Joseph Levy on the Bike Path Controversy

[JK:Another great story by Joseph Levy]

Even Bike Trails Can Be Paved With Good Intentions (Or Not)

By Joseph Levy

What may (or not) be this election season’s latest issue is officially known as the Geyser Road – Spa State Park Bicycle Pedestrian Trail. As currently proposed, the paved path would follow a route parallel to Geyser Road from the Milton town line, just east of Rowland Street, to the Avenue of Pines. At the western end, this would connect trails in the town of Milton, and beyond, to trails in the Saratoga Spa State Park at the eastern end. In turn, the latter would link to the existing and proposed Greenbelt trails encircling the city. The Spa Park trails were recently extended to the Railroad Run trail that begins in downtown Saratoga Springs, so that ultimately one would be able to travel by bike or foot between the outer districts and downtown on a safe byway, isolated from motor vehicle traffic.

At a hearing before the City Council on August 1st, residents spoke for and against the existing proposal, which has been in the works in various forms since 2005. Adding to the mix was a recent offer from the Slack Chemical Co. and its neighbor, beverage distributor Saratoga Eagle, both owners of wooded lands roughly three-quarters of a mile west of Geyser Road. They offered to donate land to the city for free so that the trail could wind through this otherwise vacant parcel, saving the city from acquiring land along the currently proposed right-of-away.

Although some conceptual maps were on display as part of project engineer Peter Faith’s opening presentation, one of the problems I had in evaluating the pros and cons was the absence of published maps delineating the various schemes. So, based on the presentation, I came up with the map below. The city’s current proposal is the Red Route and one concepts for the Slack/Eagle alternative is the Green Route.

BikePath1

The Red Route has been under consideration since 2005 and has a total budget of about $3 million, mostly funded by state and federal grants. In addition to the trail, these funds would improve the intersection of Geyser Road and Route 50, which the trail would cross to join the existing path, which continues parallel to the Avenue of the Pines. The nationwide financial crisis of 2008-2009 put this and many other infrastructure projects on the back burner for a few years, so along with the economic recovery, came the incentive to finish this trail, with a target of 2018.

In his presentation, Mr. Faith pointed out that the Slack/Eagle Green Route had numerous problems and was impractical for a number of reasons, including:

1. The Geyser Road bridge over the railway was recently rebuilt to include accommodation for pedestrians and bicycles on the north side. The alternate Green Route would require a new bridge, not only over the rail line, but over Geyser Creek, as well, pushing costs up another $1 million or so. This is to say nothing of the need for new engineering and environmental impact studies, especially since it’s been reported that the Karner Blue butterfly lives in these woods and that there’s a wide swath of wetlands in those lands, to boot.

2. The alternate proposal would still fail accomplish the primary goal of a continuous path from the Milton town line to the Spa State Park. Let me add that at twice the length of the Red Trail along Geyser Road, the cost of the Green Trail, including additional grading, paving, and a bridge or tunnel, would turn this into a $6 million project and push it back another three to five years.

While the hearing was specifically called to discuss the issue of eminent domain in pursuit of an unbroken right-of-way, many residents and one business owner from the Geyser Road area spoke in favor of the project. Currently, there is no continuous sidewalk along the road and the paved shoulder is too narrow for even a vehicle to pull over. Most speakers favored the major objective of providing a direct, safe pathway for biking and walking from the local neighborhoods to and from the Geyser Road Elementary School, the adjacent local park, the Spa State Park and, ultimately, downtown Saratoga. One resident pointed out that even if the alternate route were to be built, kids would still walk or bike down the much shorter (and much more dangerous) Geyser Road shoulder.

Although residents on the south side of Geyser Road generally favored the plan, Jack Pompay, one of the opponents who spoke at the hearing, lives on the north side of the road and, as shown on a chart presented by Mr. Faith, is one of four private  property owners whose land would be needed to complete the project. Mayor John Romano of Ballston Spa, which owns a nearby reservoir situated on a parcel with frontage on Geyser Road, raised several objections, as well.

