It is 1:00 tomorrow as in Tuesday September 1
You are cordially invited to an outing at Saratoga National Golf Course. I am inviting the more adventurous of you to join me in an expedition to locate the “West Nature Trail” of the Saratoga National Golf Course. Kevin Bette, one of the principal owners of the golf course has assured me that there is good signage out there and since Mr. Bette would never lie, I am hoping that some caring souls will help me find the signs.
We will meet at 1:00 PM at the sand parking lot immediately to the left of the grand entrance to the golf course. Bring sunscreen, water, a hat, and good walking shoes. If you plan to come let me know so you are not left to wander alone among the flying golf balls. Email me at email@example.com
After leaving two messages since Friday, at about 2:00 PM today, Monday, Kevin Bette of Saratoga National Golf Course finally returned my call. It is hard to reconstruct our discussion because Mr. Bette talks at an extraordinary rate and the conversation tends to be quite unfocused. Basically he told me that only he could show me the trail. He said that the other staff there was not properly informed to answer any questions I might have. He then told me that he was not available this week and would be away over the Labor day weekend. As it happens, I am going to be traveling for most of September starting on Sunday. I asked him if he could not allow someone at the course to just show me the trail. I told him I could not understand the necessity of him coming up here when all I really wanted was to know where the trail went. This led to him going on about how the trail dead ends and so it is really not used. He then launched into a reverie about how great it would be if I would work on developing a city wide trail system that would incorporate their trail. I think this gives you a rough idea about what it is like to try to have a discussion with Mr. Bette. I told him that while I would be in support of additional connecting trails, my understanding of a nature trail is that it has intrinsic value and does not require other trails. I then told him that I would be happy to have an agreement with him and whomever he chose to show me the trail not to ask any other questions. I would simply have the person show me where it was. He then went on at a rapid rate that made it impossible to get a word in about how it needed to be him who showed me the trail for a plethora of reasons that came down to the fact that he did not trust anyone else to deal with me. I asked could he please find a little time this week to show me the trail and he went on at great length about the fact that he runs five companies and does not have time.
He then asked me what it was I wanted from his group. I told him that I had actually been prepared to accept what I had understood his group to be offering. i.e. that they wanted to build their facilities 3000 feet from the road on twenty-five acres and put the rest in a permanent easement. This prompted a positive geyser of words about how it was the City Council that wanted to first adopt these changes in the zoning and that his group was prepared to do whatever it took but that they had to operate according to the City Council. I tried to explain to him that without some enforceable commitment for what his group had offered as an easement I could not support going forward. This again led to five minutes of variations on how their hands were tied. I then quoted Ronald Reagan’s famous aphorism: “Trust but verify.” I told him that I needed something that was clear and enforceable. After another long statement by him about how much he and his partners cared about the property and how they were bound by the process of first getting the zoning they needed, I finally interrupted him (it was not easy)and told him how much I appreciated him calling me and wished him an enjoyable Labor Day weekend after which I was able to graciously end our conversation and hang up.
The idea that no employee at Saratoga National Golf Course can be allowed to show me where this alleged trail is raises the obvious question of what is Mr. Bette afraid that an employee might inadvertently tell me? The fact that for two weeks neither PLAN nor Saratoga National can provide me with someone who can show me where this alleged trail is only adds to the suspicion that the “nature trail” is a fiction. My suspicion is that the trail is simply a document showing a line traversing the golf course using golf cart paths which meets the legal requirement of the Special Permit issued by the city but cannot honestly be called a nature trail. It raises serious questions about the value of the promises Saratoga National makes.
|John Safford responds to questions:
In the August 25 post of this blog, I quoted Michael Toohey when he alleged that he had an agreement with Saratoga PLAN to …Hello John, I would have approved the hotel at National long before the convoluted process that has unfolded subsequently. As you know I have knocked on over 3000 doors all over the city and have been to between 300 and 400 at the lake. Most of the people I have talked with are not against the National plan as much as they are concerned about increased traffic problems at Gilbert, 9P and Meadowbrook Rd. or the weekly fireworks at National (a great irritation to many). I am an active proponent of downtown businesses, especially their positive effect on property taxes and (together with many of them) I think an expansion at the golf course will be a positive not a negative draw.
|Commissioner Mathiesen Posted The Comment On My Blog.
