The issue of the Saratoga Hospital expansion was discussed at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting on Commissioner Michele Madigan’s agenda and on Commissioner Chris Mathiesen’s agenda.
When Commissioner Madigan’s turn came to give an update on the hospital expansion, Joanne Yepsen immediately recused herself and left.
John Franck chose to make a statement. He gave a history of his relationship to the players who were in conflict with the hospital. He has, for many years, provided accounting services to the Birch Run Homeowners Association and to the Special District set up for Birch Run. Similarly he has represented the Morgan Street Home owners association and the special district there. He estimated that over the years he has had income from the work for them of approximately $42,000.00.
He noted that he had recused himself 31 times over the course of his period in office.
He said that he began to think about the recusal issue months ago and that although he participated in the hearings, he did not take calls from the parties of the conflict. He said that he contacted the Mayor shortly before the meeting where he recused himself to advise her at which time she told him that she was considering recusing herself as well.
I am still unclear about why he waited as long as he did to recuse himself but having said that, I think that his decision was entirely understandable and appropriate. He then left the meeting.
Commissioner Madigan then expressed frustration that the Council was unable to consider the PUD. She told the Council that she believed that if it had been allowed to go forward that the Council could have come up with a compromise that would have satisfied both the hospital and the neighbors. She then asked that Vince DeLeonardis, the city’s attorney, to review with the Council the neighbors’ petition.
Mr. DeLeonardis described it as a “protest petition.” Basically, if property owners, whose parcels abut 20% of a property that is being considered for rezoning, oppose the change then it requires a super majority of the City Council to enact it. In this case he explained that five properties along Morgan Street and one property along Myrtle had filed the petition. They constituted 100% of the abutters. He further noted that the petition had a technical problem which had to do with the way the signatures had been “witnessed,” but that in the end the neighbors would prevail with their petition. He noted that a vote on the PUD would be pointless because a super majority would require four votes and that due to the recusals there were only three possible votes.
Commissioner Mathiesen expressed the hope that the hospital would withdraw its proposal. He said that he had been in conversation with the hospital and that he understood they were already looking elsewhere.
There was no vote scheduled currently.
Commissioner Scirocco agreed with Commissioner Madigan that he believed it was unfortunate that the proposal was dead because he too believed that a compromise was possible. He offered that it was a worthwhile project that enjoyed his support.
I would note here that the neighbors who were attending the meeting expressed extreme skepticism about the viability of a serious compromise given the scale of the project and the limited land.
Commissioner Mathiesen repeated his concerns. He particularly noted that it would double the traffic in the neighborhood. He noted that the Hospital could modify their PUD proposal and come back to the Council.
Commissioner Madigan then noted that PUDs are a powerful tool for development in that they give the Council wide discretion and authority over a project. In a troubling aside she noted, “this is one of the reasons people pitched the idea of the PUD for the greenbelt. The city would have all the control of what could be in a PUD in the greenbelt and what could not be.” I found this both odd and troubling. Commissioner Madigan had been part of a unanimous decision to preclude PUDs from the greenbelt.
The value of a PUD assumes that a more intensive use of a piece of property than is normally allowed by the existing zoning is appropriate. There was a clear logic as to why the council disapproved PUDs for the greenbelt: they did not want any intensive development to occur in the greenbelt. The key issue here is similar to that of the greenbelt debate. The neighbors are arguing that the more intense development being proposed by the hospital would be detrimental to the adjoining neighborhoods.
Commissioners Madigan and Scirocco believe that it is possible to come up with a PUD for a large medical offices building and parking that would be acceptable to the neighbors. Clearly, the neighbors do not, in light of where the land is, see any way to build such a large facility without undermining the quality of life in their area.
Later, as part of Commissioner Mathiesen’s agenda, he proposed that the Council revisit the designation in the Comprehensive Plan that had changed to allow for institutional construction for the hospital.
Again, as the discussion turned to the hospital expansion, Mayor Yepsen and Commissioner Franck who had returned to the meeting by this time, recused themselves and left the meeting room.
After they had left, Commissioner Madigan said that she understood why Commissioner Franck had left but was “not sure” why the Mayor had recused herself. She did not elaborate.
Commissioner Mathiesen’s argument was fairly simple. He said he did not find fault with anyone but that the process by which the land was changed to institutional for the hospital had missed him. He said that it was unfortunate that a change whose impact was so significant to the neighbors had somehow been done without their opportunity for input. His proposal was to have a full airing of the issue and following that to consider whether to reverse the status of the controversial property in the Comprehensive Plan. He expressed concern that the process had failed to insure that the affected neighborhoods had been appraised of the possible change and involved with the consideration of the change.
Commissioner Madigan took exception with this. She noted that the Comprehensive Plan review had been an open process that went on for eighteen months. She noted that when the Comprehensive Plan Committee approved the change to the map there was no disagreement. She said that she did not see how people missed this because she was aware of it through her reading of the documents. She had Brad Birge confirm that it was in the body of the document and not one of the fifty-three suggested amendments. She noted that the decision was made on November 17th.
Commissioner Mathiesen countered that given what we have learned from the community, it makes sense to reconsider the issue with the newly raised concerns of the neighbors as part of the process. In Brad Birge’s remarks he noted that two of the three parcels that had been changed to allow institutional development were owned by D.A. Collins. The hospital has an option on these properties contingent on approval for the project. It is a very small world. D.A. Collins was a key organizer in creating the Saratoga PAC and Robert Manz, CEO of D.A. Collins is the chair of the PAC. The CEO of Saratoga Hospital, Angelo Calbone is also a member of the Super PAC.
It was also noted that the third parcel was a piece of land donated to the hospital. According to Matt Jones, the hospital plans to sell this parcel.
Madigan argued against re-opening the issue. She noted that if they did re-open this change in the Comprehensive Plan that it would open up other issues. She particularly noted that she would expect the issue of PUDs in the Greenbelt would probably come back. I was troubled by Commissioner Madigan’s reference to the PUD question in the Greenbelt. Unlike the hospital expansion, that issue was thoroughly and very publically discussed. It enjoyed a very high profile as compared to the hospital expansion and it was unanimously rejected by the Council.
Skip Scirocco also spoke against re-opening the issue. He said it would be a Pandora’s box.
As there was no motion on the floor, the discussion simply ended and Mayor Yepsen and Commissioner Franck returned.