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 [joanne.yepsen@saratoga-springs.org]

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.

Joanne

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 [john.kaufmann21@gmail.com]

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

To:          joanne.yepsen@saratoga-springs.org

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