Would You Buy A Used Car From The City Of Saratoga Springs

Brand New Car Available: Contact City Hall

I finally received the decision from the Ethics Board regarding the conflict of interest issue over Sonny Bonacio building the homes of Zoning Board of Appeals members Tom Lewis and William Moore and then appearing before them.  I had contended that Lewis and Moore should have recused themselves.  In truth, I knew that the ethical standards of the city code were so limited that the code would have let them vote.  The purpose of the complaint was really to document how inadequate the city’s code is.

So the Ethics Board found that Moore and Lewis had not violated the city’s ethics code.  They did state that the men should have disclosed their relationship with Bonacio.  They wrote that when a board member has purchased a costly service or item from an applicant that disclosure is appropriate.

In their decision they cited a legal case that was similar.  They referenced Heustis vs Town of Ticonderoga Planning Board:

“The court recognized that such interest ‘does not mandate disqualification of the public official involved in every situation (my emphasis).’”

First, I find it interesting that the Ethics Board bothered to cite this since, as noted earlier, by our minimal standards neither Moore nor Lewis had committed a violation.  More importantly, I am struck by the fact that this opinion simply states that it does not apply “in every situation.”   If the Ethics Board wanted to use this argument it would have been helpful to find out what situations would have mandated a recusal.

When people like Sonny Bonacio go before the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals, millions of dollars are at stake.  We have no idea what kind of deal Sonny Bonacio had with Mr. Lewis and Mr. Moore if any.  While the Ethics Board had the authority to subpoena records and individuals in order to explore what actually occurred they chose not to.

The city’s current weak ethics standards pose a serious problem.  The idea that having Tom Lewis and William Moore simply declare that Sonny Bonacio built their homes and then proceed to vote on Mr. Bonacio’s applications is so manifestly inadequate that one would love to hear Ethics Chair Justin Hogan defend this on its merits. 

“Mr. Hogan, if the fact that Sonny Bonacio built Lewis and Moore’s house was so troubling that they needed to disclose it, why was it ok for them to then vote on the issue?”

Or put another way, “Trust me, I have an interest in selling you this used car but you can rely on my word when I tell you that the car is as good as the day it left the assembly line.”

Saratoga currently uses the lowest ethical standard required by New York State Municipal Law.  In fact, cities are allowed to enact their own more rigorous standards.

The City’s Ethics Board standards are a holdover from when Saratoga Springs was a provincial little town where a local club that profited from real estate ran things unchallenged.  The conflicts of interest were rife.

The City of Saratoga Springs needs to move on from that era and strengthen its ethics standards.

Ethics Board Decisions



A Blogger’s Kafkaesque Quest For Information From The Mayor’s Office

Way back on September 18, 2015, I began my correspondence with Mayor Yepsen on the apparent violations of the city’s agreements with Saratoga National Golf Course.  As brief background, there were two issues.  First, the agreement with the city stipulated that SNGC was to have no more than three “special events” each year. The definition of a special event was one in which the event exceeded their regular parking facilities.  Second, SNGC was required to construct two nature trails for the use of the public.  In the case of the trails, I wrote to the Mayor that the trail to Lake Lonely appeared to be properly maintained while the West Nature Trail by any reasonable definition did not exist.

Eventually I received a letter dated October 9, 2015, from her deputy, Joseph Ogden.  In it he made the following statements: “…Mayor Yepsen has, in response to your concerns, instructed the city’s zoning and building inspector, Stephen Shaw, to immediately (my emphasis added) send a letter to SNGC reminding them of the conditions outlined in the special use permit as well as to ask that they inform the city as to how they comply to these conditions (my emphasis  added).”

He also stated that “With regard to the nature trail, Saratoga PLAN holds a conservation easement which requires Saratoga National to maintain the trails in question and reads: ‘hiking trail and related facilities shall be maintained by grantor in a manner that is satisfactory to their continued  use by the public as a hiking trail.’  In response to your concerns, Mayor Yepsen has directed our city planner, Kate Maynard, to set up a time to visit the trail with PLAN and evaluate its condition so we can assess whether or not we believe it meets the conditions of the easement.” (My emphasis added).

A more naïve person might have expected that in short order the City would have received correspondence from Saratoga National Golf Course and that Kate Maynard would have inspected the trails that Saratoga National Golf Course was supposed to have constructed.

In the ensuing five months (six months from the first inquiry) I have repeatedly sent correspondence to Mayor Yepsen asking for copies of whatever SNGC provided regarding their procedures for complying with the “special event limit” and with a report on Kate Maynard’s inspection of the West Trail.

