New York Times On Decline of Golf Courses And Their Agressive Strategies To Survive: Saratoga National Golf Course?

The article below was taken from the business section of the November 25th edition of the New York Times.  Due to the NYT policies you may or may not be able to view the full article with photographs so I have pasted most of it below.  Here is a link to the NYT story.  NYT Article

The gist of the story is that in absolute numbers there has been a decline in the number of golfers in the USA.  It documents the fact that many courses are closing and that those that survive are diversifying.  They are adding swimming pools, fitness centers, retail, hotels, etc.  If this sounds familiar it is because this appears to be the path of our own Saratoga National Golf Course.  This is the same project that originally promised the city how modest it would be and how well it would fit in with the low intensity character of our greenbelt.  Clearly a very large camel’s nose has gotten into our city’s tent and the very large body is not far behind unless the community acts to defend its conservation district.

Golf Courses Forced To Reach Into Bag Of Tricks

By NICK MADIGAN NOV. 24, 2015

NOV. 24, 2015

BOCA RATON, Fla. — Weeds, crabgrass and fallen palm fronds cover the wildly overgrown greens of what was once the Mizner Trail Golf Club, its decrepit state emblematic of the fate of hundreds of golf courses around the country, many of them derisively known as “rabbit patches” or “goat farms.”

A short drive away, however, perspiring construction workers in yellow vests swarmed on a recent afternoon over the emerging structure of a 150,000-square-foot activities center, part of a $50 million renovation of the 44-year-old Boca West Country Club, home to some 6,000 residents, where fairways are newly planted and houses sell for as much as $5 million.

With the winter golf season beginning in Florida — the nation’s leader in golf courses with more than 1,000 — the extremes of failure and success point to a nationwide upheaval in the sport. It was booming when players like Tiger Woods reigned, but has since been roiled by changing tastes and economics, an aging population of players, and the vagaries of the millennial generation’s evolving pastimes.

There are about four million fewer players in the United States than there were a decade ago, according to the National Golf Foundation. Almost 650 18-hole golf courses have closed since 2006, the group says. In 2013 alone, 158 golf courses closed and just 14 opened, the eighth consecutive year that closures outpaced openings. Between 130 and 160 courses are closing every 12 months, a trend that the foundation predicts will continue “for the next few years.”

Dozens of private and public golf courses here in South Florida, and hundreds around the country, are in transition. Some courses have sought bankruptcy protection, while others have slipped into foreclosure. Many are under construction, with single-family homes and condominiums going up on land once dotted only with pin flags, sand traps and water hazards. Others have gone to seed as they await resolution of legal and zoning disputes.

Many clubs have survived by lowering sign-up fees and other costs, reducing the number of playable holes, and offering family-friendly amenities and activities that go far beyond hitting a ball with a 9-iron.

“Some courses are adapting, others are just not,” said Paul H. Chipok, a lawyer in Orlando who specializes in land-use and environmental issues. “It costs $100,000 a month to operate an 18-hole golf course — mowing the grass, fertilizing, regular maintenance. And that’s not including capital improvements. You need a lot of green fees to cover that.”

At private courses, members may be willing to pay more if necessary “because they expect a certain level of service,” Mr. Chipok said. “But courses that are open to the general public may not have the money to keep up their maintenance, and with less maintenance, the courses look worse and so they have to charge less to play on them. It’s a vicious cycle. This is the correction phase we’re going through now.”

Lesley Deutch, a senior vice president in the Boca Raton office of John Burns Real Estate Consulting, said the “old model” of private golf clubs with high initiation fees and “very exclusive” memberships is in decline.

“I don’t think the industry is over,” she said. “I think it’s just changing.”

In South Florida, where buildable land is fast disappearing, developers see golf courses as wasted space. Vast swaths of land that were once pristine courses in the middle of residential communities are becoming highly exploitable territory — prime opportunities for profits much greater than what fairways and putting greens can provide. As a result, the fallout of the downturn in the sport has been felt most keenly by residents of communities where the holes are no longer being played, primarily because the value of their homes often drops markedly once the course has closed.

“There are big issues, and they’re being fought and litigated,” said Steven M. Ekovich, a broker based in Tampa, Fla., who represents sellers of golf courses. “Homeowners paid a 20 or 30 percent premium for a golf-course lot, and suddenly a developer comes in and wants to build in front of them. There are big fights over that.”

A faded cart warning sign along the road leading to what once was the Mizner Trail Golf Course. Credit Ryan Stone for The New York Times

A few miles south of here, in Tamarac, the owner of the Woodmont Country Club, Mark Schmidt, faced stern opposition from some of the club’s homeowners to his plan for the course, which involved reducing the 36 holes to 18, putting up a four-and-a-half-acre commercial center, and building 152 single-family homes — in addition to the 1,900 houses already there. The plan was ultimately approved last year, but city officials have since balked at the owner’s proposal to build a 120-room hotel on the site.

“There’s always resistance,” said Mr. Schmidt, who bought the Woodmont property 10 years ago. “The cost of operating a golf course today is very difficult, so the land is being put to better use. As much as some people lost their views, others have gained better views. No point in allowing the land to remain fallow.”e Global Marketplace since 1968

Like other golf club owners who foresee an upside in expanding their offerings, Mr. Schmidt said he was building a new clubhouse and fitness center, as well as a new swimming pool. “Without these adjustments, golf would be in desperate trouble,” he said of the industry in general. “This is an absolute necessity.”

