Planning Board Sends Advice To City Council: Predictably Bad

[The Planning Board Also Addressed The City Center’s Parking Plan.  I will post what happened with this tomorrow night]

On Wednesday night the Planning Board met and on the agenda was the request of the City Council for advice on a text amendment for the definition of golf clubhouse in the city’s greenbelt.

An entirely new text amendment appeared at the Planning  Board meeting from what the Board discussed at last week’s workshop.  Chairman Mark Torpey presented this new language as having come from Commissioner Michelle Madigan.  Mark Schackner, the attorney who specializes in land use issues for the city, interrupted Torpey saying that it was not from Madigan but that he had drafted it at the request of a council member who wanted language that would withstand a legal challenge.  Of note was that Schachner did not name the council member and the members of the council were courteous enough not to ask.   A good question to have asked is why the city was paying its attorney to work out language which was clearly on behalf of Saratoga National Golf Course.  This is but one of a long string of twisted logic and procedures that have plagued this process as the friends of Saratoga National have stretched every conceivable angle to assist them.

The amendment, a copy of which is linked here, has three parts to it.

  1. The first part is an amendment to the zoning code for the Rural Residential District (greenbelt) which would allow Golf Resorts with special use permits and site plan review.
  2. A new item in section 6 of the zoning regulations.  This section defines certain terms like Mobile Homes and Adult Book Stores.  In this case it takes most of what was in the text amendment that Schachner said were too specific and puts them in a new definition for something called a Golf Resort.  It includes things like “lodging facilities” and among those facilities are a structure with no more than 100 guest rooms and “freestanding structures with up to ten guest rooms and no associated kitchen facilities.”  If all this sounds familiar it is because it was all in the original text amendment.  It also included a requirement to “…dedicate no less than ___% of the ________land for open space purposes.”  The numbers were left blank for the planning board to fill in.
  3. An amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan that would specifically provide for a golf resort in the city’s RR1  district (greenbelt).

Chairman Torpey then opened the floor to the public for comment.  Attorney Michael Toohey then spent well over thirty minutes pitching the importance of his client’s plans. Interestingly he referred to his client as “the applicant” and proceeded to go through the proposal line by line and make comments like “we can agree to this” as though he were reviewing  a private contract between this client and the city.

I would like to whine to the readers of this blog that having to listen to Michael Toohey is the worst thing about doing this blog.  My issue here is not that I disagree with him, which I do, but that he is one of the worst speakers one has to endure at these meetings.  In a voice that is flat and that lacks any kind of interesting inflection, he laboriously and with little coherence rambled on about how great his client is and how everything they want to do adheres to the principles of the comprehensive plan.  No one ever asked him why, if what they want to do is consistent with the comprehensive plan that the same plan needs to be amended to allow the golf resort.  The poverty of his presentation was made particularly evident when the other two lawyers addressed the council later in the meeting regarding the City Center’s application for subdividing the parking lot along Highrock  Avenue.  In contrast to Toohey they were both clear and succinct in terms of the content of their arguments; spoke with clear voices that emphasized their key points, and were brief and to the point!   How Mr. Toohey is able to get all the top briefs on big land development jobs is a mystery to me because it is not based on his ability to make clear arguments.  Given that his original text amendment was discarded, it does not seem that his legal work is that impressive either.  Thank you for reading this rant.

Following his statement, the “friends of Saratoga National” on the Planning Board then made the appropriate sycophantic statements about how great Saratoga National is and why what they want to do is so great for the city.  Eventually Mark Schachner actually interceded to caution them that this is not supposed to be about a particular project or parcel and that they needed to desist in this line of discussion.  The clear import of his remarks was that they were exposing that this was in effect designed for one land owner which would make the changes subject to a suit over spot zoning.

What followed were the friends of Saratoga National in the audience who spoke on how great Saratoga National is.  They were apparently unmoved by Mr. Schachner’s advice.

Toohey then asked that the number of “standing buildings be increased from five to six” and Tom Lewis and Cliff Van Wagner promptly proposed that the document be amended to reflect this.

Mark Torpey then gave a very clear and thoughtful explanation as to why he could not support the changes.  He noted that the existing zoning limited land use to residential housing and inns which were limited to 25 rooms.  He noted that the existing zoning limited height to be 35 feet.  He further noted that the zoning allowed only 2 units per acre and that the acres to be considered for this rate were the ones left after all wetlands and other areas not suitable for building were excluded and that 50% of the land that was left was excluded.   He offered that it seemed quite clear that the proposal was utterly inconsistent with this.

He was supported by Janet Casey, the only other member of the Planning Board not appointed by Scott Johnson.

Cliff Van Wagner at this point felt the need, in light of Schachner’s warning, to make a long and dubious argument about how it was possible that someone might later purchase enough contiguous land from different owners to build a golfing resort in which case they would be bound by these new rules.  (I cannot believe that I sat through all this stuff for this blog).

We then had to listen to three of the four Johnson appointments repeat at length that all of this was consistent with the comprehensive plan.  No one had the bad taste to point out to them that Schachner wanted them to amend the comp plan to make what they want possible.

We also had to listen to Tom Lewis warn us about the sprawl that we could face if Saratoga National were to build McMansions out there.  He offered up the number fifty.  Torpey then noted that the rules (see above about the regulations for RR1 that minimize such development) would not allow such a large project and that such a declaration was a “red herring.”  Tom Lewis then said, “20, whatever!”

They then took up the question about what to put in for the percentage of the land that would have to be set aside for open space.  Toohey told them to put in 50%.  We were again subjected to a rambling discourse on how generous this was.  Torpey noted that it was impossible to make any determination of this given the existing data.  One thing was crystal clear, the promises offered about making everything but the twenty-five acres that the development was to be built on into an easement to perpetually be available to the public were gone.

It was, however, apparent that Saratoga National had the votes.  The vote was taken.

In the affirmative:

Tom Lewis (on the staff of Senator Marchione, past chairman of the Republican Party, and past land manager for Stewarts)

Cliff Van Wagner (past unsuccessful, Republican candidate for Commissioner Finance and past chairman of the planning board under Scott Johnson)

Dan Gaba, Realtor

Howard Pinsely of Espy Industries


Mark Torpey, employed by New York State Energy and Development Authority

Janet Casy, professor at Skidmore College

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