How Close Is Too Close? Bonacio Builds Homes For Land Use Board Members

Tom Lewis House With Bonacio Sign


William Moore In Front Of HIs Now Famous Garage

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.

Tom Lewis

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

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.

Moore Violation
Notice Of Violation

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.


The Unfortunate History Of The Hospital’s Expansion

View Of FIeld Where Project Will Go
Hospital Addition
Rendering of Proposed Building

[Note that they did not show the very large parking lot for the project]

Google Expansion
Aerial View Of Site

At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting Saratoga Hospital did an update of its proposal to build doctors’ offices behind Birch Run.  Procedurally it was a continuation of the public hearing regarding their application to rezone the property from residential to institutional.

This is a link to the presentation here.  The presentation starts at 2:20.

Their attorney, Matt Jones, presented a revised plan that involved a very modest downsizing of the project.  The hospital had intended to build an initial structure and then add to it at a later date.  The original structure was to be 75,000 square feet.  The second phase was to bring the total to 88,500 square feet.  Mr. Jones told the Council that the hospital had dropped plans for the expansion.  There is a formula for how many parking spaces are required based on the square footage of this kind of project so the number of spaces was also very modestly reduced from approximately 300 cars to approximately 275 cars (this number included the potential bonus that the Planning Board can award).

The CEO of the hospital, Angelo Carbone, spoke to the Council about the critical need for office space for the doctors who will be associated with the hospital.  He argued that they had settled on this site primarily for its proximity to the hospital because a prime concern was being close enough so that the doctors could walk from their offices to the hospital.

He noted that they had been quite aware of the resistance that this new building would generate and following the release of their plans they had been in regular communication with the affected neighborhood and were trying to address the neighbors’ concerns.

This last point was of particular interest to me.   The new Comprehensive Plan includes changing the area in question from residential to institutional.  The thing that I had been wondering about is how was this change incorporated into the city’s Comprehensive Plan without major controversy? 

To put this in context imagine how you would feel if you had purchased a home in residential area with green space adjacent to it.  You knew that the green space was zoned for residential so you expected that the lovely fields behind your home would someday have homes on them.  Then one day you learned that the local hospital planned to build a major facility right by your home with a parking lot with two hundred and seventy-five spaces.  There would be bright security lighting.  There would be additional traffic.  Of course, there would also be an enormous facility where the fields you had enjoyed had been.

One of the clearest presentations of the neighbors’ concerns was by Jennifer Leidig.  You can find her comments here at 36:30.

How then to explain the fact that the incorporation of this change in the city’s Comprehensive Plan had somehow escaped you and the rest of the public’s attention? 

The Comprehensive Plan had a torturous life.  Scott Johnson had appointed half of its members.  Among them were Charles Waite (president of Adirondack Trust), Sonny Bonacio (developer), and Todd Shimkus (Chamber of Commerce). The division in the make up of the committee was most evident in  the divide over the issue of development in the city’s green belt.  Agreement on this issue was basically impossible.  It produced a rancorous process.  The city had originally hired a consultant to work with the committee who appeared to use her position whenever possible to promote the development community’s interests.  Those of you who have sat through these kinds of meetings are familiar with this kind of scenario.

On November 17, 2014, the committee held it’s second to last meeting.  This was the last meeting at which any business was actually transacted.   As it happens, this was the meeting in which Kevin Ronayne, VP for operations/facilities at Saratoga Hospital spoke to the committee during the public comment period regarding the hospital’s expansion plans.  Bear in mind that this committee had been meeting for many, many months. 

Strangely, there are no minutes for this meeting.  I have laboriously scanned through the video but I could find no discussion of whether the area should be designated institutional.  In fact, I could find no specific vote on this.

It is possible that at a previous meeting this issue was discussed.  One of the people who served on the committee thinks there was some kind of discussion at some point of revising a map that authorized the change.

What is indisputable is that if there was any discussion it did not explore the gravity of the proposed change nor was there any input from the residents of the neighborhood that would be affected by this new land use designation.  Whether or not you agree that the hospital should be allowed to build its facility there was something terribly wrong that this very controversial change could be slipped into the Comprehensive Plan without a public discussion of the issue.

I spoke to Matt Jones about what the hospital was planning in terms of visually buffering the project.  He indicated that the hospital was planning to build a large berm and placing trees on it.  I asked if this would totally hide the proposed building.  He said it would.

As an interesting historical note, the land in question was part of Gideon Putnam’s original farm.


New Officers For Chamber of Commerce

Matt Jones was elected chair of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce for 2016.  Mr. Jones has represented the Saratoga Springs City Center before the land use boards.  He and Michael Toohey seem to dominate the legal work for the land use boards.

The “chair elect” for 2016 will be David Collins.  This means he will assume the chairmanship in 2017.  Mr. Collins is with D.A. Collins which is one of the largest construction firms in the area.  His company played a leadership role in establishing Saratoga PAC.

The Chamber board has twenty-eight members.

Here is what appears to be their press release from the Sartogian

Jennie Grey Story on City Council Members Plans For 2016

Here is another article by Jenny Grey in today’s Saratogian in which the Council members outline their goals for the year.  I thought it was telling that John Franck did not return calls for the story.  One of the more interesting items in the story was Commissioner Mathiesen’s statement that he hopes to convince at least one of three other members of the Council to support Commissioner Scirocco and his effort to protect the greenbelt from commercial development such as proposed by Saratoga National Golf Course.

Jennie Grey Article



Committee Reviewing High Rock Proposals

Jenny Grey had an excellent article in Wednesday’s Saratogian on the committee reviewing the  High Rock RFP proposals.  It is interesting that while the number of articles in the Saratogian covering local issues has decreased, Ms. Grey from time to time is given considerable space to write long articles by current news standards.  Her pieces are also well written.  Ironically, I think that in some ways the coverage of local politics has actually improved since the blood letting at the Saratogian. 

Link to article

Her piece does not include who appointed the members, though, so here’s that additional information.   

Joseph Ogden – appointed by Joanne Yepsen.  Mr. Ogden is the Mayor’s deputy.

Bill Sprengnether – Appointed by John Franck.  Mr. Sprengnether is a landscape architect.  In looking at his web site his portfolio has a number of public outdoor related projects that have a distinctly “green” character. One of them is Hudson Crossing which is a park just North of Schuylerville.  He has posted on the Citizens For High Rock Face Book page so I assume he is active with the group.

Rod Sutton – appointed by Skip Scirocco.  Rod Sutton is a principal with the insurance agency Sutton and Tarantino.  The Sutton family has a long history in Saratoga Springs.  Mr. Sutton is a past chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and for years was a major player in the local Republican Party. 

Larry Novick – appointed by Michele Madigan.  Mr. Novick is director of business development for Sonny Bonacio.  He is the numbers/financial player in Bonaio’s operation.  There is a good interview with him at the Albany Business Review When the city was trying to work out the deal for the Collamer Building and the land for the EMT facility, Bonacio provided Novick to work out the numbers.

Fire Chief Bob Williams – Apponted by Chris Mathiesen.  Williams is the third generation in his family to serve the city as a fire fighter.  He has been with the department for over twenty-five years.