Chris Mathiesen commented on Testing The Candidates On Their Commitment To Transparency
In the August 25 post of this blog, I quoted Michael Toohey when he alleged that he had an agreement with Saratoga PLAN to …I am not waiting to receive your question. I was opposed to the referral to the Planning Board regarding the ridiculous re-definition of the term ‘clubhouse’. I stand opposed to the new effort that has since evolved by the Planning Board to now amend the zoning ordinance in order to significantly expand commercial uses at SNGC. I do not feel that such an expansion of commercial uses at SNGC is consistent with the concept of the type of enterprise that was originally envisioned there and it certainly is not consistent with the City’s Comprehensive Plan..
Beyond that, I am not comfortable with the way that the City seems to have looked the other way as the golf course clubhouse has incrementally expanded its uses so that it now functions as a banquet house that operates entirely separate from the golf course operations. I can find no justification for such a use in a Rural Residential district.
SNGC has been a great addition to our City. I have attended many functions there. The owners are nice people who have been very generous to our community. However, there is no listed use in RR-1 that would include the operation of a banquet house.
I will be suggesting that there is no good reason to schedule a public hearing on this since there is hopefully no support for this proposal among Council members.. Should the Council decide to go through with the public hearing and the Council must vote on this question, I will be voting NO.
In the August 25 post of this blog, I quoted Michael Toohey when he alleged that he had an agreement with Saratoga PLAN to handle the easement that would be required for Saratoga National Golf Course’s expansion. I also shared that I had had a conversation with the executive director of PLAN in which she told me that she had had no conversations with anyone about an expanded easement.
I sent an email to Mr. Toohey asking if I might have a copy of the documents that he referred to. Here is the email:
From: John Kaufmann [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Tuesday, August 25, 2015 7:35 PM
Subject: PLAN Letters
At the August 12, 2015 Planning Board meeting you told the Board that you had letters of agreement
with Saratoga PLAN to do the additional easement “in place” as part of the expansion of Saratoga
National Golf Course. Would it be possible for me to get copies of these letters? I would be happy to
come by your office and pick them up and pay for any copying costs.
I did not really expect to receive anything from him. It is extremely unlikely that he actually has anything given what PLAN told me.
This brings to mind something more disturbing that seems endemic to an element of our culture and in particular to the troubling condition of our public institutions.
I truly urge the readers of this blog to spend just a few minutes of their time actually watching Mr. Toohey’s presentation to the Planning Board. Here is the link to it: Toohey Addresses Planning Board Move the timer to 36:53.
I do not think it is unfair to characterize his presentation as droning and mind numbing. What he does is go through a list from the city’s Comprehensive Plan trying to explain how what Saratoga National Golf Course hopes to do fits into the plan. It includes digressions where he references birds, bees, etc. What he never addresses through this tedious cataloguing is whether SNGC’s proposal violates the provisions of the conservation district such as density, commercialism, or intensity of use (traffic, congestion, etc.) which are the central concerns for SNGC’s critics.
Contrast this with three other presenters that night.
- Harry Moran of Sustainable Saratoga speaking against the proposed amendment Moran Speaks Item A3 Timer: 65:55
- Matt Jones representing the application of the City Center for a subdivision Matt Jones Speaks Item A4 Timer: 50:35
- The attorney representing the owners of the Mouzon House opposing the subdivision. Pedinotti Attorney Item A4 TImer:50:12
The point here is not whether I agree with any of these three people regarding their arguments. The point is that in contrast to Mr. Toohey each put forward succinct and clear articulations for the consideration of the Planning Board.
There is no question about the success of Michael Toohey’s career. He has represented many of the largest and most successful real estate players in Saratoga Springs. The question is what the nature of his success is. The issue here is not to personalize an attack on Toohey but to help explain how power works in our city.
I think the answer is that Mr. Toohey’s role is not actually to convincingly argue his case (again I urge the readers of this blog to watch the video). His role is to provide the cover for people who wish to do something and need the appearance that what they want to do is appropriate. In the case of the Planning Board, Saratoga National Golf Course had the majority it needed on the Planning Board before they walked in the door of the council chambers.
This very expensive charade provides the artifice that some members of the Planning Board and some members of the City Council need to create the appearance that all of this is being thoroughly thought through. Clarity in this case is an indulgence. If anything it runs the risk of exposing the poverty of the position.
The only thing that breaks through this edifice of illusion is a strong public response. The most common response to controversial issues is for our politicians to do everything they can to avoid taking a position. The corollary to Mr. Toohey’s stratagem for politicians is that they are:
- Studying the issue
- Waiting to hear more from their constituents
- Are not entirely happy with X but when pressed for an explanation as to exactly what their reservations might be use some excuse to avoid an answer (options #1 or #2).