To be perfectly clear, the city’s claim would be limited to frontage along the road, perhaps 8 or 10 feet deep, and not target entire properties. Most of the parcels subject to this action include structures set far enough back from the road as to be be unaffected. The net change has more to do with relocating landscaping features, such as the scrubs and fencing, than relocating or displacing families.

Mr. Pompay lives at 111 Geyser Road and, as you can see from photos excerpted from Google Earth, the right-of-way would necessitate removing or moving the mature shrubbery that borders his front yard. As a point of fact, Mr. Pompay would stand to loose 0.09 acres of a parcel that totals 7.83 acres. That’s less than 1/10th of an acre.

BkiePath2

The other private property owners are Munter Land Holdings LLC (they would loose 0.04 acres out of 45.83 acres of vacant land), Van Hall Holdings LLC (0.07 acres out of 3.58 acres of vacant land), and the Saratoga Springwater Co. (0.6 acres out of 46.6 acres).  Thomas Harrington, Jr, who owns 159 Geyser Road, had concerns about how much of his property, if any, would be taken, but he was not on the list presented by Mr. Faith. Neither was the property at 119 Geyser Road, right next to Mr. Pompay’s, though it would seem that strips of both parcels would be necessary to complete the trail.

BikePath3

In 2005, the principle of property owner’s absolute right to their land was struck down by the US Supreme Court in a Connecticut case known as Kelo v. City of New London. Like it or not, a claim of eminent domain in the furtherance of development is perfectly legal. Despite this, Amanda Jackson, an attorney with the law firm of Harris Beach announced that she was representing both Mr. Pompay and the Saratoga Springwater Co. and would oppose any attempt to claim eminent domain over their respective properties in court.

Dave Morris, a commentator well known to readers of this blog, also came forward to denounce the process and served notice that two Geyser Road property owners, whom he did not name, also planned to sue the city over eminent domain. He took a very aggressive stance and claimed that two of the city council members, also unnamed, had privately admitted to him that they thought the Red Trail had safety concerns due to its proximity to the very busy thoroughfare, an argument used by everyone who spoke against it. Although he did not mention his exact residence before addressing the council, there is a David Morris who lives on Tamarack Trail in the Geyser Crest development, off the south side of Geyser Road. His property would be unaffected.

The figures, noted above, show that the actual amount of eminent domain-related  property under discussion is fairly minuscule, so what’s the big brew-ha-ha all about? What’s missing from the public view? To find out, a mutual friend put me in touch with someone who has closely followed this project from the beginning and who is familiar with many of the principals. This individual, who preferred to remain anonymous (let’s call him Deep Woods) mentioned a number of points, to which I will add a couple based on my own observations:

1. The appraiser, who was hired to evaluate the proposed parcel buy-outs, apparently lacked certain diplomatic skills and offended land owners with both his manners and his math. To illustrate this point, Mayor Romano mentioned that Ballston Spa was offered a mere $1,800 for about 1/4 of an acre of prime road frontage. This, after being threatened with an eminent domain action before there was even an opportunity to negotiate, among other insults.

2. We know from his posts elsewhere on this blog that Dave Morris despises Mayor Yepsen, who backs the trail, as proposed, along Geyser Road.

3. Deep Woods alleged that Adam Madkour, the CEO of the Saratoga Springwater Co., is an extreme conservative who also despises Mayor Yepsen and is also thought to be the financial backer of the proposed lawsuits against the city’s eminent domain actions, including one by Mr. Pompay (Ms. Jackson pretty much confirmed this).

4. Saratoga Springs Republican supervisor candidate John Safford spoke up, as well, and urged the city to delay action until it had more thoroughly considered the proposal by Saratoga Eagle and Slack Chemical. He was defeated for mayor by Yepsen in 2015 and was also the recipient of campaign donations from Jeff Vukelic, the president of Saratoga Eagle.

Frankly, it looks like the principal objections are coming from individuals who are out to embarrass the mayor over a project that she’s promoted and worked to advance for the past several years. But what’s the point? She’s not running for re-election, the Geyser Road Trail was initiated by her predecessor and will be certainly by inaugurated by her successor, so why gang up on her now? I’m not a big believer in conspiracies, but there seems to be some sort of political mischief at work here, if only by coincidence.