City officials in Tamarac have been dealing for years with turmoil on golf courses, particularly after the closures of the Monterey and Sabal Palm clubs. Three city commissioners were charged with receiving bribes from developers who sought to build houses on the properties, and there were numerous complaints that interlopers on motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles were racing around the weed-covered greens. Developers were eventually permitted to build hundreds of homes on the two former golf courses.

To prevent similar headaches on another property in Tamarac, the 275-acre Colony West Golf Club, the city itself bought the course in a 2011 short sale for $3.3 million. “We wanted to control the real estate,” Michael C. Cernech, the city manager, said of the championship course, which opened in 1971 as host to the PGA Tour’s Jackie Gleason Classic, now known as the Honda Classic. Under a five-year contract, management of the course was turned over in 2013 to the Virginia-based firm Billy Casper Golf, which runs about 140 courses nationwide.

Michelle F. Tanzer, a Boca Raton lawyer who represents resort developers and owners and sits on the board of the National Club Association, has helped country clubs adapt to what she said is growing demand for fitness facilities, resort-style pools, water parks and improved dining choices in places where previously only golf was the norm. The golf industry, she said, is “doing much better than it’s looked since 2009.”

The Boca West Country Club’s heavy investment in its facilities, Ms. Tanzer said, “is a perfect example of adapting” to the changing economics of golf. “They’re spending a fortune on making the place family-friendly,” she said. “It’s a home run.”

At Boca West, where it costs new members $70,000 to sign up, Jay DiPietro, the club’s 78-year-old president and general manager, suggested that the troubles besetting some of his competitors could be blamed on poor management and on their focus on “the business of selling houses.” But he operates on a different principle, he said.

“We’re in the people-pleasing business,” he said. “These people paid a lot to be here.”

Construction is taking place at Boca West in Boca Raton, home to some 6,000 residents, where fairways are newly planted and houses sell for as much as $5 million. Credit Ryan Stone for The New York Times

In any case, Mr. DiPietro said, the golf industry was vastly over-supplied with courses. “It was just waiting for a recession to knock the hell out of it,” he said. “The recession separated the boys from the men.”

Oliver K. Hedge, who appraises golf course properties for the real estate brokerage firm Cushman & Wakefield, said the golf industry had “made great strides” in shaking off underperforming courses in the last few years.

“A lot of clubs that have closed really should have closed,” Mr. Hedge said. “Florida is a good microcosm of the nation because we’re so dense with golf courses.”

Many of the closures, he said, have involved public and semi-private courses, the latter a reference to clubs that have an active membership program but that let non-members play for a fee.

In 2009, under what Mr. Hedge called “the prior economy model,” the Marsh Landing Country Club, a private course 300 miles north of here in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., charged a $100,000 initiation fee, 90 percent of it refundable upon resignation. Dues were $6,612 a year. Today, that same membership costs $25,000, but it is non-refundable, while annual dues have gone up to $8,400.

Still, golf clubs are “just scratching out a profit,” Mr. Hedge said from his office in Orlando. “Golf is a razor-thin industry from an investor standpoint. I hardly ever advise investing in a golf course. You’ve got to really know what you’re doing, and you’ve got to have a razor-sharp pencil. You might spend $20 million to $30 million to build a private country club — if you can clear 7, 8, 10 percent, you’re lucky. There are huge fixed costs. You could have a club that’s doing $10 million in revenue, but you’ve spent $9.9 million to get there.”

A developer known to be bullish on golf is the ubiquitous Donald J. Trump, who in 2012 added to his portfolio of 14 courses by purchasing two more in Florida, the Ritz Carlton Golf Club and Spa in Jupiter and the Doral Golf Resort and Spa near Miami. (Another renovated Trump course in Virginia has created a bit of a stir with a revisionist history of the Civil War.)

The price of the Jupiter resort — now known as the Trump National Golf Club — was not disclosed, although Mr. Trump’s company invested about $20 million in renovations for the course, clubhouse and amenities, according to Mr. Hedge.

The developer invested far more — some $250 million — in fixing up the four-course Doral resort, after buying it out of bankruptcy for $145 million. On Oct. 23, during a presidential campaign appearance at the resort, now called Trump National Doral, the candidate boasted of his negotiating skills in whittling $25 million off the asking price of the property.

“The key to the success of these ventures was the broader market timing,” Mr. Hedge said, referring to the two Trump resorts. “I assume they saw the luxury golf market returning, which it has done.”

Mr. Ekovich, the golf-course broker in Tampa, was slightly less positive in his estimation of the market’s strength.

“Revenues are up a little bit, and so are rounds,” said Mr. Ekovich, who noted that during the years of the recession the price of some golf courses had “cratered” to about half their former value. “Things are moving in the right direction, but they are by no means meteoric rises.”

 

The Very Interesting Encounter Between the Neighbors of Moore Hall and the Zoning Board of Appeals

ZBA Hearing

There was a very impressive turn out by the community for the Zoning Board of Appeals hearing on Monday, November 23, regarding Sonny Bonacio’s proposal to redevelop Moore Hall.  Many of the neighbors arranged to meet prior to the meeting and to enter en mass.  It was apparent by their expressions that the ZBA board was rather taken aback by the dramatic entry.  The community members filled the seats and some had to stand.  Unfortunately, the camera only focuses on the front of the room so those viewing the meeting on line do not get any of this.