Most recently, I also inquired about how Saratoga National Golf Course is complying with its commitment to monitor the water quality in Lake Lonely.  I will be blogging about this in the future but it appears that Lake Lonely is being badly polluted and it is reasonable to believe that SNGC may be a major contributor to this problem.

To date, I have been unable to wrest from the Mayor’s office any of this information.

Below are the most recent exchanges between the Mayor and myself regarding my ongoing attempts to secure this information.

In my opinion the Mayor confuses writing gracious notes in response to inquiries like mine with transparency.  After repeatedly indicating for five months that she will provide me with the information (following regular email prods), she directs me to seek the information from Saratoga National Golf Course and from PLAN.

Let’s remember that back in October, the Mayor’s deputy said the Mayor’s office was committed to securing this information themselves.   I can assure the readers of this blog that the idea that I will get any relevant information from SNGC by contacting them is tantamount to my asking President Obama if I can join him in a round of golf.  As for the fictitious West Nature Trail, is it not the city’s responsibility to determine if Saratoga National is violating their agreement?  What happened to City Planner Kate Maynard’s inspection?

If my allegations are true, Saratoga National Golf Course has routinely flaunted their agreement with the city and may be seriously polluting a very important water resource.  I have a certain sympathy for the Mayor in that Saratoga National Golf Course is an extremely powerful player in our city.  In fact, the Mayor has had at least one fundraiser at their facility.

After five months, I can only conclude that she simply is not going to provide the information.

To fully appreciate the true Kafka like quality of this quest, it is really worth taking the time to read the emails below.  The last inquiry to Mayor Yepsen was on March 10, 2016.

From:    John Kaufmann [john.kaufmann21@gmail.com]

Sent:     Friday, September 18, 2015 7:26 AM

To:          joanne.yepsen@saratoga-springs.org

Cc:          ‘Christian E. Mathiesen’; ‘Skip Sciroco’; John Franck (johnfranck@your-

cpas.com); ‘michele.madigan@saratoga-springs.org’

Subject:               Oversight

According to the original special permit issued to Saratoga National Golf Course, they agreed to limit their “special events” by which was meant, events that exceeded their regular parking to only three a year. It is apparent that based on their promotional materials on their web site and other information that they are routinely violating this commitment. In 2007 when they asked for a substantial expansion to their project they reasserted that they would keep to their original commitment of only three events.

In August I asked Kate Maynard who was responsible for insuring their compliance with their Special use Permit. She did not know and I followed up with an email/FOIL.  I received a letter dated September 17 from Vincent DeLeonardis in response to my FOIL in which he states “Please note we do not have any records regarding who is responsible for monitoring Saratoga National’s special events as defined in the Special Use Permit.”

I find this quite strange. Some weeks prior I called Geof Bourneman who was the previous head of planning. He was, in fact, the head of planning at the time of the original application.  Mr. Bourneman told me that the building inspector was responsible for enforcement of compliance with such things as Special Permit agreements. At the time, I approached Mr. Steve Shaw, who is the current building inspector. He told me that he was in fact responsible but that given his available time and the many special use permits and other such documents approved by the Planning Board, it was not possible for him to regularly monitor such things. I believe his description is quite reasonable and I have no criticism of him. I asked what I could do in light of the apparent on-going violation of this stipulation in the Saratoga National Golf Course Special Permit. He told me to send him an email with an inquiry and he would try to look into it.

So on the one hand, the previous head of planning and the current building inspector believe that there is someone responsible and yet the formal response from the city is that the “city has no records regarding who is responsible…” I hope you find this as disturbing as I do.   I find it particularly problematic that based on the response from the city attorney that there is not only no formal vehicle for enforcing a very important agreement but there does not seem to be any concern about the fact that there is none.

I am not being rhetorical when I ask, what is the purpose of a special permit if there is no document assigning responsibility for enforcement let alone an actual person to do the enforcement.

I would be grateful if you or someone you assign with the task, could address this issue by indicating what actions the city plans to take to correct this problem.


From:    John Kaufmann [john.kaufmann21@gmail.com]

Sent:     Sunday, October 04, 2015 8:41 PM

To:          joanne.yepsen@saratoga-springs.org

Cc:          ‘christian.mathiesen@saratoga-springs.org’; John Franck (johnfranck@your-cpas.com); ‘Skip Sciroco’; ‘michele.madigan@saratoga-springs.org’

Subject:               Saratoga National Golf Course

This is a follow-up to my email to you of September 18 regarding the apparent violations of the Special Permit granted to Saratoga National Golf Course. To date, I have not heard back from you.

