Neighbors concerned over Downton Walk project: Developer Witt requesting five variances on Jumel Place lot
By Jennie Grey, The Saratogian
SARATOGA SPRINGS >> While pleased about the eminent destruction of an old factory that’s long been an eyesore in their neighborhood, East Side residents on Lake and Granger avenues are expressing concern about the size and scope of the 27 Jumel Place housing development ANW Holdings and Witt Construction have planned to take its place. The proposed project is called Downton Walk. The seven $600,000 to $1.5 million homes there will be built in Tudor style, and their current fate is in the hands of the zoning board of appeals.
John Witt, president of Witt Construction, made several comments on blogger John Kaufmann’s Saratoga Springs Politics, where the development is under hot debate.
“I personally went door to door and spoke with more than 30 people who live within one block of Jumel Place, including on East, Granger and Lake avenues,” Witt wrote. “With very few exceptions, my plans have been positively received. After Downton Walk is constructed and sold, the upgraded neighborhood will enjoy raised property values, benefiting homeowners.”
However, in a Feb. 28 letter to the zoning board of appeals, a core group of neighbors wrote, “This project will negatively impact the value of our homes and the quality of life in our neighborhood.”
The residents have also started a petition, signed by 248 people at press time, asking the zoning board not to grant the applicant’s variances. Variances are requests to deviate from current zoning requirements; the zoning board must study such applications, discuss them and hear public comments before ruling.
Witt wrote, “Downton Walk is a well-conceived project, and will offer residents both privacy and accessibility to the downtown, as well as enhance the neighborhood. Saratoga Springs is thriving, in part because of the beautiful architecture and homes – not just what we are preserving, which is vital, but also those we are currently building, because we also need to protect the future viability of our city as a community where people live full-time, as well as work and visit occasionally for pleasure.”
Unconvinced, the neighbors say they would support a more balanced project with five single-family homes on 30 percent of the land with more standard setbacks — zoning they say should be followed here.
Sam Brewton of Lake Avenue lives in the rear of his building, facing Jumel Place. He stands to be facing an eight-foot-high fence, losing trees and sunlight.
“We neighbors object to the scope of this project,” he said. “We don’t object to the development, just to the proposed density and the high number of requested variances.”
Looking at the project from the ground level: The land-use category of Jumel Place in the city’s 2015 Comprehensive Plan is a Core Residential Neighborhood-1 (CRN-1), allowing a maximum density of 10 units per acre. In the city’s Zoning Ordinance, Jumel Place is located in an Urban Residential-3 (UR-3) Zoning District, which allows for only single and two-family homes to be built. By law, this particular parcel of land is large enough to allow five single-family homes.
Witt Construction’s application describes its proposed development as seven single-family condominiums, which are built as seven separate single-family dwellings.
“Condominiums are not allowed on Jumel Place, as by definition in our Zoning Ordinance, condominiums are multifamily,” wrote the neighbors in their letter. “The city’s Zoning Ordinance states the definition of a condominium as follows: ‘Condominium: A multifamily dwelling containing individually owned dwelling units, wherein the real property title and ownership are vested in an owner, who has an undivided interest with others in the common-usage areas and facilities that serve the development.’”
Sandy Cohen, another concerned neighbor, posted on Saratoga Springs Politics about the Downton Walk project.
“Owners will only be buying the walls and the space within them,” she wrote about the condominium designation. “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 request for seven single-family homes is 40 percent over the density allowed in an UR-3 Zoning District.
Along with this request, the builder is asking for five variances.
Variance 1: The maximum building coverage allowed on this lot is 30 percent. The applicant had previously asked for a 43.5 percent building coverage allowance, or 45 percent more than what is allowed. He has recently increased this request to 46 percent, or 53.3 percent more than what is allowed.
Variance 2: The rear yard setback required for each unit is 25 feet. The applicant is asking that this requirement be eliminated by 100 percent for five units, going from the 25 feet required to zero feet. For the remaining two units, he is asking for a 76 percent reduction in the rear yard setback from 25 feet to six feet.
Variance 3: The front yard setback required for the two front units is 10 feet. The applicant is asking for one foot, a 90 percent reduction in the front yard setback. The applicant claims that this is so two front porches can be placed on the unit. However, his drawings show that he is not proposing porches, only overhangs.
Variance 4: The fence height allowed in this UR-3 residential area is six feet. The applicant is asking for an eight-foot fence, a 33 percent increase in height over what is allowed.
Variance 5: The applicant is asking for a maximum principal building on one lot to be increased from one to seven, a 600 percent increase. Only five single-family units are allowed by law on this property, after the property is subdivided. There has been no request for subdivision in this case.
Witt wrote that his Jumel Place plan aligned with the city’s goal to infill urban areas, rather than promote sprawl. The zoning allows for four duplexes, for a total of eight units. He is proposing only seven, which he says doesn’t constitute overbuilding.
Cohen wrote on the blog, “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 multifamily development in the middle of just about any existing neighborhood in our city. Yours could be the next one endangered.”
“I am a Saratoga Springs native and lifelong resident, as well as a successful, established small-business owner and employer,” Witt wrote. “I take pride in what we build and in our reputation for excellence.”
The zoning board of appeals will rule on the Downton Walk application at its March 21 meeting at 7 p.m. in City Hall.