The neighbors also submitted a petition with four hundred and fifty-eight signatures.

When you factor in the extraordinary number of signs all over the area, this group has demonstrated that there is extensive opposition and that this opposition runs very deep.

The Applicant’s Presentation

The Zoning Board of Appeals meeting began with a very long presentation by the applicant.  The speakers included Sonny Bonacio (he is the construction person and it appears has an option to purchase the property), Michael Toohey (attorney), Richard Higgins (North Star Development and owner of the property), and Michael Ingersol (with the landscape architectural firm LA Group).

Toohey made a long recitation arguing that the property would fulfill the Comprehensive Plan’s goal of re-use of existing properties.  He reviewed the history of the property emphasizing that when it was a dormitory it had some four hundred student occupants.  He also emphasized the work that the applicant had done in addressing the Planning Board’s concern about parking for the project.  Following him, Ingersol noted the changes they were making to the parking lot.

The changes to the lot involve making the lanes one way and angling the parking to allow for larger spaces and wider lanes.  The revised plan also calls for making North Lane a one way street.  Most interestingly, they plan to put some parking in the front of the building (Union Avenue).  This idea of parking cars in the front of the building had been dismissed because of its proximity to Union Avenue.  The Planning Board had said they would consider parking in front of the building.  At the time, the discussion was prompted by the idea of removing the one story annex that had been the dining hall in order to reduce the need for off-site parking.  Ingersol noted that modifying the existing lot would reduce the parking spaces to forty-eight so the additional nine spaces that would go on the Union side building would bring them back up to approximately the number of spaces originally proposed.  This is important because otherwise they would need to ask for a greater variance.

It was interesting that Ingersol admitted that the proposal was sketchy and that it was subject to being “picked apart.”  I would note that this kind of caveat is consistent with the applicant’s manipulative approach to the project.  Of course he did not direct the ZBA to the aspects that might be problematic nor did the ZBA ask him about them.

Here is a sketch provided by the applicant of the proposed solution.  Note the cars that back out directly onto North Lane (alley).  There is no buffer.  These cars will have problems seeing approaching cars because their view will be blocked by the cars on either side of them.  Also, since there is no buffer between the streets and the back of the cars, they represent a hazard that normally the city codes would not allow.  This is obviously a serious potential problem but the Zoning Board of Appeals had no questions.

ParkingLot

The fact is that the lot as originally proposed did not stand up to the most cavalier scrutiny when it came to safety.  Only after the chairman of the Planning Board raised it as an issue that needed to be addressed and the neighbors made it a major point did this prompt addressing the issue.   Mr. Ingersol was also aware that Russell Pittenger who had been a principle with the LA Group, had written a damaging critique of the lot and was in the audience.  How the LA Group could have originally tried to slip in a lot that was clearly dangerously designed says something very damaging both about the applicant and the LA Group.

It still remains to be seen if Design Review will approve a lot on Union Avenue.  The developer emphasized that they would landscape the front to minimize the impact of the lot.

When Sonny Bonacio spoke he first addressed the the density issue noting that the earlier North Star proposal for eighteen units included roughly as many bedrooms as the current proposal.   This not surprisingly drew a loud reaction from the crowd.  The chair of the ZBA chastised the audience.  It is important to remember that the North Star proposal had been for only eighteen units priced at $850,000.00 to $1,600,000.00.  One would expect that many of the bedrooms in these units would be for guests or family members who were children.  The proposal also had adequate underground parking.   I think this gives you a flavor of the liberty that the applicant takes when making arguments for his proposal.

Mr. Bonacio also testified that any change in the number of units would result in the project being financially not feasible.  He claimed that of the original four banks that had been considering the project, they were down to one.

The Zoning Board’s Discussion

In the ensuing discussion by the Zoning Board of Appeals members they raised a number of issues.

One member tried to help the applicant identify additional spaces.  I guess he lacked faith in the LA Group.  Each of his suggestions turned out to be untenable for one reason or another according to Mr. Ingersol.

One member explicitly expressed great concern herself over the density.  She indicated that she found it difficult to accept.

Another board  member noted that in business there is always some give and take and that he found it hard to accept the applicant’s rigidity on the size and scope of the project.  Mr. Bonacio reiterated that his project could not be reduced in scope.  The member then offered back, “so it is fifty-three [units] or nothing?”  Mr. Bonacio responded that while he did not enjoy hearing it characterized that way, that it was, in fact, accurate.

Another board member noted that due to all the outstanding questions about making the parking lot safe, it was unclear what final parking variance the applicant would be requesting.  Chairman Moore dismissed this concern saying that they should decide on the issue now and if the site plan review by the Planning Board were to result in a reduction in the allowable parking spaces, the applicant could come back to the ZBA for a different parking variance.

The last board member to speak said that his primary concern had been parking.  He said that he had repeatedly driven through the neighborhood on a variety of days and times.  He said he found that there were many empty parking spaces and that he no longer considered on street parking an issue.  As noted in an earlier post, this member of the board was seen drinking with Mr. Bonacio and Mr. Higgins following the meeting.