As I noted in my original email, it appears that SNGC has been grossly negligent in erecting a “Nature Trail” to run along the west side of the course as required by its Special Use Permit. In most cases there is literally no trail of any kind. There is virtually no effective signage along the trail as what there is is buried in places that people seeking to use the trail cannot see them.

Just as seriously is the apparent violation of the agreement to limit large events to only three peryear. Your recent attendance at the Saratoga PLAN fundraiser should have given you the flavor for the kind of large event that the Special Permit was meant to address. There have been many other large events at SNGC. During just one week this summer SNGC hosted the St. Jude’s fundraiser along with two sold out “Travers Party” events that filled their “Blue Stone Patio” venue. SNGC told a local periodical that they hosted one hundred and twenty five weddings last year. I would refer you to the I Love NY web site http://www.iloveny.com/listings/Saratoga-National-Golf-Club or the SNGC’s own web site for an indication of their very aggressive marketing. It seems very possible that they are enjoying the spoils of large profits by violating their agreement with the city.

Property owners throughout this city routinely abide by the city’s many land use requirements as good citizens. You can understand how troubled people would be if they were to learn that a major business in this city has been allowed to violate our land use requirements with impunity.

On August 31, 2015, I formally asked the city Building Inspector to investigate this matter. I included with my request that he advise me of his findings and any actions he might take. It is now many weeks later and I have heard nothing. As you know, his office is under your authority.

As a courtesy and in keeping with your campaign commitment to make transparency the hallmark of your administration, I would be grateful if you could formally respond by indicating what actions regarding this matter you plan to take.


From:    Joanne Yepsen [joanne.yepsen@saratoga-springs.org]

Sent:     Tuesday, October 06, 2015 1:13 PM

To:          John Kaufmann

Cc:          <christian.mathiesen@saratoga-springs.org>; John Franck; Skip Sciroco;<michele.madigan@saratoga-springs.org>

Subject:               Re: Saratoga National Golf Course

John, thanks very much for bringing this to our attention. My staff have been looking into all the questions and concerns and we will be back in touch soon. The City may need to tighten up or update the 1998 language and be sure everyone follows the rules. More to come… Thank you.





From: “John Kaufmann” <john.kaufmann21@gmail.com>

To: “joanne yepsen” <joanne.yepsen@saratoga-springs.org>

Cc: “christian mathiesen” <christian.mathiesen@saratoga-springs.org>, “John Franck”<johnfranck@your-cpas.com>, “Skip Sciroco” <Skip_scirocco@saratoga-springs.org>,”michele madigan” <michele.madigan@saratoga-springs.org>

Sent: Tuesday, October 6, 2015 9:28:21 PM

Subject: Saratoga National Golf Course Violations

Thank you for your email. Unfortunately, your response referenced important issues but did not actually address them. I know that you pride yourself on your office’s transparency and its open door policy. I would like to avail myself of these by meeting with you at your earliest convenience to better understand what your office has done so far and what it plans to do regarding Saratoga National Golf Course’s apparent violations. I am intrigued by your reference that “The City may need to tighten up or update the 1998 language.” It would also be helpful to know you and your staff’s thinking about how to assess the “Western Trail” compliance and the kind of measures you are considering that would allow you to determine how many “special events” are held out at Saratoga National Golf Course.



From:    Joanne Yepsen [joanne.yepsen@saratoga-springs.org]

Sent:     Thursday, October 08, 2015 5:44 PM

To:          John Kaufmann

Cc:          christian mathiesen; John Franck; Skip Sciroco; michele madigan; Joseph Odgen; Vincent DeLeonardis

Subject:               Re: Saratoga National Golf Course Violations

John, this has nothing to do with transparency, just time in the day. The staff has done a thorough job looking back at this over the past week and we will have a report back to you tomorrow that we are happy to share with more information. Thank you again for bringing this to our attention.