We saw this with the casino. For many weeks the members of the Council dithered trying to avoid taking a position. Only when Skip Scirocco notified members of the council that he would be introducing a resolution opposing a full casino did the Mayor suddenly decide to introduce her own resolution and did the Council suddenly line up to publicly oppose a casino. Every member of the Council knew that a huge crowd would descend on the meeting.
There is nothing like an informed and motivated public to demolish the kind of fog of rhetoric that an attorney like Mr. Toohey uses.
Unfortunately, there are limits to how many people can turn out to meetings. While many people care deeply about these issues they have families and jobs that demand most of their energy. Successful campaigns like opposing the casino or PUDs in the conservation district involve many hours for volunteers to publicize and organize turn outs. In contrast, developers have the money to hire lawyers and to make large contributions to the campaigns of the politicians they need to influence.
With this in mind, I am going to contact both the sitting members of the Council and the candidates running for office and ask them to share their thoughts on the Planning Board’s recommendation for changing the zoning laws and Comprehensive Plan to allow a [golf] resort in the city’s conservation district.
I will post their responses unedited for people to see.
Here is the text of my message to them:
The Planning Board has sent to the city council their recommendations for amending both the city’s zoning laws and the Comprehensive Plan in order to allow a resort in the city’s RR1 district (the city’s greenbelt). This is a highly controversial issue and the public is very interested in knowing your position on it. Every candidate agrees with the importance of transparency. In that spirit I am asking all the candidates running for City Council positions the following question:
If you had to vote on the amendments to the city’s zoning law and Comprehensive Plan as recommended by the Planning Board, would you vote yes or no and why?
I have attached a copy of the document to this email.
I will publish anything you write unedited on my blog for the benefit of my readers. Length is no problem. Please respond by Friday, September 4th. If you do not respond by then, I will assume you have chosen not to comment.
Thank you for participating.
As noted in an earlier blog, having failed to find the West Nature Trail at Saratoga National Golf Course, on Monday I contacted PLAN. I asked their stewardship coordinator, Devin Rigolino if he could come out there with me and show me where it is. He said he was quite busy but would get back to me to work out a time.
Mr. Rigolino called me Wednesday afternoon. He told me that Joe Lucas, the superintendent of grounds for Saratoga National, would provide the tour for me. He said Mr. Lucas “knows every blade of grass.” I have to fess up to being kind of excited. I love to learn new things and I was hoping to learn more about golf courses as well as understand where exactly the nature trail is.
During the call I asked Mr. RIgolino why there was excellent information about the east nature trail that goes to Lake Lonely but nothing about the (mysterious) west nature trail on PLAN’s web site. This is the web site that crosses Saratoga National using its Golf Cart Paths. He said that they were interested in promoting the use of Lake Lonely and the need for clean water. He also said that they have a partnership with a boat livery. I said that I could understand why they might emphasize that trail but could not understand why they had absolutely nothing about this other trail. He said “good point.”
I called Mr. Lucas that day and left a message for him to call me. Not having heard from him, I called the next day but did not hear from him again. Early in the morning on the third day he called me and told me that Kevin Bette would give the tour and gave me his number. Mr. Bette is one of the principals of Saratoga National. I immediately called him. The number turned out to be his Latham office. His secretary put me through to his voice mail and I left a message asking that he call me.
It is now after 5:00 PM and I have not heard anything. I am looking forward to finding the mystery trail and to walking with Mr. Bette when he gets back to me. Fear not, dear readers, I will persevere and you all will learn, with me, where this mysterious nature trail is. Maybe we can all have an outing there once I know where it is! I am sure Saratoga National would love to have us.
Agreement? What agreement?
On Monday morning, I called Maria Trabka, the executive director of P.L.A.N. to try to understand why there was no signage for the West Trail on Saratoga National Golf Course other than the map at the parking lot and to better understand what was going on with the trail. She was quite gracious but said that she knew little of the details regarding the trail. She said that Devin Rigolino was PLAN’s Stewardship coordinator and that he was in a meeting at that moment but she would have him call me. She wanted to know more about who I was and I told her I was a blogger and I would email her my information, including my telephone number immediately following our conversation.
I then told her that I had understood from remarks made by Michael Toohey that PL.A.N. had agreed to handle the easement for the proposed expansion of Saratoga National Golf Course. She told me that she had had no conversations with anyone on this. I noted to her that in looking at their mission to preserve farmland and other sensitive areas that protecting a golf course seemed a bit afield. She responded that they were concerned about maintaining open space and that it would seem that doing so would be in their mission.