The Public Speaks

The first speaker was John Hayko, the attorney hired by the neighborhood.  As an interesting note, board chairman William Moore asserted his authority by setting a two minute limit on the speakers.  Given the large number in attendance, this was not an unreasonable limit.  It was, however, very troubling that he also attempted to limit the attorney to two minutes.  The applicant was given unlimited time to do their presentation.   In contrast, Mr. Moore attempted to cut the community’s attorney off at the two minute mark in spite of the fact that he had clearly not completed his statement.  Only after a very noisy outburst from the crowd and the offer of several people to give the attorney their allotted time, did Mr. Moore allow the attorney to continue.

This attempt to cut the attorney off raises serious questions about Mr. Moore’s attitude.  To begin with, one would have assumed that he would be interested in hearing a well argued legal rejoinder to the applicant’s proposal.  There is also the simple issue of fairness.  Clearly the community had invested considerable money to be represented at this hearing and Mr. Moore’s apparent indifference speaks volumes about his approach to this issue.  As if this were not bad enough, he interrupted the attorney when he was reviewing with the ZBA the statements made by the earlier ZBA in 2006 when they agreed to change the zoning to UR4.  Mr. Moore challenged the attorney as to the relevance of his remarks to the variances.  This, after the applicant’s attorney, Michael Toohey had rambled on at great length about the history of the project beginning in the 1950’s.  You cannot make this stuff up.

William Moore is a licensed real estate appraiser.  This is a classic example of a person who is an integral player in the real estate industry.  The problem of having this man chair this important land use board is manifestly clear and he truly demonstrated it in the manner with which he ran this meeting.

Mr. Hayko reviewed the history of the project.  He noted particularly the basis on which the Zoning Board of Appeals granted the variance to Northstar.  He quoted from that board’s decision that the size of the project in terms of its eighteen units would minimize the impact on the neighborhood.  The decision emphasized the fact that putting one large building on the space was the worst outcome and would put stress on the adjacent neighborhoods.  He also pointed out to the board that if something should happen to this property in the future such as a fire, etc. any subsequent owner will be able to put fifty-three units on the parcel.  He reminded the board that while the Comprehensive Plan does encourage the repurposing of buildings as noted by Michael Toohey, it also emphasizes that the land use decisions should be consistent with the character of the neighborhoods in which they are located.  The attorney then went over a recent legal precedent in which a developer in Newburg attempted to expand a building  which would have resulted in the building exceeding the density limit of the zoned area .Citing the neighbors expressed concerns about the impact, the local board denied the variance and according to the attorney, the court upheld the denial.

Steve McIntyre is a realtor and next testified about the current real estate market.  He noted information that contradicted the applicant’s assertions that the market would not support converting the property into condos as originally proposed in 2006. He compared the number of condos sold for $800,000.00 to $2,000,000.00 at the time of the original proposal and now.  During the three years around the original proposal there were 12 units sold in that range whereas in the last three years there were 29 sold.  He argued that it is not at all clear that the market for such high end properties does not exist.  He also discussed the apparent success of the tear down of the Elsworth factory.  He then referenced the fact that SUNY had, in 2011, entertained purchasing the Moore Hall property for over $2,000,000.00.  He also ran the numbers for the existing building.  Northstar bought the property for $1,100,000.00.  The applicant claims that demolition would cost $750,000.00.  Dividing that by 18 units you get $102,000.00.  He noted that given the economics of high value condos in the city that made doing the project as originally designed in 2006 practical.  He noted that the current proposal would appear to be much more profitable, though which might explain Mr. Bonacio’s inflexibility.

I think it is important to note that Mr. Bonacio claimed in the strongest terms that his proposal for 53 units is the only viable option for the existing building.  This raises an important question about the future.  If this project is denied then the logic is that the existing building has no apparent future viability.  In that case, Mr. Higgins finds himself in an interesting position.  He paid $1.1 million dollars speculating originally that the cost for taking the building down and erecting eighteen high end condos would be a successfully profitable endeavor.  If this is not the case then, using the logic of the market, which the advocates for this project made very clear, he has two choices.  He can either hold on to the property with the hope that some future improvements in technology will make it affordable to modify this building less densely or he needs to sell the property perhaps at a loss.  In selling it, the property could now be developed consistent with the limits of the UR4 designation.   One would presume that someone who would purchase the lot would have a plan to build within the restraints of UR4. This is potentially a very valuable piece of property given its location on Union Avenue. The idea that this building will sit forever in a decaying state is a fiction if you believe in the market place.  At some point, paying the taxes and maintenance of this building will become a sufficient burden that Mr. Higgins will be forced to reconsider its future and sell it for a price that would make a less dense project viable.

Following Mr. McIntyre’s remarks, many neighbors spoke to the board going over their concerns over the changes they believed this project would make to their community.  They noted the many issues that have been documented in previous posts so I will not repeat them.  The neighbors were extremely courteous in addressing the board.  They emphasized the fact that this neighborhood has many children and that the radical increase in traffic would very much change the feeling of reasonable safety that people believe they now enjoy.  They focused on all the problems that would come to North Lane which is, in effect, an ally.