From: John Kaufmann [mailto:john.kaufmann21@gmail.com]

Sent: Sunday, December 27, 2015 5:27 PM

To: joanne.yepsen@saratoga-springs.org

Cc: ‘John Franck’; ‘Michele Madigan’; ‘Skip Sciroco’; ‘Christian Mathiesen’

Subject: Saratoga National Golf Course And Water Quality

It is well documented that golf courses’ use of pesticides and fertilizers can pose a threat to water quality. The following is an excerpt from the Planning Board minutes of November 18, 1998, regarding the monitoring of water quality to be done by Saratoga National Golf Course. (Lynn Sipperly represented the golf course in their application process):

I am seeking to find out where the water quality monitoring records and results are. If the city has these records then I will FOIL for them. If the records are maintained by Saratoga National Golf Course, I respectfully request that you seek copies of these.   It may be that they properly monitored the water quality. It may be that the monitoring showed no threat to the watershed. I am sure you would agree with me that insuring that the water quality of Lake Lonely is protected is of great importance and that the monitoring should be open and transparent with records available to the public.

I look forward to your response.

From: John Kaufmann [mailto:john.kaufmann21@gmail.com]

Sent: Friday, January 29, 2016 1:51 PM

To: ‘Joanne Yepsen’

Cc: ‘Skip Sciroco’; ‘Michele Madigan’; ‘Christian Mathiesen’; ‘John Franck’

Subject: FW: Saratoga National Golf Course And Water Quality

As you will note, one month ago I sent an inquiry to you regarding the water quality monitoring related to Saratoga National Golf Course. To date I have not received a response. Could you please acknowledge this email?  Could you please indicate whether you plan to provide me with the information and if so when?

Thank you

From: John Kaufmann [mailto:john.kaufmann21@gmail.com]

Sent: February 4, 2016 9:01 PM

To: ‘Joanne Yepsen’

Cc: ‘Skip Sciroco’; ‘Michele Madigan’; ‘Christian Mathiesen’; ‘John Franck’

Subject: FW: Saratoga National Golf Course And Water Quality

It was nice visiting with you at the UDO event today. This is just to confirm that you will follow up on this request and get someone to follow up with Saratoga National Golf Course to determine where the records for their monitoring of water quality are maintained. If they are kept by the golf course I would be grateful if you could request from them a copy of these records and make them available to me.

The recent incidents in Flint Michigan are just another reminder of how precious our water is.

Thanks again.

From:    Joanne Yepsen [joanne.yepsen@saratoga-springs.org]

Sent:     Friday, February 05, 2016 3:17 PM

To:          John Kaufmann

Subject:               Re: Saratoga National Golf Course And Water Quality

You got it. I’ve sent two emails requesting and will let you know what I find out. Thanks for participating yesterday.

From: John Kaufmann [mailto:john.kaufmann21@gmail.com]

Sent: Friday, February 05, 2016 3:20 PM

To: ‘Joanne Yepsen’

Subject: RE: Saratoga National Golf Course And Water Quality

And thank you for responding so promptly.

From: John Kaufmann [mailto:john.kaufmann21@gmail.com]

Sent: Feb 11, 2016, at 4:30 PM

To: ‘Joanne Yepsen’

Subject: RE: Saratoga National Golf Course And Water Quality

Any word?

From:    Joanne Yepsen [joanne.yepsen@saratoga-springs.org]

Sent:     Tuesday, February 16, 2016 4:47 PM

To:          John Kaufmann

Subject:               Re: Saratoga National Golf Course And Water Quality

I found out a little from original approvals the city gave SNGC. Looks like the Core of Engineers and EPA were monitoring for first five years and I’ve called Saratoga National as well to see what other records they might have…


From: John Kaufmann [mailto:john.kaufmann21@gmail.com]

Sent: Feb 20, 2016, at 4:30 PM

To: ‘Joanne Yepsen’

Subject: RE: Saratoga National Golf Course And Water Quality

Have they gotten back to you?



From:    Joanne Yepsen [joanne.yepsen@saratoga-springs.org]

Sent:     Sunday, February 21, 2016 11:04 PM

To:          John Kaufmann

Subject:               Re: Saratoga National Golf Course And Water Quality

No not yet. Tom Newkirk is in AZ for a week. I hope to get some files from him when he returns.,,



From: “John Kaufmann” <john.kaufmann21@gmail.com>

To: “Joanne Yepsen” <joanne.yepsen@saratoga-springs.org>

Cc: “Christian Mathiesen” <christian.mathiesen@saratoga-springs.org>, “John Franck”

<johnfranck11@gmail.com>, “Skip Sciroco” <skip.scirocco@saratoga-springs.org>, “Michele Madigan” <michele.madigan@saratoga-springs.org>

Sent: Tuesday, March 8, 2016 11:25:50 AM

Subject: Saratoga National Golf Course Compliance Follow Up

This is a follow up to a number of issues that I had contacted you on as regards Saratoga National Golf Course.

