Rules? They Are For The Little People! Saratoga National Golf Course and Saratoga P.L.A.N. Smooch

The Saratogian published an article in today’s (September 29, 2015) edition covering the Saratoga P.L.A.N. fund raiser titled “Feast of the Fields” which occurred on September 24th.  According to the story, the event was a fabulous success drawing some five hundred attendees.  It was also generously supported by a litany of restaurants in the area that provided food.

The mission of PLAN is laudable.  It describes itself as follows:

“Saratoga PLAN is dedicated to preserving the rural character, natural habitats and scenic beauty of Saratoga County so that these irreplaceable assets are accessible to all and survive for future generations. We help landowners conserve their farmland, woodlands and natural habitats to sustain the county’s “quality of place” and the environment, economy, and public health. Saratoga PLAN helps communities create plans that balance growth with conservation to sustain the Saratoga Region as a great place to live, work, visit and farm.”

Who could possibly have any reservations about their important work?  It turns out that the story of PLAN is more complex than this very noble mission suggests.

http://www.saratogaplan.org/about/

Increasingly, developers are being required to set aside land that will either be restricted in its future development or accessible to the public as part of agreements with municipalities when the developers are seeking large projects that exceed existing zoning limits.  To do this they need a not-for-profit that can either take possession of the land or oversee and enforce agreements that affect the use of the land.  Such agreements may involve the building of facilities accessible to the public or may require that only agricultural uses be allowed on the land.  This is the kind of thing that produces those grossly overused words “Win-Win.”  In fact, there is no question that in many cases the results of these deals are extremely valuable assets to our communities.  Still, it is important to view these deals with a sober and jaundiced eye.  This is especially the case, when the boards of these not-for-profits include developers.

In the case of PLAN, it is chaired by John Munter who is a developer and a contributor to Saratoga PAC.  As most people are fully aware, this PAC was organized as push-back to the growing legitimacy and strength of Sustainable Saratoga.   One would have to be quite naïve to be unaware that this PAC, made up of the titans of real estate and construction, covet the potential profits that compromising the city’s greenbelt would bring.    They are hoping to use their considerable wealth to elect pubic officials more amenable to their aggressive development vision.

As noted in previous posts, Saratoga PLAN has received at least one very large donation from Saratoga National Golf Course.  I would guess that SNGC either discounts the use of their facilities for the fundraiser or actually donates them for free.  As also documented in earlier blogs, PLAN appears to have abrogated their responsibilities to enforce the easement agreement they have with SNGC.  As part of the Special Permit to build the golf course, SNGC was to build two nature trails with proper signage for the public to enjoy.  No reasonable person would describe the “trail” that runs through their golf course as a real trail let alone a “nature” trail.   PLAN is responsible for overseeing the compliance of Saratoga National for these trails.

As also noted in previous blogs, SNGC is limited to three large events a year.  By the parking standards laid out in the site plan, an event with five hundred guests would represent a large event and based on SNGC’s web site, it would appear that this would be just another event that exceeded the limit for the year.  There is a certain very sad irony that, given PLAN’s stated mission, that they would contribute to the violation of the city’s greenbelt by having the event at SNGC.

The Saratogian article also noted the presence of Mayor Yepsen at the event.  In and of itself, there is nothing improper in the Mayor’s attending the event.  In fact, Commissioner Mathiesen also attended the event and I would expect that other elected officials were there.

Again in a previous blog, I posted emails that I sent to both the Mayor and to the city building inspector about the apparent violations of both the “trail” and the limit on large events.  The Mayor’s office is responsible, through the building inspector, for the enforcement of the city’s land use laws and agreements.   To date, I have not heard from either the Mayor or the building inspector regarding the potential violations.  One would hope that Mayor Yepsen might have found it awkward to attend an event which she knew might be in violation of the city’s agreements and which she was under pressure to look into.

I do not believe that it is unreasonable to assume that many of the major developers attended this event.  It is also reasonable to assume that others, in addition to Mr. Munter, are members of Saratoga PAC which is dedicated to undermining the city’s greenbelt.  There is something deeply unsettling to think of this lavish event at which people are congratulating themselves on how they are protecting open space is itself a violation of our greenbelt agreements.  By including the city’s elected officials as part of this event it adds an even greater unseemliness.   If in fact, they are exceeding their limit on large events, it says a lot about the arrogance and cynicism of Saratoga National especially because they are currently seeking to greatly expand the operation.

I have a fantasy involving the city building inspector walking into the ballroom with a bullhorn announcing, “this is an illegal event.  Clear the hall.”