As a member of this neighborhood and as a personal note, I was very much touched by the dignity and thoughtfulness of the many speakers.  It only reaffirmed for me how fortunate I am to live in this community.

Skidmore Students To Report On Survey On Local Election

This was posted as a comment on my web site.  I think this will be a very interesting event so I am sending this out again as my post to reach as many as possible.  It is from Bob Turner of Skidmore College:

I wanted to invite you to a presentation my Real Democracy seminar is giving on the outcome of the 2015 Saratoga Springs City Council election. It is on Monday, November 30th from 7-9pm in Gannett Auditorium at Skidmore College. The event is free and open to the public.

I can safely say that it is the most comprehensive study of Saratoga Springs local elections ever conducted. Their analysis will address some of the most important questions about the 2015 election: how has the political landscape of Saratoga Springs changed; who votes in local elections; what were the most important issues to voters; and how effective were the mayoral and Saratoga PAC campaigns. The presentation will also include a spatial analysis of which districts in the city participate the most in city politics. A question and answer session will follow the presentation.

Their presentations will utilize multiple sources of data including:

• First ever exit poll of 437 voters in the 2015 City Council elections.
• Mapping the location of every political yard sign in Saratoga Springs
• Spatial analysis of political contributions to City Council Candidates and the Saratoga PAC
• Surveys of the attendees of City Council debates
• Individual interviews of every City Council candidate.

Please forward to any individuals or groups you think might be interested.

Bob Turner
Associate Professor of Government
Skidmore College

 

Bias At The Zoning Board Of Appeals? It’s Like Claude Rains In Casablanca Shocked to Find Gambling At Rick’s

Following Monday night’s Zoning Board of Appeals meeting, several people wandered by Gaffney’s restaurant on Caroline Street at about 11:00.   Looking in the window they saw Gary Hasbrouck, a member of the Zoning Board of Appeals, drinking with Sonny Bonacio and Richard Higgins.  Only a short time before the  three of them had been sitting at the Council table with Hasbrouck on the side among the other ZBA members and Bonacio and Higgins facing them.

If you watch the video of the meeting you can observe Mr. Hasbrouck’s performance.  He told the other members of the board that he had originally had reservations about the project due to the potential impact that the project might have on the availability of street parking.  He went on to say that he made multiple visits on different days and different hours in the neighborhood and was now sure that there was ample parking for the project indicating his support for the proposal.

Mr. Hasbrouck owns and operates Loudon Oaks which appears to be a trailer park in Wilton.  Here is a link to his Facebook page.  Link to his Facebook Page

Mr. Hasbrouck is not unique in terms of his close relationship with the development community as regards our land use boards.  The extraordinary bias of these boards on behalf of developers is common knowledge to anyone that has dealt with them.

Every member of the City Council is fully aware of this.  They know that Scott Johnson stacked these boards.  I have had conversations with the majority of the council who have lamented to me privately about the situation but in public continue the charade that these boards are a source of fair and independent evaluations of projects.

I am still working on a review of the full meeting which I will publish shortly.

Zoning Board Of Appeals Meeting Summary on Moore Hall

This is a brief post on the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting as regards the Bonacio proposal for Moore Hall redevelopment last night.  There was a very impressive turn out by the neighborhood.  They filled all the seats in the council chambers with some standing.

The ZBA took no action at the meeting.  They indicated that the decision will be made at either the December 7 or December 14 meeting.

I will post a more detailed description of the meeting tomorrow when I am back in the U.S.

Moore Hall: Support Your Neighbors

On Monday night at 7:00 PM at the City Council Chambers, the Zoning Board of Appeals will consider whether to grant the waivers sought by Bonacio Construction for its Moore Hall Project.

The deliberations, unfortunately, have as much to do with the power of interests as they do with the substance of the decision.  It is very important that the opponents of the project show up in numbers.

Today it is the neighbors of Moore Hall; tomorrow it could be your street.  I urge people in the community to take the time to attend this meeting and to give voice to the many reasons why this project should not go forward.

 

Collamer Suit Decided. City Prevails

 

NEWS RELEASE

From:            Eileen Finneran

Subject: Supreme Court Dismisses Lawsuit Brought
by Former City Council Members

Press Contact:  Public Safety Commissioner
Christian Mathiesen, 527-2710 or 587-3550 x2627
or Deputy Public Safety Commissioner Eileen
Finneran, 587-3550 x 2631

Saratoga Springs, November 22, 2015 – In a
Decision and Order dated November 17, 2015, the
New York State Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit
against the City of Saratoga Springs, its City
Council members, and a local developer and a local
landowner.

In McTygue et al. v. City of Saratoga Springs et al.,
three former City Council members (Thomas
McTygue, Remigia Foy, and Raymond Watkin)
challenged a 2013 City Resolution in which the City
agreed to purchase land on which it could site an
EMS facility for $200,000 and sell a City-owned
parcel commonly known as the “Collamer Lot” for
$775,000.  The lawsuit alleged violations of the
Public Trust Doctrine, the State Environmental
Quality Review Act, and General Municipal Law
section 51 (a public corruption statute).  Upon the
City’s motion, Acting Supreme Court Justice
Richard Sise dismissed the suit in its entirety.