  1. What SNGC has been doing in the way of water monitoring as it effects Lake Lonely
  2. What PLAN has to say about the apparent lack of a West Trail
  3. What procedures SNGC has for complying with the requirement that they limit their special events to three per year


From:    Joanne Yepsen [joanne.yepsen@saratoga-springs.org]

Sent:     Tuesday, March 08, 2016 4:08 PM

To:          John Kaufmann

Cc:          Christian Mathiesen; John Franck; Skip Sciroco; Michele Madigan; Dan Cogan

Subject:               Re: Saratoga National Golf Course Compliance Follow Up

John, Saratoga National can answer #1. PLAN can answer #2.  I haven’t received any additional information since the last time I emailed you or we spoke about this topic. Code enforcement should be able to report if they have enforced event requirements at that location.

I’ve also asked our City Attorney to review #3. Thanks.



From:    John Kaufmann [john.kaufmann21@gmail.com]

Sent:     Thursday, March 10, 2016 6:37 AM

To:          ‘Joanne Yepsen’

Cc:          ‘Christian Mathiesen’; ‘John Franck’; ‘Skip Sciroco’; ‘Michele Madigan’; ‘Dan Cogan’

Subject:               RE: Saratoga National Golf Course Compliance Follow Up

As regards:

#1, if you review your correspondence, you indicated that you would discuss this issue with Saratoga National Golf Course. In your most recent email you offered that Mr. Newkirk was out of town and would be back in a week. I assumed from this that you would be in contact with him on this issue when he returned. With all the coverage on water quality issues in Flint, Michigan and in Hoosick Falls,

New York, I know this is an issue that will concern you. Clearly as a private citizen I am in no position to compel Saratoga National Golf Course to answer my questions. Based on a variety of sources there is every reason to believe that Lake Lonely has very serious water quality problems. Knowing you, I can only assume that insuring that this important body of water is not in jeopardy would be high on your list of priorities.

#2, In correspondence from your office, you indicated that Kate Maynard would be meeting with PLAN to determine whether Saratoga National Golf Course had complied with the site plan review regarding the trails. Have you changed your mind and decided that she should not have a meeting to determine whether the West Trail met the city’s requirements?

#3, In your correspondence you indicated that your office would contact Saratoga National Golf Course to find out how they are implementing the limit on special events. I assume this would involve how they are determining when the parking is exceeded. I assume that when they agreed to the limit, they had some methodology for implementing it. I am happy that the city attorney will be reviewing this matter but it seems basic that to do so will involve getting the required information from Saratoga National Golf Course.



Jean Stamm, City Librarian Dies at 74

Jean Stamm 2001 Retirement Celebration
Picture of Jean taken by Ellen DeLalla at her retirement party

Jean Stamm was plain and simple a wonderful person.  She and her friend and boss, the late Harry Dutcher,  were instrumental in creating the fantastic library we all enjoy today.  Her vibrancy, her curiosity, her generosity all combined to make her a great librarian. She enriched all of our lives.  I know I speak  for many when I express condolences to her husband, Jay Portnoy, and to the rest of her family. 

Below is the obituary from the Saratogian.


Jean E. Stamm SARATOGA SPRINGS – Jean E. Stamm, beloved wife of Jay Portnoy, died unexpectedly at home on Thursday March 22, 2016. Born in New York City on February 5, 1942, Jean grew up in Queens, New York. Always interested in learning, she took pride in her graduation from The Mary Louis Academy in Jamaica Estates as well as her graduation from Queens College and the Library School at SUNY Albany. Jean moved to Greenfield Center in 1970 and a few years later married Jay Portnoy. For over 30 years she worked at the Saratoga Springs Public Library, rising to the position of Assistant Director of the library and also supervising the Saratoga History Room. Her passion for the library was evident in her work on the passing of the library bond issue and serving as the library liaison to the construction of the current library building. Jean loved researching Saratoga Springs history, attending the Saratoga Racetrack and traveling. Her favorite destination was Hot Springs, Arkansas. She once wrote an article comparing Saratoga Springs to Hot Springs, Arkansas for which she received a letter of gratitude from then governor Bill Clinton. Besides her husband of 43 years, Jean is survived by son Gregory (Heidi) Limongi of Orlando, Fla.; 2 brothers, William Stamm and his wife Emily; Peter Stamm and his wife Maureen and 2 grandchildren Megan and Nicholas Limongi. There will be no calling hours. Funeral services will be conducted at 10am Friday, March 25, 2016 at the William J. Burke Sons/Bussing & Cunniff Funeral Homes, 628 North Broadway, Saratoga Springs (584-5373). Burial will follow in Greenridge Cemetery, Lincoln Ave. Donations may be made to the Friends of the Saratoga Springs Public Library, 49 Henry St., Saratoga Springs, NY 12866 Online remembrance may be made at www.burkefuneralhome.com


