The Unified Development Ordinance: Looks Like More Mischief From The Chamber of Commerce

The City of Saratoga Springs has begun an ambitious process to create a Unified Development Ordinance.  In effect our zoning ordinances are being completely rewritten as well as most of the processes involved in land use decisions.  Here is a link to the UDO site.  I am very troubled by the way this is being done.  I will be writing more on this but to provide some sense of the potential problems, below is the text from one of the “comments” posted on the website for this project.  Interestingly the comments that are posted are anonymous.

I emailed the “contact us” option on the UDO site asking why all the comments were anonymous.  Amusingly, I received an anonymous response.   Regrettably I did not find the answer satisfactory.  I have asked for permission to post it here on this site.

It is quite apparent that the following “comment” posted on the site is from the Chamber of Commerce and I assume it was written by Todd Shimkus.  I think a review of these comments exposes the mischief that this UDO poses to the city’s Comprehensive Plan.  The following comment also suggests that the mayor may have played a role in weakening the language of the Comprehensive Plan.  I have written the Mayor asking whether the comment accurately reflects her role.

The emphasis is mine.

Nov. 4

Thank you for meeting with several members of our Executive Board to help explain the UDO process to us. We appreciated your guidance as to how the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce can best play a productive role in this process. The volunteer members from our Executive Board who were in attendance at this meeting were: Valerie Muratori, Matt Jones, Brian Straughter, David Collins and Theresa Agresta.


In general, the Comprehensive Plan is 80 pages long with a two-page vision statement, four guiding principles, a dozen or more goals and well over 200 recommended actions. In a letter to Mark Torpey, the Chair of the Saratoga Springs Planning Board, on July 22, 2015, I wrote that this is the type of “plan” where everyone can find a line or word somewhere in the vision statement, or a guiding principle, or a goal and/or a recommended action to suggest that the City can or cannot do something and we’d all be correct.


With this in mind, the following is a list of issues, opportunities and challenges we’d like to share with you for your consideration as you move forward with the UDO process:


  1. The opening line of the Future Land Use section states: “If the City is to be successful, it must have increased flexibility to accommodate the rapidly changing needs of business, commerce and our residents.” We trust that this statement provides you with the clearest direction possible to avoid changes to the zoning code that would increase regulatory oversight and impede the flexibility in making land use decisions that are now afforded to our land use boards. The comprehensive plan says “must have increased flexibility.”


  1. Through the Mayor’s office, there was one effort made to find common ground that resulted in the use of some specific words in various recommended actions that we believe specifically indicates a clear preference to create flexibility including


  1. “Update” the open space plan not implement.
  2. “Review and update” the City’s Historic Preservation plan not implement.
  3. Adopt “reasonable” guidelines that “encourage” restoration not require.
  4. “Review” guidelines for stream buffers not establish.
  5. “Encourage” the development of residential and commercial buildings that exceed minimum state level energy efficiency not require or establish or implement.
  6. Ensure an adequate size and width for public right of ways “wherever feasible.”
  7. “Consider” establishing a Generic Environmental Impact Statement to address citywide traffic impacts not establish or implement.
  8. “Evaluate” form-based zoning not establish or implement.
  9. “Consider” establishing dedicated funds for affordable housing not create.


There are a number of interesting things about these comments.

  1. It was clearly an attempt to weaken the Comprehensive Plan.
  2. If these comments are to be believed, the Chamber received the support from Mayor Yepsen to incorporate this language.  I have confirmed that this language was in the adopted plan.  I have sent this text to the Mayor asking that she comment on what happened.  When I receive her response I will post it.
  3. Even though the Chamber got these changes in, they still opposed the final document.  As the readers may recall, Todd Shimkus along with the other Scott Johnson appointments blocked the adoption of a final plan by the Comp Plan Committee.
  4. There is a certain lawyerly absurdity to these changes.  They are reminiscent of the City’s resolution “opposing” casino gambling.  That resolution opposed the New York State amendment to the constitution that authorized table gaming.  The language did not actually oppose table gaming expansion for Saratoga Springs.  In this case they think they are somehow weakening the Comprehensive Plan through making the wording vaguer.  How about the language:“’Update’ the open space plan not ‘implement it’.”    This language change does not prohibit the implementation of an updated plan so why bother with this word game? Don’t these people have anything better to do with their time?  In fact, this is an example of how strong a presence they are in city hall continually searching for any crack in the city’s defenses.