The City Respondents are thrilled with the Court’s
decision, though not surprised by it.  Public Safety
Commissioner Christian Mathiesen said, “The entire
process leading up to the City Council Resolution
approving the land transactions was transparent and
in furtherance of the best interests of the City.”

The City Respondents were represented by Daniel J.
Hurteau and Jena R. Rotheim of the law firm Nixon
Peabody LLP.


************************************************************

Not being a lawyer I struggled with the decision.  It appears that the suit was dismissed for a number of reasons.

  • It was beyond the statute of limitations
  • The plaintiffs did not have standing
  • The persons bringing the suit failed to meet a standard that required them to show “official corruption.”

In the case of “standing,” the judge found that plaintiffs failed to show that they had been harmed.  Apparently, proximity to the parcel can be a factor and the judge took exception to measuring the distance from the Collamer to Tom McTygue’s home as the crow flies (which could have affected his standing) when it should have been measured by the distance required to travel there.  More pointedly, the judge took exception to the claim made by Tom McTygue that “construction of the [city center] parking garage will, according to McTygue, impose an environmental harm on him that is greater in degree than that experienced by the general public.”  The judge continued by stating that “…the claim is not articulated.  And because the ‘[t]he injury in fact element must be based on more than conjecture or speculation’, petitioners are without standing…”

In the case of “statute of limitations,” the two parties argued over when the clock started in determining when the suit had to be be filed by.  The judge found for the city.

In the case of “failure to state a cause of action,” the plaintiffs had to show that the “‘…acts complained of are fraudulent or a waste of public property in the sense that they represent the use of public property or funds for entirely illegal purposes.'”  The judge went on to set a very hire bar.  “There must be specific allegations of waste tied to official corruption and allegations of illegality alone are insufficient and any expenditure of funds must be for entirely illegal purposes…”  “In the absence of allegations of corrupt motive and illegal purpose the complaint is facially insufficient…”


This is a link to a more readable (PDF) copy of the decision.

McTygue v Saratoga Springs

 

 

 

 

Sorry! An apology from Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslims) to humanity

I thought long and hard before posting this because of the increasing  anti-Muslim hysteria in general and anti-Syrian hysteria in particular.  The vast majority of the victims of ISIS are Muslims and many of those are Syrians but this does not seem to mean anything to many of our citizens.  Who knows what lists this post will put me on but in light of the terrible things done as a result of fear and xenophobia I felt compelled to offer this.

The Washington Post published a story with the heading: “CNN anchor blames French Muslims for failure to prevent attacks”

Yasser Louati is a highly respected French civil rights activist and attorney.  The Washington Post story properly takes CNN to task for its two reporters who badgered Louati relentlessly in an interview about why the Muslim community in France failed to prevent the awful massacres last week.

John Vause of CNN asked Mr. Louati, “Why is it that no one within the Muslim community there in France knew what these guys were up to?…Because it seems to me that this was a pretty big plan. Surely someone beyond the seven guys who’ve been killed over the last 48 hours would have to have known something and that was probably within the Muslim community but yet no one said anything.”

The parochialism and ignorance of Mr. Vause in this interview was just appalling.  Following Timothy McVeigh’s bombing in Oklahoma, no one asked any Christians on television to defend the failure of the Christian community to stop McVeigh. It apparently never occurred to Mr. Vause that he was expecting an individual who he assumed to be Muslim to explain how the entire French  Muslim  community couldn’t discover what the global intelligence community failed to detect.

Here is the link to the story and video

I am pleased to be able to republish a poem by the Syrian Kurdish poet Amir Darwish. A collection of Amir Darwish’s poetry can be found in the book Don’t Forget the Couscous.   

Sorry! An apology from Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslims) to humanity

We are sorry

for everything

That we have caused humanity to suffer from.

Sorry for Algebra and the letter X.

Sorry for all the words we throw at you;

Amber, candy, chemistry, cotton, giraffe, hazard,

Jar, jasmine, jumper, lemon, lime, lilac,

Oranges, sofa, scarlet, spinach,

Talisman, tangerine, tariff, traffic, tulips,

Mattress (yes mattress) and the massage you enjoy on it:

We are sorry for all of these.

Sorry that we replaced alcohol with coffee for Enlightenment philosophers.

Speaking of hot drinks,

We are sorry for the cappuccino the Turks brought over.

Sorry for the black Arabian race horses,

For the clock,

Math,

Parachutes.

 

Abdul in the US is sorry for what so and so did;

He does not know him but he is sorry anyway.

Sorry that we accompanied Columbus on his journey to the States.

And sorry for the Arab man with him

Who was the first to touch the shore and shout ‘Honolulu’

And named the place after him.

Sorry for the architecture in Spain and the Al Hambra palace there.

We apologize for churches in Seville

With their stars of David at the top that we built with our hands.

We say sorry for every number you use in your daily life from the 0 to the trillion.

Even Adnan the Yezidi (mistaken for a Muslim)

Is sorry for the actions of Abu whatever who beheads people in Syria.

 

Sorry for the mercury chloride that heals wounds,

Please give us some –

Because the guilt of initiating all of the above

Gives us a wound as big as this earth.

Sorry for the guitar that was played by Moriscos in Spain

To ease their pain when they were kicked out of their homes.

Sorry for the hookah as you sip on its lips And gaze into the moon hearing the Arabian Nay.