Whoa, Nelly! ZBA Talks About The Nuclear Option


At the last ZBA meeting on March 21, the item prior to Murphy Lane involved a builder who had constructed a house that violated the zoning setback by four feet and was seeking a variance after the fact.  Without the variance it would cloud any future sale of the property.  It was interesting that some of the most conservative members of the ZBA went on about it.  Keith Kaplan said “the sheer amount [of the violation] shocked me.”  Chairman William Moore opined, “four feet is a big mess.”  Gary Hasbrouck noted that his failure to have the property surveyed before he built was the root of the problem.  He asked him how much he saved by not having the survey and the applicant told him the survey would have cost $1000.00.  Mr. Hasbouck just shook his head.

This prompted Skip Carlson to offer the following devastating remarks:

“It seems like this is happening more and more to this board.  People coming in asking for forgiveness rather than permission.  I don’t know whether it goes to code enforcement.  Whether we could do something with code enforcement and make sure this doesn’t happen.  Maybe [we tell people] listen, you do this or there is going to be a fine.  Whatever we can do to make people take notice ‘cause I’m only here for sixteen more meetings but I’ve been here seven years and I have seen this happening more and more often.  Sooner or later this board is going to go nuclear and make someone rip something down that has already been built.  I can see it’s going to happen sooner than later. (my emphasis)  This board is going to have to set an example.  This [is] happening way too much so here is what we are going to do.  We are going to draw a line in the sand maybe when I’m not here.  I can see that happening in the future and maybe that’s what this board’s got to do to make sure this doesn’t [keep] happening.”

For the many people who have attended the ZBA meetings and left in frustration, this statement by Mr. Carlson indicates that all the citizen effort may be starting to have a real impact.


The Hospital Is Not Back, It Never Left

Hospital Addition
Rendering of Proposed Building
Hospital Attorney Matt Jones

At the last City Council meeting there was a hearing on changing the Comprehensive Plan to remove the provision that would allow Saratoga Hospital to build its office building.

Matt Jones, representing the hospital, told the council that the hospital opposed changing the Comprehensive Plan.  He told the council basically that they would wait until there was a new council that could legally vote on their proposed PUD.  He noted that due to the recusals by Mayor Yepsen and John Franck they were unable to achieve a quorum sufficient to vote on the matter one way or the other.

So the next city election will decide it.

A “Two-fer”On Murphy Lane At The ZBA

I had already written my story when Jenny Grey’s was published in the Saratogian.  I thought it would be fun to post both so the readers could compare them (For you film buffs:Rashamon).  I vote For Jenny’s as the better story.

Blogger’s Storty

A brief review of 39 Murphy Lane. 

View From Street 2
Original House
New House (Sans Second Floor)

Jean D’Agostino purchased a small barn built around 1900 on Murphy Lane.  Murphy Lane is a narrow alley lined with garages and other secondary structures running parallel to White Street on the east side of the city.  D’Agostino proposed rehabbing the structure.  In her application she specifically stated that it would be a detriment to the neighborhood to tear the existing building down and to construct a new home. 

The barn was on a tiny non-conforming lot so her project required radical variances for setbacks, parking, and the size of the footprint relative on the lot.  Her original request for variances passed the ZBA by a narrow four to three vote.   A home facing on a narrow alley affects the use of the alley and the character of the neighborhood.  Among the variances granted was to allow for onsite parking for only one vehicle rather than the two required.  As the building was to be a three bedroom home, where would a second car park?  Where would delivery and service vehicles park?  Apparently this was not a problem for the four who originally granted the variances.

Subsequently, the building inspector discovered that Ms. D’Agostino, who is a realtor, had removed the slab the barn had been built on and dug and constructed a full basement.  He found that the barn had totally been taken down and that she was constructing a new home and that the height of the home was in violation of zoning laws as she had not sought a variance for it.  The result was that he put a stop work order on the house.  For a full and detailed account see this post.  

There had been an earlier hearing on the stop work order in which the board showed appropriate impatience with Ms D’Agostino.  On Tuesday night she returned to the ZBA. 

