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.
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:
- 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.”
- 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
- “Update” the open space plan not implement.
- “Review and update” the City’s Historic Preservation plan not implement.
- Adopt “reasonable” guidelines that “encourage” restoration not require.
- “Review” guidelines for stream buffers not establish.
- “Encourage” the development of residential and commercial buildings that exceed minimum state level energy efficiency not require or establish or implement.
- Ensure an adequate size and width for public right of ways “wherever feasible.”
- “Consider” establishing a Generic Environmental Impact Statement to address citywide traffic impacts not establish or implement.
- “Evaluate” form-based zoning not establish or implement.
- “Consider” establishing dedicated funds for affordable housing not create.
There are a number of interesting things about these comments.
- It was clearly an attempt to weaken the Comprehensive Plan.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.