If I may further editorialize, the safety objections are superfluous. Mayor Romano suggested that increased foot traffic would lead kids to stray from the path, go into the woods and then into the reservoir, where they might drown. Of course, they could do that now and what would stop them? The whole point of the path is to increase safety for bikers and hikers, as attested to by many of the speakers. If there is a genuine need for additional safety measures, then put a low fence or bollards between the path and the road. Should conditions call for it, this can always be done retroactively.

Rather than waste money on a legal dispute that it’s likely to win, anyway, the city should negotiate a reasonable price with Ballston Spa, put a fence around the reservoir to limit their liability (why isn’t it there now?), and apologize for the appraiser’s ill-mannered treatment of the mayor. It should take the same action with the property owners. Offer them a generous settlement, relocate their fences and shrubs, and agree to a year’s worth of maintenance in order to guarantee restoration of the landscaping to its original appearance.

The next hearing will be this Tuesday, August 15, and the public is invited to submit additional comments, after which the comment period will end. If you’re really passionate about this, don’t just comment here — tell it to the City Council where the vote to proceed, modify, or delay will take place.

For additional insight, a LookTV video of the August 1st City Council meeting can be viewed on YouTube http://www.looktvonline.com/saratoga-council-meeting-8-1-17/. This particular discussion begins at marker 8:08:00. If you’re curious to see and hear Dave Morris in action, he comes in at marker 1:27:25.

An Interview With Mark Baker, Republican Candidate For Mayor

On Tuesday, August 8, I interviewed Mark Baker, Republican candidate for Mayor of Saratoga Springs.

Originally from Wisconsin, Mark spent 33 years as the executive director of the Saratoga Springs City Center. 

I sent him the questions we would be discussing and asked him to respond in writing to facilitate our discussion when we met in person.  Included below are the answers he sent me.

 Mark is far from most people’s idea of a stereotypical politician.  We had a wide ranging thoughtful discussion of city issues free of popular buzzwords and platitudes.

 The one troubling part of our conversation for me was our discussion of the city’s greenbelt. While Mark supports the comprehensive plan’s requirement for low intensity development in this area he was not willing to be more specific than that.  My attempt to get him to take a position on Saratoga National Golf Course’s quest to expand to become a resort were fruitless.  He said he was not familiar with the details of whatever ended up being their final proposal. 

 I think it speaks well for Mark that he agreed to meet and spend considerable time with me particularly in light of the fact that we do not totally agree on every issue. Development in the greenbelt is a high priority issue for me. I came away from our conversation feeling that while I do not know how he would respond to future proposals from players like SNGC  I think he may be open to changes in the greenbelt that I would oppose.

 What Mark did demonstrate is that he is accessible to voters in this city no matter what their political perspective and that he will listen and engage them in a thoughtful way.


From Mark Baker:

Given my gmail and primitive computer I will have to answer your questions separately below versus editing your questions or attaching to your questions.  I will go in the order as presented;

City Center:  The City Center was the “key-stone” to an excellent home grown economic development plan to help Saratoga re-emerge as a year ’round destination community.  The City Center was at the heart of the renaissance of the  downtown retail and food/beverage businesses.  This influx of convention and year round guests has helped build sales tax revenues and downtown growth with quality/boutique retail and unique restaurants.  It was also a part of the infill of downtown.

Saratoga has become what was envisioned over 3 decades ago as a vibrant, economic driver, and year round destination location.  The City Center was the major element in this vision.

Charter:

I am running and will succeed as Mayor under our current Commission form of government.  I am confident I will build consensus with the individual Commissioners, show leadership and allow the City Council to properly serve the needs of this great city.

Regarding the proposed “wholesale” change in our form of government, I find several areas troubling in the new proposal; cost and more importantly, accountability.  While it is healthy  to have dialogue and discussion about alternatives, I believe at this time it is best for Saratoga Springs to remain with the current Commission form of Government.