March 21 at the ZBA

The neighbors did an excellent job laying out the issues for the board.  They had hired an attorney who was unable to attend so Brian Rodems read a letter from the attorney on behalf of the neighborhood.  The attorney’s letter began by noting that this was a clear case of “act now and beg forgiveness later.”  She then cited a case in which a ZBA in New York required that the owner tear the building down and that same ZBA won in court when the owner appealed.

The neighbors noted that many of them had not challenged the original application because the barn was quite modest in size and they were led to believe that it was simply going to be rehabbed.  They then laid out many reasons why the new home was inappropriate for the parcel.  One of the key issues they brought forward was that in excavating the new basement the applicant had built up the land on which the property stood.  Additionally, the new foundation rose above the ground.  The result is that the new first floor is now four feet higher than the original.

New Elevation Of First Floor

The key thing to understand is that because this structure is built on an alley it now overlooks the backyards of all the properties around it on either side of the alley.  The windows on the first floor will look directly into the neighbors’ backyards.  Any windows on the second floor will have an even better view.  One of the neighbors noted that he has a small pool in his yard where his young daughters swim and he will have to build a very high fence if he wants privacy.

In the subsequent discussion ZBA board members Susan Steer and James Helicke made it very clear that they opposed any further approvals for this project.  Not only had the applicant flagrantly failed to live up to the stated plan for the property, but in addition she had clearly failed to comply with the standards that are required for variances.

In a rather bizarre twist, Keith Kaplan who had opposed the original variances, offered what he called a “compromise” that “might” make approval possible.  In a meandering discussion that not only confused the audience but members of the board, he tried to craft a way to help save Ms. D’Agostino.  His idea was to try to stay in the footprint of the original barn and then send the project to the Design Review Commission to try to work out some sort of design.  He kept talking about clarifying the required external materials.  City Planner Susan Bardon cautioned that DRC would need more direction than that so he threw in “mass and scale.” 

There ensued another digression over how high the original barn had been and how high the board should allow the new structure to be.  Since the barn no longer exists determining its height became problematic.  There were a number of ideas put forward and the engineer representing Ms. D’Agostino claimed that she estimated the original to have been twenty-seven feet tall and the new proposed building would be twenty-eight and a half feet tall.  There was a confusing discussion as to where to measure the base from given the excavation.  The neighbors claimed that the new structure was eight feet taller than the original.  Keith Kaplan then arbitrarily chose twenty-eight and a half feet and the usual suspects supported him.

At one point city attorney Tony Izzo tried to help by making what I thought was the most thoughtful suggestion which was to tell the applicant to come back with the best plan they could that would most closely  resemble the original barn.  This suggestion was lost and the discussion wandered on.

I would note here that this is classic in terms of the problems with the way the ZBA operates.  No one, least of all me, argues that the board should behave in an unconstructive and hostile way towards applicants but it is deeply troubling when the board starts working out the applicant’s problems.  This ends up investing the board in approving the projects.  Tony was absolutely right in suggesting that it was the applicant’s responsibility to, in effect, go back to their original application and to come back with the best they could do to meet their obligations under it.  If what they do is inadequate, than the board should vote it down.

The key thing here is that Mr. Kaplan’s ramblings on a solution totally obscured the central question about the project in terms of its effect on the neighborhood.  The board, for instance,  never addressed the privacy issue or any of a number of other issues put forward by the neighbors  relating to the five standards for approving variances.

There is one other central issue.  I asked how significant it is that the applicant has violated the terms of their application by demolishing and building a new structure when they clearly stated that they were doing a rehab.   It was my understanding that the approval of the variances is conditional on the applicant fulfilling the promises made in their application.  I was rather stunned when Mr. Kaplan asserted that he was only concerned with the actual design plans not with the applicant’s description in her application for the variances of what she had told them she intended to do.  In effect he dismissed the case law offered by the attorney for the neighbors not to mention common sense.

Chairman Moore then polled the board on Mr. Kaplan’s motion to send the plans to DRC.  Skip Carlson and Gary Hasbrouk who had been largely silent during all of this as had Mr. Moore, simply said that if Keith wanted to send it to DRC it was alright with them.

So it now gets thrown to DRC.  How they are to assess the design of whatever Ms. D’Agostino comes up with is rather a mystery to me as it seemed to be to Susan Steer, James Helicke, and Cheryl Grey.

A very disheartening night for the neighbors.