Sorry for cryptanalysis and the ability to analyze  information systems,

To think what is at the heart of the heart of the heart and bring it to the world.

Sorry for painting Grenada white to evade social hierarchy. Sorry for the stories in The Arabian Nights.

 

Every time we see a star, we remember to be sorry for

Astronomy.

 

We are sorry that Mo Farah claimed asylum here

And went on to become the British champion of the world.

Sorry for non-representational art,

Pattern and surface decoration.

We are sorry for all the food we brought over:

From tuna to chicken tikka masala,

Hummus,

Falafel,

Apricot,

Doner kebab

Right up to the shawarma roll.

And don’t forget the couscous.

If we forgot to apologize for something, never mind,

We are sorry for it without even knowing it.

Most of all we are sorry for Rumi’s love poems,

And we desperately echo one of them to you:

 

Oh Beloved, Take me.

Liberate my soul.

Fill me with your love and Release me from the two worlds.

If I set my heart on anything but you

Let fire burn me from inside.

Oh Beloved,

Take away what I want.

Take away what I do.

Take away what I need.

Take away everything

That takes me from you.

Please forgive us.

We are sorry and cannot be sorry enough today.

Moore Hall Application For Variances: Fatally Flawed

Next Monday night, November 23, the Zoning Board of Appeals is slated to address the application by Sonny Bonacio to convert Moore Hall into 53 “micro” apartments.  As many of you know, the City Council is scheduled to meet with the developer and the community in the neighborhood of Moore Hall on Saturday, December 5.  While it is hard to believe that the ZBA would proceed before the Council could make its own assessment of the situation, given the makeup of our land use boards it would not be altogether that surprising.  I have not been to a ZBA meeting but the experience at the city’s Planning Board does not breed confidence.  Scott Johnson’s long tenure as Mayor gave him the opportunity to appoint most of the members of these boards and he was none too subtle about placing the most reliable representatives of the real estate/construction/finance industry on them.

Still, the extraordinary mobilization opposing the project and its high profile due to the many signs on the East Side, the coverage in the local media, and the decision of the City Council to involve itself should pressure the ZBA to act more cautiously.

Of course, the real issue is the utter poverty of the proposal itself.  One of the central criteria the ZBA must use in deciding whether to grant the applicant its variances is whether the project would have a negative impact on the neighborhoods that it abuts.

The two variances Bonacio is seeking  are over parking and density.  City code requires that the developer allocate 1.5 parking spaces per unit and the dimensions of the parcel limit the number of units to 18. The developer seeks to reduce the required parking spaces to 1 space per unit and to increase the number of total units to 53.

In a meeting several of us had with Sonny Bonacio he made it clear that he will not budge on his proposal.  Sonny was charming but firm.  He argued that the inherent structure of the building makes any other design impractical and that the cost to do the conversion precludes reducing the number of units.

The central problem for the ZBA is that as a “non-conforming” property, most of the code requirements that insure a safe, attractive, and efficient project cannot be assumed.  The simple question then is, “how can one assess the impact of this project on the adjacent neighborhoods if many of the key elements of this project are unknown?”

Let’s consider some of these:

Parking

The variance being sought assumes that the parking lot currently contains 53 parking spaces.  This number does not stand up under the most cavalier review.  The fiction of this number is based on the fact that as a non-conforming parcel, the existing physical characteristics are grandfathered.  Therefore, the fact that this parking lot violates the city’s building codes does not necessarily mean that it must be modified.  [The following itemized problems with the lot have been documented in previous posts so you may want to skip these]

  1. None of the parking spaces meet the current code requirements for size dimensions. The purpose of this code is to minimize damage to cars that must navigate these parking spaces and to insure that in the event that someone must escape from a car in an emergency, egress from the vehicle will be easy.
  2. The driving lane between the rows of cars is required under city code to be 24’ wide. This is to insure that emergency vehicles can easily and quickly access the full lot and be able to operate the equipment in their vehicles quickly and easily. None of the lanes meets this code and one is less than 16’ in width.
  3. None of the parking spaces are currently designed for a handicapped car. The lot will require at least one such space and very possibly two.
  4. The lot is exposed to the elements so snow removal will be required. The design of the lot will have to address this and may require during the winter that certain areas be reserved to address this need.

This raises some fundamental issues about the quality and nature of this proposal.  One must surely ask, would it be appropriate to go forward with a project assuming such a lot?  I would go further and ask, would it even be ethical?

It is very possible that the issue of safety and liability may override the freedom of “non-conforming” characteristics.   Were this to happen, and it is reasonable to assume that it will, then the currently requested variance would be inadequate since the number of on site parking spaces would have to be reduced.  It begs reason that the Zoning Board of Appeals would consider the variance on parking before the actual final need could be determined.  There is also the issue of the density variance as it relates to parking which will be addressed later in this post.

Impact on Neighborhood

The current city code requires a setback of a total of 45 feet on both sides of a parcel.  The minimum for any individual side is 20 feet.  So, for example, one end might have a 20 foot setback and the other would have a 25 foot setback.  Setbacks are a very important element in our city code because they very much impact how the infrastructure of a project will affect the surrounding neighborhoods.  This is particularly acute when it comes to parking lots.  If you casually walk our city you will see that there is almost always a green buffer between the parking lots and the sidewalks or roads.  This is because eliminating this buffer makes for a very ugly and overwhelming wall of cars and concrete.