Later in the same text, they warn of the threat posed by the Conservation District (Greenbelt) to the economic health of the city:

  • We would suggest and advise you and the City to carefully consider the language of the Conservation Development District, the Country Overlay, and the section entitled “Legitimate Public Interest in Protecting the Greenbelt.” Given recent court rulings relative to the COD and the fact that some of these sections were written by one person on the committee without the assistance of legal counsel, we remain concerned that the limits imposed by these sections and other recommend actions relative to this land area may individually and/or collectively be far too limiting (my emphasis). The language in this section is also not at all consistent with the language in the opening of the Future Land Use section which says the City “must have increased flexibility.”



The Chamber also has ambitious plans for South Broadway.  They want to get rid of the idea that the entrance to the city should be rural in character.  In particular they want to weaken the requirements and leave it to the land use boards to work with developers. It is no surprise that they would like the Planning Board to work all this out.  As repeatedly documented on this blog, the Planning Board is completely controlled by the friends of the developers.  Heaven help this city if the future of Route 9 South of the city is put in the hands of the Planning Board. Here is the Chamber on the city’s Southern gateway:


  •  We remain very concerned that some of the language included in the comprehensive plan if interpreted the wrong way could make it even more difficult to revitalize South Broadway. 
  •  Specialty Mixed Use Park – (SP) This area was created to allow for the revitalization of this specific area along South Broadway which is already substantially commercial and where improvements are being made to the Saratoga Honda dealership and the replacement of the Weathervane Restaurant with a Homewood Suites. The insertion within this definition of the words “rural character” by the City Council is inconsistent with the current land use within that gateway area on that specific side of the road. We trust that a flexible view of how the rural character can be protected by the continued preservation of the State Park lands across the street from this commercial district is warranted and practical.



  • Specialty Mixed Use Gateway- (SG) This area needs the flexibility suggested in the opening lines of the Future Land Use section. This gateway into our community is currently an eyesore with abandoned properties that don’t help us to create a welcoming and vibrant first-impression to those coming into our City. We ask that you talk with developers specifically about the best way to change the zoning in this area to alter the current rules and regulations that have consistently prohibited projects from being proposed and financed. While the plan may suggest exactly where buildings should be placed, their heights, and the location of landscaping in this area, we prefer that our land use boards be given the flexibility to focus on performance standards that will encourage developers to consider and secure financing for projects that use architectural best practices and materials that will guarantee quality projects.




The important issue here is that the usual suspects view the adoption of the Unified Development Ordinance as an opportunity to weaken the Comprehensive Plan.  The way that the ordinance is being crafted regrettably provides a real opportunity for their efforts.  In the coming days I will be going over this in more detail.

Local Bernie Sander’s Committee Starts Campaign To Get On Ballot In NY

Getting on the ballot as a presidential candidate is an arduous process designed by the two major parties  to try keep outsiders at bay.

On December 29 local Bernie Sanders supporters are kicking off a  petition drive to get Sanders on the ballot for the NY State Democratic primary and soliciting support.  They will be convening at the Saratoga Springs Library from 7:00 to 8:45.  If you would like to help, here is a link to their web site.  They are requesting that people RSVP.  There will be petitions to sign or you can volunteer.


Link to local Sanders campaign site

Mayor Yepsen Replies To Saratoga National Inquiry

I received a nice reply from Mayor Yepsen (see below). I expect to have a response soon.