I mentioned this to a friend who offered to review the video of Michael Toohey’s presentation to see precisely what he had said. I was enormously grateful because Toohey’s presentations are painfully dull and unfocused. This particular presentation went on for at least thirty-five minutes.
The Proverbial Smoking Gun
What they found was the following statement by Michael Toohey. He was promising the Planning Board at its August 12 meeting that Saratoga National Golf Course was going to be part of creating a bike path that would be integrated as part of a city wide system :
“We can create path systems throughout our land that will be monitored by Saratoga Plan… We already have letters from Saratoga PLAN that say they would be willing to take the conservation easements that we are proposing. That’s already in place. So that can be done to make sure that it’s not us monitoring this or political entity monitoring this but in fact a well-known and highly respected environmental group. Those things are already in place.”
To view M. Toohey making this statement, select this link. Michael Toohey’s Statement Move the timer pointer to 36:35.
A Bike Path Through Their Golf Course?
First let me say that Saratoga National Golf Course is a beautiful and as impressive as its owners have described it. On the day I wandered along the golf cart thoroughfares looking for the “nature trail”, I saw people dressed in classic golf clothing looking quite dapper consistent with their surroundings. I was dressed neatly in a solid blue tee shirt and olive cargo shorts with brown leather clogs. To give you an idea as to how much I stood out, I was asked twice by people if they could help me.
I find it hard to believe in light of the image of this golf course that they want hikers walking on golf cart thoroughfares through the center of their course. I find it even more stunning that they may be thinking of having bike riders share these thoroughfares with golf carts.
Later that afternoon, when I had not heard from Mr. Rigolino, I called PLAN. As it happens, he answered the phone. I told him of my difficulty in finding the West Trail. He told me that there was a sign in a stand of trees on the course. I explained to him that because the fairways were not marked, I was unable to successfully negotiate the trail so I never found the sign he was referencing. I noted to him that the easement agreement with the golf course required clear signage. I asked him how much of the “nature trail” was tarmac golf cart thoroughfare? He said about two thirds of it. I asked him why the map at the parking lot did not match the easement map. He expressed surprise and told me he thought the path was pretty much what was agreed upon with the easement. I asked him about the bathrooms called for in the easement. He said that the public could use the bathrooms in the clubhouse. I noted that the nature trail that went to Lake Lonely was quite remote from the clubhouse. He indicated that putting such buildings on the trails would be intrusive which I had to agree with.
I then suggested that to clear this up as much as is possible, could he take me on a tour of the trail. He said he had a busy schedule and he would have to get back to me. I asked him if he could indicate approximately by when he might do this. After a pause, I asked him if he could get back to me by Thursday and he agreed to do that.
I have emailed Michael Toohey asking if I might have a copy of the letter of agreement from PLAN to do an easement of their golf course as part of their expansion.
There appears to have been an update to Saratoga PAC’s filing.
Please note that if the names of the companies are in bold face, it is because only the companies were listed and no individual names. Where there were individual names I looked them up on the web as best I could. There is one correction. David Gordon was misidentified in the last post. He is the head of his own development company.
I did not include most of what I had listed in the last post on Saratoga PAC. I did include all the family members associated with D.A. Collins again. I did this because there were quite a few listings for companies that donated to the PAC which all turned out to be subdivisions of D.A. Collins. If you are interested in learning more about them, here is a link to their web site D. A. Collins link. They do very large excavation and construction work. This includes things like building highways and bridges.
