A Flawed Project Puts City Land Use Ordinances Up For Grabs

Why is the UDO important?

Saratoga Springs has received a grant from the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority to develop a Unified Development Ordinance.  According to the grant, the city will rewrite all the city’s ordinances, resource management goals, and design standards into one massive document with an emphasis on sustainability.  The current major conflicts in our city surrounding such issues as Moore Hall, the Saratoga Hospital expansion, the development of the High Rock parcel, the expansion of Saratoga National Golf Course, and the rewriting of the city’s solar ordinances could be impacted.  For example, can a club house include 100 hotel rooms?  Can density bonuses be circumvented by arcane maneuvers involving redefining the footprint of a building?  How will design decisions be made over buildings like the City Center Garage?  These are all questions with serious implications that could be decided on in the coming months by the UDO.

Make no mistake.  The real estate industry will be in overdrive to shape this document.

A Breakdown In Transparency and Structure

The city has contracted with Behan Planning and Design (BPD) to craft the UDO.  Their contract is for $128,955 and began on September 1. It is to run for one year.  This means that the final phase of this project will happen during the racing season.

The Disappearing “Advisory Committee”

According to their contract, BPD was supposed to set up an “Advisory Committee.”  This committee was to be comprised of “approximately six to eight representatives of the relevant city departments or boards.”  The committee was to meet “periodically” to “review draft project materials.”

This committee would not only have provided much needed oversight but it would have insured that the ongoing work of the consulting firm was fully transparent to the public.

Recently, I tried to find out who was on this committee and what records they were keeping.  As it turns out, this committee was never formed.  Michael Allen of BPD told me that in spite of the fact that the committee was required in the contract “it” was decided that such a committee would be too cumbersome and instead BPD wanted to report to the City Council directly.  Who decided “it” was unclear.

I pointed out to him that it was now over four months into the contract.  I asked if they had submitted any document formally asking for this change in oversight.  No, he told me.  He said he was trying to meet with the members of the Council to get their approval.  He conceded that he had only met with Commissioners Madigan and Mathiesen so far and that he had been unable to arrange meetings with the other Council members.  In hindsight, I think he probably met with the Mayor.  I find it difficult to believe that he was unable to meet with Commissioners Franck and Scirocco over the last four months.

Subsequent to my conversation with Mr. Allen, I attempted to contact Michele Madigan and Chris Mathiesen.  Ms. Madigan responded that she had checked with her deputy, Lynn Bachner, and neither of them had any recollection of discussing the issue of changing the method of overseeing the work on the UDO by eliminating the “Advisory Committee”.  Chris Mathiesen was away but I spoke to his deputy, Eileen Finneran, who attended the meeting with Mr. Allen.  She too had no recollection of discussing the removal of the “Advisory Committee” from the contract with BPD.

Michele Madigan was the sole dissenting vote authorizing the contract with BPD.  One of her prime concerns was the issue of oversight and transparency.  She advocated that the work of overseeing the UDO process be done by a committee of volunteers appointed by the members of the City Council. Judging by recent events, her concerns appear to have been prescient and justified. Given the many responsibilities of Council members it would seem unlikely that they could exercise sufficient oversight over such a huge and detailed task as developing a UDO. This is a task better left to an Advisory Committee as called for in the contract but so far not implemented.

Few Public Comments In Four Months And Those Comments Were Anonymous and No Quarterly Report

The contract with the city requires that BPD report their activities to the public through their website.

Here is a link to their website.  As of today (January 13, 2016) there are only five comments published and these comments are all anonymous.  They are dated from October 21 to November 16.

The agreement requires quarterly reports.  A quarterly report has not been posted.

UDO Web Site

A Failed Timeline On Meeting With The “Stakeholders”

The time line on the UDO website calls for BPD to meet with the “stakeholders” during October and November.  According to Mr. Allen, there has been only one meeting with stakeholders to date and that was with the Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber of Commerce Has Been the Only “Stakeholder” BDP has met with

There is no question that BPD would need to solicit input from the Chamber of Commerce but it is extremely troubling that in four months they are the only group he has had a conversation with.

The Chamber’s executive director was one of the most outspoken supporters of casino gambling.  He has been very aggressive in advocating opening up the greenbelt to commercial development. The Chamber director has every right to advocate for these positions but they do not represent the views of major segments of this community.

Mr. Allen explained that the reason he met with the Chamber was that they contacted him asking for a meeting.

What About The Other Stakeholders?

Mr. Allen said that he had been overwhelmed by requests by groups wanting to meet with him and that BPD lacked the resources to accommodate them all so they were rethinking how to meet with people.  Apparently he is meeting with the Mayor who is the designated Project Coordinator to figure this out.

I found it interesting that there was this overwhelming interest in a project that doesn’t seem to have been that well advertised. I asked Mr. Allen if he could provide me with a list of all these groups that were seeking to meet with him but he declined.  It is worth considering why he found time to meet with the Chamber but could not find time to meet with any of the other groups that allegedly requested meetings.

Where Is The First Key Document: The Diagnostic Review?

At the end of November Behan Associates was supposed to publish something called a “diagnostic Review.”   According to their contract this was meant to review “the latest Comprehensive Plan, zoning ordinances, and subdivision regulations.  This review will serve to identify what changes are required to bring the city codes into compliance with the new Comprehensive Plan, synchronize related city policies and standards, and identify other recommended changes which would improve the sustainability of the city.”   It is now January, four months after the start of the contract and nothing related to this has been published on their site.

Why The Lack Of Adherence To Proper Procedures Is A Threat

As stated earlier the UDO has the potential to have wide ranging effects on the future development of Saratoga Springs. Without a fully transparent process there is great potential for mischief. Special interests such as the Chamber of Commerce have the time and resources to monitor and affect policy that the average citizen does not have. Proper procedures that insure transparency and accountability help to level this playing field and shine light on the degree and kind of input being received by decision makers.

 

The fact that the Chamber was able to secure a meeting when no other group could is a perfect example of the potential for abuse.

 

What Needs To Happen

  1. BPD needs to establish the “Advisory Committee.”  The meetings with this “Advisory Committee” need to be open to the public and minutes of these meetings properly posted.
  2. BPD needs to establish a schedule to meet with other stakeholders in the community besides the Chamber. They need to publish when these meetings are to take place and with whom
  3. Comments sent to BPD should be published on their website and attributed to the persons submitting them.

These steps would help to make this important UDO process more transparent and accessible to the public and help to insure the outcome is fair and reflective of the values of the community.

An Invitation To Respond

I emailed a copy of this post to Behan Planning And Design and offered to post any response they would like to make.

 

 

 

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