From:    Joanne Yepsen []

Sent:      Monday, December 21, 2015 1:31 PM

To:          John Kaufmann

Subject:                Re: Saratoga National Golf Course Compliance

Thanks for the reminder. I will ask my staff for an update and we will be in touch.

Happy Holidays.


PS: I am out of the office this week spending time with family.



Silence From Mayor Yepsen’s Office Re Saratoga National Golf Course

In early September I wrote to Mayor Yepsen regarding Saratoga National Golf Course’s apparent violation of the terms of their site plan agreement.  They were required to have no more than three “special” events each year that exceeded their parking lot capacity.  They were also required to maintain two “nature” trails for the public to use.

On October 4th, not having had a response, I wrote again asking that her office respond.

I subsequently received a letter from Joseph Ogden, her deputy dated October 14th.  In his letter he offered an interpretation of “special” events that, to my mind, basically made the limit unenforceable.  He did, however, offer that the Mayor’s office would look into rewriting the language to clear up any confusion.  He also promised that the Mayor’s office would contact Saratoga National Golf Course to determine how they were enforcing the limit.  In addition he promised that the Planning Department would meet with P.L.A.N. which was charged with enforcing the trail easements to determine if there was a problem.

I waited some time to allow the Mayor’s office to address these issues.  On November 15th, having heard nothing I sent the following email:

From:    John Kaufmann []

Sent:     Sunday, November 15, 2015 5:34 PM


Subject:                 Saratoga National Golf Course

Some time ago, I received a letter from your deputy regarding the potential violations of the agreement with Saratoga National Golf Course.  The letter indicated that your office would be seeking from SNGC how they were implementing the requirement that limited them to only three “special events” per year.  The letter also indicated that your office would be meeting with Saratoga PLAN to determine whether the West Trail complied with the agreement.  Have you had a response from SNGC and PLAN regarding these matters and if so, what did your office determine?

Unfortunately, this email produced no response.

Today, more than a month later, I sent a follow-up:

From: John Kaufmann

Sent: Sunday, December 20, 2015 5:08 PM

To: Joanne Yepsen

Subject: Saratoga National Golf Course

As your office will recall, on October 14th you sent me a letter in which you indicated that you would be reviewing Saratoga National Golf Course’s compliance with its site plan agreement with the city.  Mr. Ogden’s letter promised that your office would be contacting Saratoga National Golf Course to determine how they were complying with the limit on “special” events.  It also promised that the planning staff would be meeting with Saratoga PLAN to determine whether the western “nature” trail had been properly implemented and maintained at SNGC.

 On November 15th I followed up with an email to you asking for the results of your office’s investigation into this matter.  To date I have heard nothing.  I would very much appreciate it if you would respond with the results of your contacts with the golf course and with PLAN.

Thank you

Hopefully, Mayor Yepsen will respond and I will share whatever I receive.

Macbeth At The Spectrum Movie Theater

I have seen Macbeth done many times and I have to admit that I have never connected with the play.  Today I saw a film of the play directed by Justin Kerzel.(“The King’s Speech) with Michael Fassbender (“Steve Jobs”) as the lead.

In the past I have often had difficulties with movie production of Shakespeare.  Often, without the immediacy of the live stage, they are flat.  Sometimes the director overwhelms the words with over production.

This film takes some significant liberties with the play but I found it a stunner.  Its use of the cold and dominating highlands of Scotland and its portrayal of a very physical cast never took away from the language.  The film involves some very graphic violence but it is never gratuitous.

It runs through next Thursday and if you can find time to make the drive to Albany it is well worth it.  Even if you think you do not like Shakespeare this is worth giving it a try.