In the case of the Moore Hall project, the proposal does not include any setbacks.  In fact this raises serious questions about the safety of the property that abuts North Lane.  The cars will extend directly to the edge of the alley.  There will be no buffer.  As for the White Street side, the cars will press cheek by jowl against the sidewalk there.

There is also the issue of trash.  Fifty-three apartments will generate a great deal of trash.  How will it be managed?  Where will the storage bins be located?  How large will they be?  How will they be maintained?  It is important to note that the footprint of the building itself exceeds the city code.  It covers much of the parcel so there will be very little space to put trash receptacles.  Given that the only vehicular access will be in the rear of the building on North  Lane, the receptacles will have to be somehow placed there.  Most people are familiar with how residents of multi unit facilities like the one proposed can be careless in dealing with trash containers.  Will trash prove to be both an eye sore and a nose sore?  Given the fact that no code requirements must be met, this is also an unresolved issue.

There is of course the issue of the inconvenience for neighbors that the use of their street as an overload parking facility for this facility will entail.  I noticed only last week that much of the parking on White Street had been taken up by the annual leaf clean up event.

The Central Issue: Too BIG!

Central to all these issues is the variance on density.  This is not some tweak from the existing limit of 18 units.  The applicant wants to build an additional 35 units which would be  approximately triple the limit established by zoning.   Most of the problems identified above are directly related to the applicant’s effort to, in effect, jam fifty-three units in a parcel that the city’s standards would limit to 18.

To make this project work, if we accept Mr. Bonacio’s word, he must badly overcharge for the space the units would provide.  The rents the applicant claims they will charge (there is nothing that would require the applicant to hold to these numbers) per cubic foot (they will have 7.5’ ceilings) will not only greatly exceed the existing rentals in the neighborhood but would exceed the rental fees for other space the applicant currently rents in the city.  In fact, the Saratogian recently ran a story about rentals he is building in Glens Falls that will offer much higher quality space for the same or less money.

No one would quibble with the creativeness that Sonny Bonacio has shown in coming up with this plan.  The problem is that to make it work it grossly overreaches the capacity of both the building and the neighborhood.

It would be shocking if the ZBA were to approve these variances and their approval would set a dangerous precedent for other proposals that may come before them. This episode should be a teachable moment for this community about how important the appointments to our land use boards are.  Many of us believe that the city charter should be amended to require that the Mayor’s appointments should require the approval of the City Council.  These appointments should be a matter of a very public process in which the community gets to weigh in on the appointments to insure that the personal interests of land use board members do not conflict with their public duties.

 

News Articles Appear On Moore Hall

Several Articles Have Appeared In Local Newspapers:

Here is a link to the Saratogian article: Link To Saratogian

This article Is From The Gazette

Saratoga Springs neighbors oppose plan for ‘Pink Palace’

The former Moore Hall in Saratoga Springs, also known as the "Pink Palace," is pictured.

Photographer: Erica Miller
The former Moore Hall in Saratoga Springs, also known as the “Pink Palace,” is pictured.

    — Neighbors are petitioning against a plan to convert the former Moore Hall dormitory into workforce housing as the proposal heads to the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals for a possible decision next week.

Bonacio Construction of Saratoga Springs is seeking zoning approval to renovate the building and convert the empty and deteriorating former Skidmore College property, commonly known as the “Pink Palace” for its colored stone exterior, into 53 apartments.

Bonacio will appear before the ZBA Monday night to continue a previous public hearing on requested minimum parking and minimum lot size variances. The board could make a decision that night, but isn’t required to do so.

Residents in the Union Avenue and White Street neighborhood are expected to turn out in force. Some 258 people had signed an online petition as of Wednesday afternoon and lawn signs saying “No Moore, No Way,” have popped up around the area.

“The community is eager to see this property revitalized, but the current proposal varies so extremely from the zoning regulations that it will introduce pedestrian and vehicle safety issues as well as strain the already limited street parking,” opponents said in a statement this week.

Moore Hall, which sits near the corner of Union Avenue and Circular Street, was built by Skidmore in 1957, when the college campus was located there.

The college used the building as a 135-room dorm until 2006, when it was sold to a developer who proposed tearing the building down and replacing it with three new condominium buildings. Those plans, however, never went forward, and Moore Hall has remained vacant until Bonacio Construction bought an option on it this year.

Bonacio Construction contends that the existing 54 parking spaces will be adequate for 53 apartments, though city zoning requires two parking spots per apartment. The developer also says there’s a need for affordable apartments near downtown.

Bonacio Construction President Sonny Bonacio did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Opponents in the neighborhood have also gone to the City Council, which is taking an interest despite the application pending before an appointed land use board.

“I don’t think it is appropriate for the City Council to interfere, but I’ve been contacted by a relatively large number of individuals who are concerned about the Moore Hall situation,” said Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen during Tuesday’s council meeting.

In the past month, the city Planning Board has given a favorable advisory opinion to the ZBA. Mayor Joanne Yepsen noted that even if the ZBA approves them, the plans would need a site plan review from the Planning Board and approval from the city’s Design Review Commission before any renovations could begin.

The zoning board meeting will begin at 7 p.m. Monday at City Hall.