Jenny Grey’s Story

Board debates fate of Murphy Lane barn

The 100-year-old barn in the background is being renovated into a shadow of its former self, say the neighbors around 39 Murphy Lane. Photos provided

By Jennie Grey, The Saratogian

Posted: 03/22/16, 6:39 PM EDT |

At 39 Murphy Lane, a 100-year-old barn is being renovated and illegally raised four feet, say city staff and the neighbors.

SARATOGA SPRINGS >> Residents in a Spa City neighborhood say the developer tasked with renovating a 100-year-old barn has deviated too far from the plan to preserve the structure’s historic charm.

Owner and applicant Jean D’Agostino proposed to renovate a the barn situated on a one-third-size lot at 39 Murphy Lane, an alley that runs parallel between Lincoln Avenue and White Street on the East Side. The project was presented as a renovation of an existing barn/carriage house into a single-family residence. The zoning board granted seven area variances for the work, which began under Engineering America Co. engineer Tonya Yasenchak.

“The plan was to return this 100-year-old barn to its original glory,” said Brian Rodems of 84 White St. during public comment at the March 21 zoning board of appeals meeting. “But after being granted variances, the owner tore down the barn. The building going up bears no resemblance to the old one.”

When city Building Inspector Steve Shaw checked out the site, he found that more work had been done than had been approved. He requested a new foundation plan, but said he has not yet received one. Even without that plan, however, he could see the deviation from the originally approved design.

“The plans said the builders would keep the core of the barn as much as possible,” he said. “But the preexisting nonconforming status of the building was being increased.”

The board has had several nonconforming projects to examine recently — projects not being built according to code or to the granted variances from building law. City staff and volunteers, as well as residents, are alert to these deviations and are bringing such issues before the board.

Board member George “Skip” Carlson said, “We have a lot of applicants asking for forgiveness rather than permission. Sooner or later, this board will make someone tear something down.”

Assistant City Attorney Tony Izzo said the impact a nonconforming project made on the neighborhood was the key consideration for the zoning board.

Neighbors near Murphy Lane agreed that the developer had gone far beyond the scope of the project. Essentially, none of the old barn remained — it had been methodically deconstructed and replaced with new materials during the past few months. The entire roof of the barn had been removed, and it sat in a state of arrested development.

Yasenchak said she had come before the board to request approval on revised measurements. These included reduced wall heights and roof pitches.

A group of the neighbors has begun speaking to an attorney in preparation for a lawsuit.

The most disturbing issue for the neighbors is that the new first floor has been built four feet off the ground, leading to a much taller building than permitted.

Cynthia Behan of 70 White St. objected to the new height, which would make the former barn taller than the houses around it. Privacy would be diminished, as anyone on the top floor of the building could see down into all the yards around.

John Behan of 70 White St., her husband, said these changes were not mere modifications.

“You cannot take a historic painting and light it on fire, then say you’re restoring it,” he said. “The formerly granted variances have not been adhered to — you can dismiss them. You have to go on from here.”

Evan Williamson of 18 Clark St. said the deviations from code might seem acceptable on paper, but were not.

“It’s a bait and switch situation,” he said. “It’s an insidious encroachment by people of zeal.”

Blaine Dunn of 74 White St. said, “We want the board to make brave decisions.”

When the zoning board began to debate the issue at its most recent meeting, lines of opinion were sharply drawn. Members James Helicke and Susan Steer, and alternate Cheryl Grey were against allowing the project to proceed.

“I don’t see that we need to drag this out any further,” Helicke said.

He was prepared to vote against the project’s application right then, but the other members wanted more time to weigh the issue. Those others, particularly Vice Chair Keith Kaplan, were largely on the side of compromise: asking D’Agostino to modify some of the building’s dimensions and to use Design Review Commission (DRC) approved materials on the exterior. Most of the members agreed to ask the DRC for an advisory opinion on dimensions and materials.

A vote on sending the project to the DRC then passed 4-3. That board will meet next on April 6 at 7 p.m. in City Hall.





ZBA Re Murphy Lane Project Bleeds On

It is late so this is the very short version.  The meeting became chaotic and confused.  Keith Kaplan wanted to find some way to avoid requiring the project be knocked down.  He decided the board should refer the project to the Design Review Committee to some how decide whether something that approximated the original barn could be designed.  James Helicke and Susan Steer were terrific.  They pointed out that it was a bad project to begin with and that now, with the original barn that was supposed to be rehabbed gone, in violation of what was originally promised in the application, there was no way to salvage what was left.  The usual suspects as in Hasbrouck, Carlson, Kaplan, and Moore out voted Helicke, Steer, and Cheryl Grey.  It now goes to Design Review for advisement.