Sonny Bonacio built William Moore’s home at 75 South Franklin last year. Mr. Moore is the chair of the Zoning Board of Appeals. Bonacio is currently building a home for Tom Lewis. Mr. Lewis chairs the Saratoga County Planning Board and is a member of the Saratoga Springs Planning Board.
During the Zoning Board of Appeals deliberations over Moore Hall, Mr. Moore never disclosed this relationship even though Mr. Bonacio had just completed his home in February, 2015.
Now I have no idea how generous Mr. Bonacio has been when he built these homes. Anyone who has built a home knows that there are always unanticipated issues and that the costs for construction easily rise. It may very well be that Mr. Bonacio has shown no favoritism to these men. The problem is that no one but the parties involved can know the truth.
What I do know is that it is unfair of either Mr. Moore or Mr. Lewis to ask the public to simply trust them regarding the relationship. I would argue that the appropriate way to deal with this situation and to avoid even the appearance of impropriety would be for them to recuse themselves when Mr. Bonacio comes before them. It is interesting that it doesn’t seem to have occurred to either of these men that the pubic might question their ability to be objective in assessing projects by the builder who they have hired to construct their homes.
In fact, the city’s Ethics Board only addresses direct, financial conflicts of interest. So for example, Tom Lewis did recuse himself when his property came before the Planning Board. On the other hand, the current ethical standards for our city fully allows Mr. Lewis to participate in decisions regarding Sonny Bonacio even while Mr. Bonacio is in the process of building his home.
I called Tom Lewis. Mr. Lewis is the chief of staff for Senator Kathy Marcione (for many years he chaired the Saratoga Springs Republican Party) and reached him at her office. I went over the confusion I had about the ownership of the home/lot at 60 Franklin Street. This is where a custom home is being built for him. I explained that according to the records of the City Planning Department, Sonny Bonacio is the owner of the lot. According to the assessor’s office, Joseph Boff is the owner. According to the Times Union Mr. Lewis is the owner having purchased the lot from Boff for $343,750.00.
Mr. Lewis said he would answer my questions but first wanted to know why I was inquiring. I told him that given how often Mr. Bonacio comes before the Planning Board, the fact that Mr. Bonacio was building a house for him raised issues about the nature of his relationship with Mr. Bonacio. He said that he consistently disclosed his relationship to Sonny Bonacio and asserted that he was “an ethical person.” I noted that I attended the meeting at which the Planning Board issued its favorable opinion regarding Moore Hall. I reminded him that during that meeting he never disclosed the fact that Mr. Bonacio was building his house and voted in favor of Mr. Bonacio. He said he could not remember the details of the meeting.
He also said that someone named Tichansky (I never got the spelling) was building the house. I pointed out to him that there was a Bonacio Construction sign prominently in front of the construction site. He then offered that the builder had some sort of agreement with Bonacio.
William Moore, Zoning Board of Appeals Chair, purchased the lot for his home at 75 South Franklin sometime in July of 2014 for $70,000.00. Sonny Bonacio began construction of the house in September of 2014 and the Moores moved in in February, 2015.
In looking at the land records for the house, I discovered that a zoning violation complaint had been made against Mr. Moore regarding the use of the second floor of the garage as an office for his business. He is a real estate appraiser. The language of the variance states that “the board further imposes conditions below on the habitable space requested by the applicant to ensure no overnight stays, or kitchen, or bath facilities.” The complainant documented that plumbing for water and sewage had been incorporated into the garage. It would appear that a bathroom is different from a “bath.” My sense is that the language had to do with preventing the space from being used as a living quarters so the existence of a bathroom that would require plumbing in and of itself does not seem to be a violation.
The building inspector then cited Mr. Moore for violating the regulations for offices. According to Mr. Moore, he met all the normal requirements for the home office in terms of such things as square footage, etc. but because an employee worked in the office and it was a detached structure he was in violation. He described the violation as technical and has submitted to the Zoning Board of Appeals an application to amend his current variance regarding this.
I ran into Mr. Moore outside his home when I went to photograph it. He asked me why I was photographing his home. I explained to him that I was photographing it because Sonny Bonacio had built it and because Sonny Bonacio regularly appears before him as the Zoning Board of Appeals chair. I must say that he was very gracious to me and did not appear at all defensive. He also did not appear initially to understand why I thought there was a problem. After explaining the issue to him he responded by saying he “got” what I was saying. I noted that I felt that there was a need for the city to establish alternate board members to serve on these boards in these situations and he told me that he not only agreed about the need for alternates but that he had advocated for this in the past. I do not believe that Mr. Moore actually agreed that he should have recused himself.
There is a certain irony that Sandra Lewis, Tom Lewis’ wife, went before the ZBA seeking a variance for their home which was to be built by Sonny Bonacio. Mr. Moore, along with the ZBA Board, voted to approve the variance. Granted, it had been four months since Bonacio finished Mr. Moore’s home. For me, this makes little difference. Even after a developer has built your house, the issue remains. How easy it is to dismiss the issue of impartiality… that is until you are the one opposing that developer and the person he built the house for is enthusiastically promoting the project from their seat on the board. Mr. Moore was one of the most vocal supporters of Mr. Bonacio’s Moore Hall Project. He also attempted to limit the lawyer representing the residents to two minutes.
The world of real estate and the Saratoga Springs land use boards is a small club. Reform of our land use boards is long overdue.