Link To the Spectrum and the trailer

Interesting Comment On Saratoga Hospital Expansion

I received a thoughtful post on the proposed Saratoga Hospital expansion from Elizabeth “Libby” Smith-Holmes that I am reposting to the people who follow this blog:

As a 20+ year resident of Birch Run, I have great concerns about Saratoga Hospital’s proposed expansion on the adjacent property. The building and its parking lot are all out of scale with the surrounding residential area. The proposed site is prime residential land with beautiful views to the northwest over the gold course and toward the hills in Greenfield – perfect for two or three large, handsome houses, but not for a large office building with a huge parking lot. The proposed project takes the land off the tax roles. Due to its intrusion into the quiet residential neighborhood, would it not be better to explore development along Church Street? Several house have already been turned into doctors’ offices; this would not only be closer to the hospital, but more appropriate for development. Large buildings with some parking garage space would be feasible.There is also room in the Care Lane development, just down the road. And 1 West Avenue has rental space available, according to the signs. I am a supporter and contributor to the hospital – it is a fine institution that is always improving. Bit please, planners and hospital officials – rethink your options before making a very large mistake!

Two Good Stories From Saratoga Today

Saratoga Today is a fun little newspaper.  There are two stories in recent editions that are particularly worth checking out.

The first is excellent coverage in this week’s paper of the proposed expansion by Saratoga Hospital.  To Mayor Yepsen’s credit she has asked the hospital to formally respond to issues raised by the neighbors.  The expansion requires a Planned Unit Development which must be approved by the City Council.  Saratoga Today  has not posted this story on their web site yet so pick up a copy of the paper.  The title of the story is “Saratoga Hospital Hopes to Own, Not Rent,” on page 8.

The other is a story of our own little Great Gatsby, “Mega-Mansion up for Auction,” which appeared in last week’s edition.  A grotesquely excessive home built by the head of a financial company who pleaded guilty to fraud in 2003 is up for sale.  Does it get any better?  Does it get any worse?  Link To Story

More On Hospital Expansion Into Neighborhood

My heart goes out to the people whose homes could be overshadowed by the proposed extension of Saratoga Hospital along with its three hundred car parking lot.  As one of the people in the article explains, he bought his house with the understanding that it was in a residential neighborhood. Similar to the Moore Hall experience, imagine how you would feel if you had a similar experience to these homeowners.

Jenny Grey, I think,  has written some of the best articles about city issues like this expansion of any reporter with the Saratogian.  She also has been allotted a great deal of space for her stories.  It is interesting that she had two very long, front page stories in Thursday’s edition on land use issues.

Here is her story  on the Hospital proposal and citizen reaction:

Residents’ concerns prompt downsize of Saratoga Hospital expansion

By Jennie Grey, The Saratogian

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

SARATOGA SPRINGS >> What do you get when you combine a cozy West Side neighborhood, a palatial estate, a growing hospital and a phantom moose? You get Saratoga Hospital’s request for a planned unit development (PUD) expansion, and you get a lot of concerned neighbors.

To consolidate physicians and patients in one space in close proximity to the hospital, and to provide better efficiency and patient care, Saratoga Hospital, located at 211 Church St. has proposed to construct a new medical office building on Morgan Street, solely for its physician employees and their staffs. The planned building would be constructed roughly 200 yards north of the hospital’s main location.

The original plan called for an 85,000-square-foot structure; now it will be 75,000 square feet at 210 by 110 feet. The height of the building has been lowered. Stormwater retention ponds will be built where probes have shown no bedrock, thus no need for blasting in those locations.

For the hospital to construct the building on Morgan Street, the city council would need to vote to amend the now-residential zoning and make the 8.5 acres part of the existing Saratoga Hospital PUD in that area. The city planning board has already returned a favorable advisory opinion on the PUD to the city council.

Elisa Sheehan of 48 Myrtle St. spoke to the council during the Dec. 15 public hearing at the council’s meeting. She said she sympathized with the hospital’s growth, but worried that the expansion would encroach upon her neighborhood. She wished the hospital would find another site to on which to build.

“I feel pushed out with all this new growth,” she said. “We’re slowly being encircled, and I’m afraid we’ll end up inside the hospital complex.”

