Below is an excellent piece by neighborhood resident Sandy Cohen regarding John Witt’s application for variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals for a large project on Jumel Place.
It raises the fundamental question about what the purposes of zoning are and what the role of variances are. As Sandy effectively argues, zoning laws are meant to protect the character of the distinct neighborhoods that make up our city. This is why there are so many zoning designations. As an extreme example, building a high rise in a neighborhood (zone) made up of small one family bungalows would undermine the character of the neighborhood. People purchase homes on the faith that the surrounding residences will consistently maintain the feel of where they will live.
Concomitantly, variances issued by the Zoning Board of Appeals are supposed to be issued with caution and great care. Where necessary, they are supposed to simply allow the tweaking of a property in a manner that does not negatively affect the other homes in the neighborhood. In that context one would expect the ZBA to be especially attentive to the concerns of the homeowners and tenants who would be impacted by any change.
Unfortunately, it is glaringly obvious that this is not the philosophy of a number of the people who currently serve on our ZBA. A poster child of this problem is the Witt project with the embarrassingly, pretentious name “Downton Walk.”
On a lot that zoning allows only five single family homes or four two family homes, Witt proposes to build a compound with seven very large homes that are crammed in over most of the available land. Forget significant setbacks, there is no room for them. It also includes an eight foot fence. One can only assume that to maintain the fantasy of the aristocratic project it is necessary to hide from the nobility that will live in this “estate” the modest single family homes that make up their neighborhood. Any pretention that this project is supposed to be an integral part of a neighborhood is not even given lip service.
Below are relevant pictures of the neighborhood, the location of the proposed project, and a rendering of what” Downton Walk” will look like. Even the most cursory examination of these images makes clear how completely inappropriate this project is. It is simply stunning that a zoning board would even consider this project.
If this project is approved, it will set yet another example of a major developer being allowed to flaunt our zoning laws. The Zoning Board of Appeals will be making a decision on this project on March 21st. I would urge that even if you are not from the affected neighborhood, that you take the time to voice concerns about this project to the ZBA. Susan Barden is the planner assigned to the ZBA so emails should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Does this look like the neighborhood that Lord and Lady Grantham would live in?
Above on the extreme right is the building that will be torn down and the location of the Saratoga Springs residence for Lord and Lady Grantham and friends.
Sandy Cohen’s Analysis
Builder John Witt’s application for variances on the lot at 27 Jumel Place has been referred to by at least one neighbor as trying to fit a size 10 foot into a size 7 shoe. In the next meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), on March 21, he will continue to ask for approval to build condominiums in a zoning district that allows only single-family and two-family dwellings, while also attempting to radically modify setbacks, heights, and density along with other things. Many of the surrounding homeowners are disturbed by such a change to the character of their long-established neighborhood, which includes homes from the late 1800s and early 1900s. And they also are concerned about the breach it will open in our Comprehensive Plan and zoning laws.
As any city grows, part of the effect is the attempt by builders to use the available central space to erect and sell homes and other structures. So, for a very long time, cities have had zoning codes in place, the purpose of which is to maintain a balance within the tensions which exist among the character of the city itself, the comfort of the existing populace, and the ability of the city to continue to grow its population that makes up its tax base and supports its businesses.
Saratoga Springs is no exception to the rule. More than once in the past decade alone, committees have worked thousands of hours to hammer out documents that represent the breath of our history, the heartbeat of our present, and the foresight of our future. These culminated in the 2015 Comprehensive Plan, which, along with our zoning codes, has been approved by our City Council and represents the City’s best effort to protect and improve the value of properties owned by our residents.
The information contained in the zoning codes is clear and concise and offers builders legal routes to ask for exceptions and exemptions as well as slight changes in the rules, when such are valid and necessary and do not impede the rights of the citizenry. But, the goal of the zoning board should be to facilitate both the citizenry and the builders, not as a rubber stamp on development. Hence, their perspective should be to facilitate development that uses variances as a last resort; and approval of such requests should not be driven by the profit level accruing to the builder.
In drawing up such codes and ordinances over the years, Saratoga Springs and its environs was divided into very specific districts, based on what existed in particular areas at the time. Housing areas were given labels, such as Urban Residential, Rural Residential, or Suburban Residential. And even those areas were broken down into types of housing allowed there – all based on what existed there at the time the laws were being formulated. The whole purpose was to maintain, as closely as possible the character of neighborhoods.
The land at 27 Jumel Place is a single, eight-tenths of an acre lot, inside an Urban Residential-3 (UR-3) district. That means the only thing that can be built there is either one single-family home or one two-family structure. Because of the size of the lot, there is room to subdivide it and build five single-family homes or four two-family structures. At the moment, what was an old factory stands on the property. It was built long before the city had zoning codes, and more recently has housed a dance school and a karate school. It is currently unoccupied and in disrepair. But, regardless of what preceded it under the lack of zoning laws, any new construction on the site must, under law, conform to today’s UR-3 standards.
Witt currently has the property under contract and has presented his plans to the ZBA because he is seeking relief for setbacks, density, heights, fencing, and the like. At first blush, it appeared quite simply that a reputable builder was going to develop what was heretofore an eyesore and only needed a couple of area variances, so it must be good for the neighborhood. But a closer look at the plans brought out a number of concerns for the current area residents.
The most basic of the issues was the seven condominiums he is proposing to build. All will be free-standing structures. So, in his mind, they are basically single-family homes. However, the owners will only be buying the walls and the space within them. The land under and around them will be owned by all the homeowners with an undivided interest and managed by a Homeowners Association that they will direct to maintain and care for it – thus the condominium moniker. The ZBA feels that such ownership is not enough to consider the project a “regular” condominium for zoning purposes – because it will “look like” it’s made up of single-family homes. This becomes a confusing issue, because, on one hand, the builder is admitting he is building condos, only because of the land-ownership factor; but, on the other hand, he wants special consideration for his request to place more structures on the lot than allowed by law.
Most communities refer to Witt’s model as “zero-lot-line” homes and do not “condominiumize” the land. Zero-lot-line homes are considered cluster housing and, in Saratoga Springs, are allowable only in the Urban Residential-1 (UR-1) and Suburban Residential-2 (UR-2) districts. The codes for those types of communities require the land to be subdivided before it can be approved. Witt has not applied for subdivision, which requires much heavier oversight before approval. The codes addressing cluster housing require adherence to proper set-backs to existing properties, although they can be ignored between the homes within land being developed. They also require a strict percentage of the land to be left green. Witt is requesting relief from those setbacks; and has not even made a request for as much relief as he would need, because of the orientation of the homes on the land. And he is not leaving anywhere near as much green land surrounding those homes as required by law. But even those two issues are trumped by the fact that these are condos that may NOT be built in a UR-3 district.
If Witt wants to continue to ask for such allowances, especially for condos/multi-family housing in a UR-3 area, we believe it is incumbent on him – by the City’s Comprehensive Plan, Charter, and Zoning Codes – to petition the City Council, which we also believe is the only group that can make such exception, by changing language in the Comprehensive Plan itself to allow multi-family housing in a Core Residential Neighborhood-1 (CRN-1) category. However, such a drastic change as this would be opposed by most of the more than 10,000 homeowners throughout the residential neighborhoods in our city.
We contend that the Zoning Board of Appeals will be operating outside of its purview, if it approves Witt’s application.
Once variances as broad as Witt is requesting have been made for one property, they set precedent, making it much easier for the next builder to make similar changes in their prospective projects. This would mean that any builder would have a much easier time dropping a high-density multi-family development in the middle of just about any existing neighborhood in our city. Yours could be the next one endangered.