As Mayor, I will bring to the Council, for its consideration, proposals for specific Charter Sections to be considered for modification.

Geyser Trail:

The most recent proposal for donated land to accommodate a safe and possibly more cost effective “pedestrian/bike trail” should be quickly assessed and reviewed.  If the new proposal is in fact a “better way” to accomplish the mutually endorsed goal of a bike access across Rt 50 to the Spa, it should be weighed against the current plan and the best solution embraced.

The other issues (pending Article 78 and ED) regarding the current plan need to be considered in assessing the trail options.

Tying up a great concept (bike trail accesses) in litigation and not moving forward is not a palatable solution.

Land Use Boards:

The function and realities of our current zoning and the role of the respective Land Use Boards, always need to be reviewed and “tooled” to stay current and fresh in their directives, interpretations, and jurisdictions.

Development:

All proposed development should be handled fairly, with due diligence, and given clear, timely review and guidance from the Land Use Boards.

Each project, may need to be reviewed from a unique and refined perspective–i.e. why we have the respective Boards.

Interpretation of commercial versus non-profit projects may require a different optic to assure that the public benefit is being assessed in the approval or denial process.

Code Blue:

My concern was with process and also the interpretation of the  term “boarding house”.  I am not opposed to the concept of offering a human service answer to those in need especially the homeless.  This project is very unique and the greater community-private and public (not just those within 100′) need a clear understanding of goals, operational format and safe-guards.

Communication and transparency on this project is paramount to dispel half truths and fear.

 

 

 

Background on the Issue of Agriculture Districts and the Ballston Controversy

This blog is very fortunate to have readers with considerable expertise on issues of concern who are willing to take the time to share their views.

I am very grateful to Lew Benton for the following text:

John,

The Times Union’s August 7 article about development proposal in County Agricultural District No. 2 – and referenced in your recent Blog entry – raises more questions than it answers.

The story reports on a proposal to bring public water to serve a proposed large lot residential subdivision off Goode Street in the Town of Ballston. The proposed subdivision is in Ag. 2, near or adjacent to the Knight Orchard, a long established working farm. In fact the Knight Orchard has been part of Ag. District 2 since its original creation in 1974 and is one of the County’s best managed farm operations.

As a staff member of he Saratoga County Planning Board I was involved in establishing all five of Saratoga County’s original agricultural districts and subsequently, beginning in 1995, served as the administrator of the state Agricultural Districts Program in the Dept. of Ag. and Markets.

A little history.

Shortly after the Agricultural Districts Law was enacted by the state legislature in 1971, the staff of the Saratoga County Board, Corporative Extension and local commercial farm operations began a multi-year effort to map the remaining agricultural base. We promoted the concept of agricultural districting as a county shaping device, as a means of preserving and protecting viable ag lands and the agricultural economy and for the open space, habitat, clean air and water shed benefits farm lands and associated wood lots provide.

In 1972 the County Board of Supervisors approved our plan for Ag. District No. 1 (mostly in the Town of Northumberland) and in early 1973 the NYS Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets certified it. It was one of the first districts in New York State. Today it exists as 59,000 acre uninterrupted farm landscape in Northumberland, Monroe, Saratoga , Stillwater and a small property in northeast corner of Wilton. It hosts 152 farms and 36,000 farmed acres.

The Ballston District, District 2, was established in 1974. Today it has 160 farms on 52,000 plus acres.

Over time the County Planning Board would work to create five districts which captured the significant share of all remaining viable, active farm lands. We failed – interestingly enough -only in the Town of Halfmoon. But that’s another story.

Subsequently the original five districts were consolidated into the two we have today. It should be noted that districts must undergo a eight-year review process that essentially mimics the creation process and requires action by the Board of Supervisors and the NYS Dept. of Agriculture and Markets. So there is a very significant investment in all this and actions which compromise the districts should be taken seriously.

The districts also played (play) an important role in channeling development into the service corridor where major water and sewer systems were put in place. In fact, the County Sewer District No. 1, originally established as a water pollution abatement strategy, is flanked on its east and west by existing ag. districts. All of this was designed to guide growth when the County land use plan was prepared and adopted in 1978.