|Collins, David||D. A. Collins||250||A subdivision of D.A. Collins Construction|
|Collins, Karen||D. A. Collins||250||A subdivision of D.A. Collins Construction|
|Manz, Mary Grace||D. A. Collins||250||A subdivision of D.A. Collins Construction|
|Manz, Zachary||D. A. Collins||10||A subdivision of D.A. Collins Construction|
|Manz, Robert||Jointa Galusha LLC||1000||A subdivision of D.A. Collins Construction|
|Manz, Robert||Jointa Lime Co.||500||A subdivision of D.A. Collins Construction|
|Manz, RObert||Kubricky Construction||1000||A subdivision of D.A. Collins Construction|
|Manz, Robert||Pallette Strong Corp||500||A subdivision of D.A. Collins Construction|
|Manz, Robert||WWC LLC||1000||A subdivision of D.A. Collins Construction|
|Manz, Robert||D. A. Collins||500||A subdivision of D.A. Collins Construction|
|Billok, Michael||Bond, Schoeneck, King||25||Attorney|
|Martell, Chris||Hodgson Russ||200||Attorney|
|Clements, Dominick||DeCrescente Family LP||$2,500.00||Beer Distributorship in Mechanicville|
|Haworth, Mark||Bonacio Construction||500||Business partner of Sonny Bonacio|
|Hayes, Robert||Hayes Development, Summit Accounting, Hayes Industry||100||Calls himself an Accountant Entrepeneur|
|Witt, John||Witt Construction||100||Construction|
|Roberts, Dave||Roberts Smithe||250||Construction|
|Faith, Peter||Greenman-Pederson Inc.||100||Construction with corporate headquarters in Babylon, NY|
|McDonald, Todd||Broadstone Advisors||290||Corporate Offices In Albany. Provide financial services to the construction industry|
|Sutton, Rod||Saratoga Parking Services||500||Insurance (He has parking for the track as a sideline)|
|Perry, Kyle||Century Health Capital, Inc.||500||Mortgage Broker|
|Gordon, David||Gordon Company||500||Office in Albany, Corporate Developer|
|Unknown||Environmental Soil Management Inc.||1000||Offices in Fort Edward as well as New Hampshire and Canada|
|Roohan, Thomas||Roohan Realty||1010||Realtor|
|Hislop, Sarah||Sothebys International Realty||100||Realtor|
|Holloway, Cynthis||Saratoga Pelican Associates LLC||110||Their telephone number is the Holiday Inn|
|Unknown||Ballard Road Dev. LLC||1000||They have a web site with an address in Brick, New Jersey but no name or telephone number. They tell you to email them. Their web site names them Land Associates LLC|
|Griffen, Stephen||Saratoga Sod||220||Wilton, NY raises and sells sod|
I met with City Planner Kate Maynard on Friday. While she was quite cooperative and open, most of my questions went unanswered because in general, she did not have answers.
The amended language to the zoning law change requires that a conservation analysis must be done. A conservation analysis is done to distinguish constrained land versus unconstrained land. Constrained land includes things like wetlands, precipitous slopes, archeologically important land, and a vague term that is something like areas of unique value. Basically, unconstrained land is everything else and constitutes the land on which it is possible to build. In the case of the RR1, excluding all the “constrained land” from development, the remaining land is the “unconstrained land.” Of this remaining land, 50% must be set aside for green space leaving the developer with the remaining 50% to build on.
I asked who does this “conservation analysis” and she told me that the applicant (builder) does it. While the wetlands and steep slopes have clear definitions, the areas of special value do not. She noted that the planning staff have input on this. In the end, it will be the Planning Board that will be the final arbiter.
Similarly, I asked her about a section that required the buildings be clustered. I asked what the definition of clustered is. She read me a statement that while not quit vague, allowed for wide discretion. The Planning Board will be the final arbiter of what clustering is.
Normally, in a reasonable world, the vagueness of these terms would not be a problem. Unfortunately, the majority of our Planning Board has demonstrated how little encumbered they are by terms many of us would take for granted. For example,”rural residential zoning” is supposed “to provide low density residential and agricultural uses in order to preserve open space and a rural character.“ Most of us would no consider a one hundred room hotel to fit into this setting. Not so for Scott Johnson’s appointees tot he Planning Board. Tom Lewis and Cliff Van Wagner openly argued that a “resort” with a one hundred room hotel, a business center, and a fitness center is perfectly compatible with this zoning. They along with the other two Scott Johnson appointees voted to confirm this position by voting to send the proposed revision to the city council.
Saratoga National’s land includes land that they have a ninety-nine year lease for with Yaddo. I asked Ms. Maynard whether this land which they do not own would be calculated in determining the “unconstrained land.” I also asked how a “perpetual” easement as called for in the text amendment could be carried out on this land. She did not know and indicated it would be dealt with later..
I noted that Saratoga National is located on multiple parcels of land and asked how this would affect the “conservation analysis.” She did not know.
In order to build the original golf course, Saratoga National had to agree to a permanent easement on what I think was one hundred and thirty-five acres. I asked how this would be handled in doing the conservation analysis. She did not know and again indicated that this would have to be determined if the project went forward.
One might read this and think that Ms. Maynard was being evasive. I can only tell you that she appeared sincerely cooperative and that many of these issues are unclear and will have to be addressed if the zoning change is approved.