Since it filed its application in August, the hospital has been working cooperatively with area neighbors to address concerns over that issue, as well as building height, lighting, stormwater management and traffic. The historic Markey Estate borders the project, and some neighbors claim a moose wanders through the field on which the hospital plans to build.

Revisions made to the original plan have addressed the concerns of many who contacted the hospital regarding the proposal.

The hospital’s project team addressed the city council and the public during the council meeting, with attorney Matthew J. Jones, founder of the Jones Firm, as lead speaker.

Jones presented a series of figures on the hospital: Saratoga Hospital is the only hospital in Saratoga County and has been operating at 211 Church St. since 1911. The hospital employs more than 1,800 full-time equivalent employees, or about 2,200 individuals at nine locations throughout the Capital Region, and pays out approximately $123 million in annual salaries and income, and another $30 million in benefits.

While the hospital brings in about $254 million per year in net patient service revenue, it currently spends $750,000 on 10 leased locations in the area. The continued expansion of Saratoga Hospital has caused it to outgrow many of its current leased locations. As the hospital continues to attract and recruit an increasing number of physicians, the proposed medical office building will provide space for them to practice, and give patients convenient access to hospital facilities and services.

The planned medical office building would be approximately 75,000 square feet, spread evenly over three floors and will sit on 8.5 acres of land to be acquired by the hospital should the Saratoga Springs City Council vote to amend the current zoning.

Jack Despart lives directly across the street from the proposed building, at 8 Morgan St. He said he bought his home 15 years ago, and has since lived in it, upgraded it and invested in it. He was upset at the prospect of facing a 75,000-square-foot office building and a parking lot that can hold more than 300 cars.

“I would not have bought my house if I knew the residential zoning could so easily be changed,” he said.

John Benzel of 220 Crescent Ave., an architect who has worked with Despart, called this PUD spot-zoning. He didn’t see where the comprehensive plan authorized an institution moving into a residential neighborhood.

“The first PUD has already compromised this neighborhood,” Benzel said.

Specialties to be housed in the new building may include oncology, general surgery, bariatric surgery, urology, pulmonology, nephrology, cardiology and general family practice.

Dr. William Malone, a Saratoga Hospital endocrinologist, spoke of the importance of coordinating care and improving the quality of service. The proximity of doctors to the hospital was important, so they could get to their sickest patients quickly.

“This building will be a big sell for the hospital,” he said. “We need its proximity and its size. And we wouldn’t be supporting its construction unless we believed it was a necessity.”

Although the building will have the capacity to consolidate the hospital’s current leased space into one location, it will increase in occupancy over time as existing leases expire through the year 2020. Fit-up of the building will occur during the next five years, as the leases expire, creating the need for space for these hospital employees.

In 2014, the Comprehensive Plan Committee considered the hospital’s plans for a medical office building at this location, and members agreed to recommend a change in the comp plan designation for this area to “institutional.” The city council agreed with this recommendation in its adoption of the comprehensive plan in June.

The planning board received a negative New York State Environmental Quality Review Act declaration Oct. 14, determining affirmatively that the proposed plan and rezoning are not contrary to the general purposes and intent of the zoning ordinance, and are consistent with the recently revised comprehensive plan, Jones said.

Despite that negative declaration, which means no issues are expected, Ina Harney of 40 Seward St. told the council about problems she’d had during the construction of the nearby Birch Run apartments. The area’s bedrock, deep under the surface, caused problems with blasting during construction and with stormwater runoff afterward.

“I’ve lived in my home 40 years,” she said. “I had to rebuild my driveway to keep the water from my house.”

As for the dynamiting, she said the building of Birch Run involved three months of blasting one summer. Her foundation cracked.

And as for traffic, Harney remained stoic despite her pessimism.

“I will probably be killed getting out of my street,” she said calmly. “And I’m afraid any doctors walking in the roadway here might be killed, too.”

Her neighbor Edwin Klinkhammer of 13 Seward St. agreed that traffic was challenging, even dangerous, in the area. He is in the Navy and expects to eventually be transferred out of his Ballston Spa assignment. He and his wife had planned to rent the home they bought here in Saratoga Springs, but the traffic concerned them.

