s zoning code could be updated.

When asked if, with the considerable downturn in the retail sector, a shopping center in that location were still viable, Greg Widrick, a managing partner at Sphere, said this week, “Absolutely.  I wouldn’t waste one second of my time on it if it wasn’t.”

He and Kurt Wendler, a managing partner at Sphere, told The Enterprise earlier that a 137,000-square-foot Target store would be necessary to make the development viable.  When asked this week if Sphere would be able to work with the 85,000-square-foot cap included in Reilly’s Local Law B, Widrick said that he wasn’t sure of the specifics of the law, but said it might be possible.

That bill was recently disapproved of by the Albany County Planning Board, but Reilly said that he plans to work on an amended version.  Dolin, who had drafted a law that included a 50,000-square-foot size cap, not supported by Reilly, Baron, and Neri, also said that he plans to work on another draft to discuss with the board.

When asked if Sphere were following the election, Widrick said, “We’re keeping our eye on it.”  Referring to the “No big box” signs that dot the roadsides of New Scotland, Widrick said, “I don’t know if front lawns can handle any more signs.”

As far as the likelihood of developing a shopping center in a town that has had a moratorium on commercial buildings over 30,000 square feet since May of 2008, Widrick said, “It all depends on New Scotland.”

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