A Special Invitation

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 kaufmann@nycap.rr.com

Saratoga National Golf Course stymies effort to locate their alleged nature trail

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 About Amendment To Zoning Law and Comprehensive Plan

John Safford responds to questions:

John Safford 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 …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.

Mathiesen Responds To Question On Planning Board And Changes To City Comp Plan And Zoning Laws

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.

Chris Mathiesen

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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 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 [john.kaufmann21@gmail.com]

Sent:     Tuesday, August 25, 2015 7:35 PM

To:          ‘mtoohey@sktcclaw.com’

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.

Thank you

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.

  1. Harry Moran of Sustainable Saratoga speaking against the proposed amendment Moran Speaks Item A3 Timer: 65:55
  2. Matt Jones representing the application of the City Center for a subdivision  Matt Jones Speaks Item A4 Timer: 50:35
  3. 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:

  1. Studying the issue
  2. Waiting to hear more from their constituents
  3. 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.

The Continuing Quest For The Saratoga National Golf Course Nature Trail

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.