“The traffic is a problem for potential renters with little kids,” he said. “If the PUD goes through, my wife and I will probably sell this house and make an investment in some other city.”

Jones said, “We believe the most recent public hearing was constructive, and we appreciate the legitimate questions and concerns raised by the neighbors who spoke to the council. We continue to be encouraged by the dialog we are having with the majority of neighbors, and we have every confidence the city council will give our proposal a full and fair hearing.”


An Opportunity To Serve Our City

Mayor Joanne Yepsen will be making appointments to the city’s Land Use Boards as terms expire at the end of this year.  As this blog has documented, our city desperately needs people to serve on these boards who are independent of the real estate industry.  I urge people to consider helping the city by offering to serve on these Boards.  Interested city residents should email  resumes to

It also would not hurt to urge the Mayor to  appoint new members who are free of ties to the traditional special interests that now dominate these boards.


Full Report On The Moore Hall ZBA Meeting

[For some reason the video of the last ZBA meeting has not been posted so I cannot provide a leak]

This is a follow-up to my posting on the Monday night ZBA meeting.  It was brief so this is a more complete report.

Michael Toohey began by saying that he was not withdrawing the current application to modify Moore Hall but that he did want to discuss this application.  He asked that the members of the public who had come to the meeting refrain from addressing this application.  Instead, he told the Board, he wanted to introduce an alternative proposal.

Sonny Bonacio then explained that they had listened to the public and that they had decided to completely rethink the parcel.  He then said repeatedly that the public had asserted that they were happy with the original proposal put forward in 2006. This was important because what he was proposing to replace Moore Hall with now was a set of buildings that appeared to have the same footprint as the 2006 plan.  It also appeared to have the same mass. Bonacio emphasized that they would be asking for the same setback variances the Board had approved for the 2006 plan.

It was interesting that during the presentation Mr. Bonacio addressed the audience as much as he did the Zoning Board.

Michael  Ingersoll of the LA Group did the presentation of the actual plans.  First he showed renderings of what the original 2006 building looked like.  He then explained that the graphic of the layout of the buildings they were proposing now were very roughly thrown together.  He displayed the 2006 plan with the new plan to show how similar their footprints were.  Mr. Bonacio added that Ingersoll had drafted the rough plan the Saturday morning that the City Council had been meeting with the community.  Mr. Bonacio said that his group had reviewed all the public comments as part of their reassessment.

Mr. Bonacio ran through a Powerpoint presentation regarding the economics of what they were doing.  First he showed some statistics about the sale of condos of one million dollars.  The gist of this was that while a number had sold, they had been on the market a long time before they sold.  He argued that the economics of the original 2006 proposal were not workable and that the environment for the sale of such high end properties was even worse now.  This brought him to the need to downsize the condos for this project so they could be sold for under $700,000.00.  This also meant that rather than eighteen units  proposed in 2006 and that the property is zoned for  the new project would be comprised of twenty-eight units.

The response to the Zoning Board was, of course, very positive.  Two members of the Board made it quite clear that they would not have approved the Moore Hall conversion to 53 units.  The chair, William Moore, commented that he liked the original conversion. 

The public was then invited to speak.  The response was, in general extremely positive.  A number of speakers thanked Mr. Bonacio for his new direction.

I asked if the Zoning Board could see that the materials we saw be posted on the city’s web site.  Mr. Moore dismissed this request with something about the newness of the City’s web site.  I am troubled by not being able to scrutinize the powerpoint analysis of sales of condos or the layouts of the proposed buildings.  Granted these are rough drawings.  Michael Toohey told the board that they would be back in January for further discussions.

Talking to people after the meeting the general feeling was great relief  that the plan to convert Moore Hall  into 53 units appeared to be over.  There was a universal sense that while people were very encouraged, there remains some skepticism and concern.