Mayor Responds To Whether Saratoga National Complies With The Special Permit Requirements

I received a response to my inquiry to Mayor Yepsen about the apparent violations of Saratoga National Golf Course’s special permit provisions.  The Mayor directed Joe Ogden, her Deputy, to respond.

Letter to John Kaufmann from Deputy Mayor Friday October 9th Letter to John Kaufmann from Deputy Mayor Friday October 9th-1 Letter to John Kaufmann from Deputy Mayor Friday October 9th-2

Because the image may be difficult to read I have also provided a PDF version

PDF Version of Letter to John Kaufmann from Deputy Mayor

Mr. Ogden makes the following assertion:

“While we greatly appreciate the concerns you have raised, the idea that ‘a major business in this city has been allowed to violate our land use requirements with impunity’ is simply not accurate.”

Having made that judgment, however,  he later states in the same letter that “…. we do not have any data or  evidence to say for certain that SNGC has or has not violated the requirements of the special use permit.”  Mr. Ogden goes on to state that Kate Maynard will be visiting the hiking trails at SNGC to “evaluate its condition so we can assess whether or not we believe it meets the conditions of the easement.”

One would have expected that, before dismissing the allegations, it would be prudent to actually determine whether  data or evidence exonerating SNGC actually exists.  On its face it appears to imply a prejudice on the part of Mr. Ogden and the Mayor regarding Saratoga National Golf Course’s culpability in these matters.

The question of what kind of limit exists as regards parking at Saratoga National Golf Course is not a frivolous issue.  The purpose of having a conservation district was to establish a rural and low intensity environment around the bustling city core.

When Saratoga National Golf Course originally proposed its plan of operation, they emphasized that their modest project would adhere to the conservation district vision.  Consistent with this they reached an agreement with the City that they would only require a parking lot with one-hundred and twenty-five spaces.  They also requested that they be allowed to park an additional seventy-three cars somewhere on the property when, occasionally, activities exceeded the regular parking lot capacity.

Here is a picture of the actual parking lot resulting from this agreement:

SNGC Parking

As part of the negotiations, the City recognized that there might be a few extraordinary times when for “special events” the existing parking lot would be inadequate to accommodate a celebrity golf tournament, for example.  Not unreasonably, the City agreed to allow that up to three such events could occur per year without violating its rules for the facility.

A reasonable person would interpret this to mean that only under “special” circumstances would they be using more than the parking lots they agreed to.

The result was that the Special Use Permit for SNGC,  as Mr. Ogden noted, reads as follows:

“The facility may have up to three special events/tournaments per year where the visitor’s demand exceeds available designated parking. Each permitted event shall not exceed 3,000 persons.”

Unfortunately, this language was very poorly worded, making it easily subject to different — and conflicting — interpretations.  “Say what you mean” is a critical consideration in drafting rules, and to that end, city ordinances and rules imposing codes of conduct should, at a minimum, communicate expectations clearly.  Without that, enforcement is vulnerable to charges of arbitrary and capricious administration, and will likely fail if challenged.

One interpretation of this language which seems most intuitive would be the following:

  1. If the number of visitors to an event find that all the regularly designated parking spaces (as set out in the “Site Plan”) are taken and must avail themselves of parking in non-designated areas, then the event will be considered a “Special Event.”  The facility may not host more than three of these events per year.
  2. Under no circumstance can the number of people attending any event exceed 3000.

Under the interpretation offered above, it is easy to determine when an event is considered “special.”   It is:  “[w]hen the visitors’ demand exceeds available designated parking” (i.e., the parking lot is full and there is overflow).

The Mayor’s office has chosen to interpret the language governing “special events” quite differently.  By their interpretation it is nearly impossible, as they admit, to ever determine if an event’s capacity has run afoul of the rules governing designated parking since, they argue, the overflow may be caused not just by the attendees at a “special event” but by the cumulative burden of cars from those who may be “playing golf, attending the bar/restaurant, attending banquets and other events or are employed by SNGC.”    It is possible under this interpretation to have multiple events at the same time where attendees take up more than the designated 125 spaces (or allowing for a generous application of the rule, 198, throwing in the spaces beyond those designated ) and still not meet the criteria for defining an event as “special” under the interpretation offered by the Mayor’s Office.  Given its interpretation of the Special Use Permit it is all but impossible to determine if SNGC is ever in compliance.

This interpretation places the Mayor in the awkward position of having no apparent way of enforcing the Special Use Permit.  Her solution, according to Mr. Ogden’s letter, is to have the building inspector, Steve Shaw, contact SNGC and ask them “how they comply with these conditions” — in other words, monitoring through self-reporting by the parties subject to monitoring.  You can’t make this stuff up.

One would have expected that when Saratoga National Golf Course found that their existing dedicated parking was inadequate that they would have asked to have their special permit revised to address the increased need.   In fact, in 2007 when they asked for and received authorization to greatly expand their club house they reaffirmed for the record that they had no need for additional parking.  When they can routinely exceed their existing parking lot capacity without penalty, why bother to ask for a change?  To ask for such changes would acknowledge that the volume of their activities has radically increased, calling unwanted attention to the increase of their activities in the city’s greenbelt.

This is not the first time nor will it be the last time that lawyers and politicians have used a poorly crafted statute to produce an Alice In Wonderland result meant to benefit some special interest.

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