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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 22, 2009

Just before elections
Sphere deal done?

By Saranac Hale Spencer

NEW SCOTLAND — In the wake of Sphere Development’s publicly stated support of Republicans Roselyn Robinson and Michael Fields, the Cazenovia-based firm has terminated its contract to buy 179 acres of land in New Scotland and issued its first-ever press release on the project, denying its support of those candidates.

“You may want to know that Sphere has released the local property owners from their contract,” wrote Annie Brill last week in an e-mail to The Enterprise after the newspaper ran a story quoting a managing partner at Sphere as supporting Robinson’s candidacy for a seat on the town board and Fields’s candidacy for supervisor in the November election.  The pair has the Republican line and is campaigning together as New Scotland FIRST, a political committee for which Brill, Robinson’s sister, is treasurer.  “Your article… was printed in such a way that there could only have been one outcome,” she wrote.

Sphere sparked controversy almost two years ago when it proposed building a Target-anchored shopping center on the former Bender melon farm at the intersection of routes 85 and 85A.  Earlier this month, Sphere reiterated its interest in building a shopping center in New Scotland, a stance that it has steadily maintained since it first approached the town. 

For the last two years, debate over the future of development in town has dominated discussion and has now become the defining issue in the upcoming election.

Robinson and Fields oppose a limit on the size of retail buildings while their opponents favor a cap on the allowable size of retail development.  Gregory Widrick, of Sphere, said that his company supports candidates “who don’t support the size cap,” which The Enterprise reported on Oct. 8.

“What do you suppose that does to them?” asked Anne Carson, a long-time member of the town’s Republican Committee, referring to the impact the company’s backing has on the candidates.

“Sphere Development has become very concerned with the manner in which it was portrayed to support certain candidates in the upcoming town of New Scotland town board election by a local media organization,” states the press release from Sphere, dated Oct. 19. 

The statement was preceded by numerous complaints to the Enterprise from supporters of Robinson and Fields.

Earlier this month Widrick had said, “I absolutely would support ones that don’t oppose our development… [those] who don’t support the size cap is who we would support.”  The company would not comment this week on its abrupt shift.

Carson last Wednesday called The Enterprise and said that Sphere won’t be the developer of that property anymore, but declined to say where she had gotten the information.  She heard it while in an attorney’s office, she said, and advised, “The best thing for you to do would be to call the owner’s attorney.”

Maura Mottolese, who represents the owners of the land and is the daughter of one of them, confirmed last week that a contract between the owners and the developer had been terminated.  She declined to give further details.

Developers frequently offer to buy property contingent upon the property owner’s ability to get changes in zoning that would allow for the planned project, said Patricia Salkin, associate dean, professor of law, and director of the Government Law Center of Albany Law School.

Mottolese would not comment on the stipulations of the contract that was first signed in January of 2008, but the situation in New Scotland would not be typical since the zoning of the land currently allows for the 750,000-square-foot project.  Since the intense public backlash against the project erupted, the town has considered changes to its zoning law and has instituted a moratorium while it explores bringing its zoning laws into line with its comprehensive land-use plan.

“There is no guarantee that… zoning is going to stay tomorrow what it is today,” said Salkin.  “Governments can always amend their zoning ordinances.”

The termination of a contract to sell property does not mean that the owners can’t still sell the land to the same developer, or a different one, Salkin said.  “It’s their property and they can sell it,” she concluded.

Asked if the termination of the contract meant that the owners of the Bender melon farm and Sphere were no longer considering a transaction, Mottolese answered with a couple of false starts, then said, “You can read whatever you want.  The issue was, was there a contract.  There was a contract between the owners of the Bender melon farm and Sphere.  There is no longer a contract.”

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