In many cases the agricultural district boundaries were made coterminous with rural zoning districts as more and more towns came to adopt their first zoning regulations.

Perhaps the biggest threat to these districts – other than an unstable agricultural economy and school taxes – is conflicting land use and the expansion of public water and sewer systems.

That is why lands in agricultural districts and their farm operations have certain protections. The Agricultural Districts Law protects from restrictive zoning, nuisance law suites and allows for sound agricultural practices. It created a system of property assessment based on the agricultural production value of the farm land, not on its development potential and it gave the commissioner of ag. and markets the authority to limit the introduction of compromising infrastructure.

Thoughts and Questions

Sec. 239-n of the General Municipal Law requires County Planning Board review of any proposed subdivision within 500 feet of a farm operation in a state certified agricultural district. So it would be very interesting to know (1) if the Town referred the proposal to the County Planning Board, and (2) what did the county recommend.

It is the County Planning Board’s role to identify development impacts on farm operations and suggest means of mitigation. The law requires the preparation and filing of an Agricultural Data Statement with all review agencies. Did the town and county planning boards receive such a statement and how did it influence their respective reviews?

The story references the town attorney saying that the subdivision was consistent with the zoning ordinance and was thus permitted even though existing policy did not allow for public water hookups. I assume that the subdivision was approved showing individual wells, not public water. A different water supply would require an amended subdivision plan, state Health Dept. review, etc. None of this is referenced in the story.

Did the Town Planning Board require the approved plan to reference the ag. district and alert potential buyers that they might be exposed to standard agricultural practices including noise, odors, etc. that they would be hard pressed to complain about?

And what did the Town Planning Board have to say about all this during its review and did it consider any recommendations the County Planning Board may have made?

The backstory to the TU’s piece leans on the politics involved in all this and potential conflicts.

Of course we all know that political intrigue has surrounded many controversial land use issues in Saratoga County and the same actors seem to always pop up.

Exit 14, the more recent attempt by the City’s previous administration to secretly provide water to a Wilton subdivision backed by the political class are two of the more well known and particularly troubling. This is not to suggest that is the case in Ballston but it sure is interesting.

Below I include a summary of the Ag. Districts Law for your readers who may still be awake.

Lew

AGRICULTURAL DISTRICTS LAW: A CURRENT SUMMARY

Since 1971, the Agricultural Districts Law, Article 25AA of the Agriculture and Markets Law (AML), has reflected the cornerstone of State and county level efforts to preserve, protect and encourage the development and improvement of agricultural land for the production of food, fiber and other agricultural products.

As of January 1, 2016, there are 210 State certified agricultural districts created in 53 of New York’s 62 counties. These districts capture about 8.8 million acres of land, including over 6. 3 million farmed acres on 25,632 farms. By any measure, the Agricultural Districts Program is a significant and substantial farmland protection tool.

The New York State Constitution directs the Legislature to provide for the protection of agricultural lands. The Agricultural Districts Law fulfills this constitutional mandate, in part, by providing a locally initiated mechanism for the protection and enhancement of farm lands as both a viable segment of the local and State economies, and as an economic and environmental resource of major importance.

Several benefits accrue to farm operations conducted within certified agricultural districts. Chief among these are:

The obligation of State agencies, as a matter of policy, to encourage the maintenance of viable farming in agricultural districts;

Limitations on the exercise of eminent domain and other public acquisitions, and the advance of public funds for certain construction activities;

Limitations on the siting of solid waste management facilities on land dedicated to agricultural production;

Limitations on the power to impose benefit assessments, special ad valorem levies, or other rates or fees in certain improvement districts or benefit areas;

Requirements that direct local governments to realize the intent of the Agricultural Districts Law and to avoid unreasonable restrictions in the regulation of farm operations when exercising their powers to enact and administer comprehensive plans, local laws, ordinances, rules and/or regulations; and

Requirements that applications for certain planning and zoning actions impacting a designated farm operation within an agricultural district, or on lands within five hundred feet of such farm operation within an agricultural district, include an agricultural data statement designed to allow the review agency to evaluate any possible impacts of the proposed action on farm operations.

