Planning Board Work Shop On Text Amendment To Conservation District AKA Saratoga National Golf Course (The Long Version)

Planning Board Chairman Mark Torpey noted that the meeting between the attorneys Schachner and Toohey had been cancelled due to concerns about its appropriateness.

He expressed reservations regarding the excessive specificity of the text amendment noting that zoning law is normally very general in nature.  Mr. Torpey found this language problematic in light of the legal liabilities and also because it encroached on the prerogatives of the Planning Board to address the specifics of a project like this when it would come before the board for site review and special use permitting.

Van Wagner did not see the need for such specific language since all of the specifics referred to already existed as part of the golf course.  He noted that there was already a locker room, some retail, a restaurant, and a business center.  He thought that this was being unduly drawn out.

Torpey then reminded him that the text amendment included a 100 room hotel and six cottages among other things that did not currently exist on the SNGC property.

Schackner then spoke.  He shared Torpey’s reservations about the “unusual degree of specificity.”  He expressed concern about defending this in court and referenced “spot zoning.”  He also noted that it would be hard to explain to a judge how a hundred room hotel, six cottages, etc. constituted a clubhouse.

Kevin Bette, one of the principals of Saratoga National Golf Course, then raised his hand and asked to address the Planning Board.  Chairman Torpey then recognized him and referred to him as the “applicant.”

Bette then spoke at length about the value of the SNGC plans if the amendment they were seeking were approved.

He said 80% of the people who come to their facilities are from outside Saratoga Springs.  He compared it to St. Andrews (the home of golf in Scotland and the site of the British Open) and Pebble Beach as  tourist destinations.  He also compared it to the thoroughbred race track.  He talked about the need to make his facility a four season operation which explains the health spa.  He explained that they had come up with a specific number of rooms (100) to try to address people’s fears about how big their plans were.

Schachner then noted that a Planned Unit Development is how something like this is normally handled.  He noted that the city, having voted to ban PUD’s could turn around and vote to change the zoning in the conservation district (greenbelt) to allow them.

Michael Toohey then got up and argued that the text amendment was not really apropos just for Saratoga National Golf Course.  He offered that it was possible for someone to buy up enough land in the district to put in another golf course with the same restrictions so the text amendment was not really just about Saratoga National.  Torpey pointed out that in his narrative to the Planning Board, Toohey argued that the SNGC project was not a bad precedent since it was not possible to have another golf course in the conservation district.  Mr. Toohey, having been nailed on this, launched into how Pebble Beach has more than one destination golf course.  He also argued that there was very specific language in the zoning code for horse facilities.

I then asked for a point of clarification.  Mr. Torpey recognized me.  I asked why the Planning Board was referring to the representatives of Saratoga National Golf Course as the “applicant.”  I noted that this was a Planning Board workshop on a text amendment to the zoning code.  In this context there is no applicant.  I also could not understand the standard being used for who could speak.  Since this was about a change in the zoning law, I could not understand why Saratoga National could address the board and argue the case for the text amendment while other interested parties from the community who did not necessarily agree with them did not enjoy the same privilege.  I expressed sympathy for the problem they were having because of the problematic nature of trying to address what Saratoga National was trying to do in light of the existing zoning requirements.

Chairman Torpey agreed that the term “applicant” was problematic.  He did however offer that the city council had accepted the language for the text amendment from Saratoga National and in asking the Planning Board for their advice, it seemed appropriate to have their participation.  He did, however, admit that it was not a great situation.

Cliff Van Wagner then went on again how he did not see a problem with accommodating the needs of Saratoga National.  He said the kind of thing they want to do is pretty standard with golf courses these days.  He also offered some tortured logic about how Saratoga National was an applicant even though there is no application before the Board.

Howard Pinsley concurred with Van Wagoner.

Tom Denny was then recognized by Chairman Torpey.  Denny noted that the other places cited such as Pebble Beach were not putting their resorts in a conservancy district.  This insight was completely lost on Van Wagner.

Chairman Torpey said he would like to see a conservation analysis done on the property.  This apparently is defined under the subdivision regulations.  I am not familiar with this.

Ms. Casey then asked how that would be put into the definition of a golf course.  This was never resolved.

Schachner then came up with the idea of defining golf course in the supplemental regulations which is under something called article 6.  Definitions like adult book stores are apparently defined there.

In the end, Van Wagner recommended they simply take all the specifics out of the text amendment.  They did this by taking the first half of the first paragraph and dropping everything in the text amendment beyond the word lodging.

It now reads:

A structure or clustered group of structures associated with a full size 18 hole golf course, that may include locker rooms, spa, health and fitness center, golf and fitness related retail, restaurant and banquet facilities, business center, lodging.

This wording will be considered for action at the August 12 Planning Board meeting where they will presumably vote on it after a public hearing.

If you have ever been to one of these meetings you know that out of exhaustion and desperation  actions are sometimes taken  without having the time to figure out what they really mean.  I think that was the case here.  The supporters of Saratoga National just wanted to get something that would support SNGC passed.  There was really no time to ask about the compatibility of any such project in the conservancy or who and how the questions of the size of any future lodging or retail space would be resolved.  Where any new buildings would be located, etc.

Also, given the fact that SNGC has five out of the seven members of the Planning Board on their side, it is very possible that something entirely new may pop up at the August 12 meeting once their attorney, Michael Toohey decides where to go with all of this..

I would just finish by saying that Michael Toohey did not have a good night.  All his work in crafting the text amendment was exposed as being legally unsupportable.  How Toohey, who has specialized in real estate development could come up with such transparently, failing language (see my previous post about the text amendment) says how much politics and power have defined land use law in this town rather than sound planning and legal work.  This is not to say that Saratoga National may get an even better deal in the end.

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