Blogger Wins Appeal Of FOIL Denial By City…Sort Of

Today I received a letter from Vincent DeLeonardis, the city attorney, concerning their denial of my recent FOIL.  I had FOILed the city requesting copies of the invoices submitted by Mark Schachner related to the Saratoga National Golf Course zoning revisions.  As readers of this blog may recall, I received a response in which most of the descriptions of the work billed for were redacted (blacked out).  At the time, I contacted Robert Freeman, the executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, He confirmed that the city had been over zealous in its redactions.  I then appealed the FOIL on those grounds.

Just watching Mr. DeLeonardis at meetings I have been impressed with his knowledge and fairness. According to his letter, Mr. DeLeonardis actually called Mr. Freeman and reviewed the law.  He determined that indeed, the city had been overzealous and he sent me revised copies of the invoices.  I still have reservations regarding the final redactions.  You will note in the documents that there is an entry for June 10th, for example, that begins “Review File Materials Re Golf Resort; Draft” and then there are what appear to be four or five words redacted.  It is hard to believe that these few words should be so privileged as to allow them to be blacked out.

Still, in the increasingly opaque world of government, I was impressed and grateful for his response.  Under Mayor Scott Johnson I was routinely denied documents.  What is critical to understand here is that there is no enforcement mechanism other than to go to state court seeking an article 78 action.  Basically, when you win an article 78 against a government agency you can force them to do something that they have improperly refused to do.  Here is a more detailed explanation of what an article 78 is.  The problem is that it is very expensive to bring such an action.  The common result, as in Mayor Scott’s case, was to deny legitimate requests knowing that the plaintive cannot afford justice.

In that context, I was very impressed with the city’s willingness to make a significant effort to address my appeal.  For all the differences I have with Mayor Yepsen, her decision to employ Mr. DeLeonardis, speaks well of her.  His work is an extension of her office.  It is one area where she has delivered on her promise of transparency.

The invoices I received are only through July and do not include the periods of greatest activity.  There were more actions and meetings involving Mr. Schachner and Saratoga National Golf Course in August and September and I will be FOILing for those as well.  As best I can make out in analyzing the invoices, the city has spent approximately $2545.00 in addressing their zoning issues.  Given the cryptic nature of the descriptions and the redacting, it was difficult to determine how much Commissioner Madigan’s work with Mr. Schachner on developing language for the zoning amendment involved.  As noted in earlier blogs, following the failure of SNGC’s attorney, Michael Toohey, to craft proper language for their amendments, Commissioner Madigan worked with Schachner to come up with language that would work.

Here are the documents.

Saratoga National Kaufmann Appeal - Reply with docs-1

Saratoga National Kaufmann Appeal - Reply with docs-2

Saratoga National Kaufmann Appeal - Reply with docs-3 Saratoga National Kaufmann Appeal - Reply with docs-4 Saratoga National Kaufmann Appeal - Reply with docs-5 Saratoga National Kaufmann Appeal - Reply with docs-6 Saratoga National Kaufmann Appeal - Reply with docs-7 Saratoga National Kaufmann Appeal - Reply with docs-8 Saratoga National Kaufmann Appeal - Reply with docs-9

Planning Board To Delay City Center Revised Plans Until October

I received an email from Denise Desmond informing me that apparently, due to the absence of Mark Torpey and another member of the board, the Planning Board pulled the City Center revised plans from their September agenda.  If you had planned to attend the meeting re this issue, be advised.

Thank you, Denise.

What Joanne Yepsen Could Learn From Hillary Clinton

In a stunning turn around, Hillary Clinton has come out against the XL Pipe Line.  Let’s not talk principle here.  Her pollsters and other advisors saw the writing on the wall and realized they needed to show that she was willing to take a strong and decisive position on a controversial and substantive issue.

Joanne Yepsen has equivocated for months over Saratoga National Golf Course just as Clinton did on XL.  Yepsen’s opponent is public and clear on his support for the proposed resort.  She could come out and state unequivocally her opposition to the resort and set herself up as the hero who stood in defense of the city’s greenbelt.  Hey, I can dream…

Saratoga National Golf Course: Interesting Article From Albany Business Journal

A friend sent me this article from the Albany Business Review Biz Article. It had some interesting things in it. For one thing, they boast that they host one hundred and twenty weddings a year. I have heard that when you contact them about their hosting a wedding, right at the beginning they let you know that $50,000.00 is not unusual. I would love to know what their gross income is from events they put on as compared to their golfing program. It also notes that the green fees for a round of golf in August are $220.00.

What is more significant is the overall tone of Mr. Newkirk about expansion. Those of us ancient enough to remember when they built the golf course how they emphasized how modest an impact they would have. I would say “ambitious” would be a fair characterization of their posture today.

Not a very flattering picture of Newkirk and Mazzone on the site either.  Photograph