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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 18, 2010

After size-cap law defeat, board members talk of ways to revamp bill

By Saranac Hale Spencer

NEW SCOTLAND — The balance of the town board reflected the division of residents at a public hearing for the much-awaited size-cap law, and the minority prevailed.

After Thursday’s packed hearing, three board members voted to adopt a bill that was meant to limit the size of retail developments, and two members voted against it.  Because 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.

All five board members expect to revisit the controversial bill, which came out of a two-year-long debate over the future shape of commercial development that was sparked by Cazenovia-based Sphere Development’s plans to build a Target-anchored shopping center on the former Bender melon farm.  Sphere did not return a call for comment.

That property, which is zoned commercially but has only ever been farmland, was bought by MLF Enterprises in 1971 and makes up about 15 percent of the commercial district.

Councilman Richard Reilly, who voted against the bill, said this week that 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.

More specifically, Reilly addressed Long Lumber, located on Route 85; its owners signed the protest petition.  Reilly said that Long Lumber could be more clearly exempted from the size cap by amending the definition of a building-supply facility.  “We could more narrowly tailor that definition so it applies to Mr. Long’s business, which it was clearly intended to provide for, but wouldn’t necessarily allow Lowe’s in,” he said.

“My big concern is: How do we handle residential?” Councilwoman Deborah Baron said this week.  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.”

Reilly has a similar view.  “I think it’s a balance,” he said.  “I’m not opposed to all residential development in that area, but I think it would be important to somehow restrict it.”

Baron would also like to see the area around routes 85 and 85A handled separately from the rest of the commercial zone and is concerned about where the town should draw the line for rezoning part of Youman’s Road to residential from its current commercial designation — most town board and planning board members agree that the change is reasonable, but drawing the line became difficult when one resident of the area made clear that he used his land both for his commercial business and his home.

“Maybe there’s hope,” Supervisor Thomas Dolin, who voted in favor of the bill, said this week, realizing that the board might be able to reach consensus.  Dolin maintains that allowing for some residential development is essential, but suggested developing corridors, 500 or 600 feet deep, along routes 85 and 85A dedicated to commercial development while letting the rear be used for residential.

Councilman Daniel Mackay, who ran on a ticket with Dolin and Councilman Douglas LaGrange in November’s election on a platform of controlling retail development with a size cap, said this week, “I wasn’t elected to take one shot at this and then wait two years until the next election.” 

Several residents who supported the bill reminded Baron and Reilly at the public hearing that their terms would be up in two years.  Following Thursday’s vote, a banner was posted across from the high school, proclaiming, “Deb Baron and Rich Reilly voted in favor of big box.  November 2011 is your turn to vote!”

Local Law B of 2010, as the defeated bill was named, should be simplified and stripped down, Mackay said, and it should focus on the commercial zone at the intersection of routes 85 and 85A.  The “distractions with Youman’s Road and Clarksville,” where there is a commercial zone, should be eliminated, he said.

“We know we will need a fourth vote,” Mackay said, and he wants to understand what Reilly and Baron want in the law.

“I would hope they’d join us,” LaGrange said of the dissenting pair this week, “and fashion something that will do what needs to be done.”

Each board member indicated that drafting a new law should be quickly undertaken.

The square-footage to be allowed had been a sticking point in previous size-cap bills — there have been several — since Baron, Reilly, and former councilwoman Margaret Neri had favored larger sizes than Dolin, LaGrange, or Mackay.

“I’ve often expressed concerns about those numbers,” Reilly said this week of the 50,000-square-foot cap on single retail stores and 100,000-square-foot cap on shopping centers that are favored by the majority trio.  “I can’t say that anything would be out of the question,” he said.  “In my mind, there were other issues with the legislation that were almost more significant than that.”

“I could live with that,” Baron said of those cap figures.  “I don’t have a magic number.”  Alluding to the significance of other issues in the bill as compared to the cap numbers, she said, “If Local Law B were flat-out size cap, we wouldn’t be here.  I’m OK with that.”

Since the town’s roughly year-long moratorium on large-scale commercial construction ran out on Feb.1, Paul Feigenbaum suggested after Thursday’s vote that the board reinstate the suspension.  Dolin said this week, though, that it isn’t likely an option because of potential legal issues.

Of the couple of hundred people in attendance last Thursday, about 30 of them spoke, 25 of them arguing for the law with familiar assertions.  Residents have been clamoring for a law that would bar large-scale chain stores from being built in the town since Target became a possibility about two years ago. 

Genuine tension hung in the high school auditorium after the more than two-hour-long public hearing as the three yea votes came in rapid succession and signs imploring the board to “vote yes” fluttered while Reilly explained his nay vote.  None of those votes were unexpected.  Baron held the deciding vote and hers was the only uncertain one.  She voted nay.

“I honestly think it could be done in 60, 70 days,” Baron said this week of redrafting the bill.  “The community has waited too long to not have an answer,” she said.

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