The Agricultural Districts Law establishes a land classification system used to assign agricultural assessment values to qualified properties both within and outside district boundaries, creates a process for the review of agricultural practices, discourages private nuisance lawsuits arising from agricultural practices determined to be sound, provides for advisory opinions as to whether particular land uses are agricultural in nature,and requires disclosure to prospective grantees of real property that the property is in an agricultural district.

The Agricultural Districts Law also defines the procedure for district creation and review.

Saratoga County Republicans Exposed In Round of TU Stories

There have been a number of extremely damaging stories in the press regarding Saratoga County Republicans.  From experience I assume that some very unhappy Republicans have been pointing the TU to some very unpleasant material.

In this first story we learn that under the new leadership of Saratoga County Republican Chairman Steve Bulger, the Grand Old Party spent more in the last six months then in the previous six years.  Mr. Bulger, who worked for Congressman Chris Gibson, replaced John Herrick as chair.

The TU reports, “During the first half of the year, Bulger’s spending was largely for consultants, including $10,000 to a convicted felon who is a videographer, $24,000 to a state GOP political director and another $12,000 to Better Results, a fundraising operation run out of a Loudonville home. He also contributed $10,000 to the state GOP so members could take part in President Trump‘s inauguration.”

The full story is well worth reading as it documents both the sudden profligacy of this traditionally thrifty local party but includes some embarrassing defenses of this new, “invigorated” party.

http://m.timesunion.com/7dayarchive/article/Saratoga-County-GOP-spending-more-than-ever-11490076.php?cmpid=email-mobile

In a follow up article, more details about the “felon” along with the generous payments to others is explored.

http://m.timesunion.com/allnews/article/Saratoga-County-GOP-pays-felon-10-000-11437283.php?cmpid=email-mobile

The last story involves the usual suspects of politicians, political party people, and developers.  This involves a state suit against the town of Ballston for violating the restrictions on residential water hook-ups in agriculture districts.  I find the story particularly interesting because the Saratoga County Farm Bureau has come out against what the town is doing.  Farm Bureaus are notoriously conservative and supporters of the Republican establishment.  This is not surprising because farmers are in general pretty conservative.  In this case, they understand the threat that development can have to their survival.  In the meantime, the story notes a web of connections between the developers, elected officials, and the GOP that often involves the spouses of the players.  This is a really juicy story.

http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Proposed-Ballston-land-deal-seen-having-wide-11737020.php

 

 

More On My Quest To Interview Meg Kelly, Democratic Candidate for Mayor

Jane Weihe, my wife, was on the panel at the Thursday night event at the Library sponsored by the Young Democrats on the proposed Saratoga Springs charter.  Following the meeting she met Rick Landry, Meg Kelly’s mayoral campaign manager.  She introduced herself as “the blogger’s wife” and inquired as to when I might expect to get a response to my request for an interview with Ms. Kelly. Mr. Landry replied something to the effect that his inbox was very full of emails. She told him there were two emails there asking for a meeting and encouraged him to reply.

 

 

Young Democrats To Host Panel On Proposed Charter

The Saratoga County Young Democrats are sponsoring a panel discussion on the pros and cons of the proposed Saratoga Springs charter change.

 The event will take place on Thursday August 3, at 7PM in the Dutcher Community Room of the Saratoga Springs Public Library.

Panelists are Charter Review Commission chair Bob Turner, Charter Commission member and Democratic Committee member BK Keramati, Mayor Joanne Yepsen, former Democratic chair and SUCCESS member Jane Weihe, SUCCESS member Richard Sellers, and  former Deputy Commissioner of Accounts Michele Boxley.

 

The event is free and open to the public.

 

Republican Mayoral Candidate, Mark Baker, Agrees To Interview

I reached out to Republican candidate for Mayor, Mark Baker.  On an earlier occasion he had given me his cell phone.  He told me he would be happy to sit for an interview and we agreed to set up a date later this week.

I am still hoping that his opponent, Meg Kelly, will respond to my request for an interview.