Board hears neighbor’s appeal
Downton Walk is a Witt Construction development planned for Jumel Place and under zoning-board appeal by a group of concerned neighbors. Photo provided.
By Jennie Grey, The Saratogian
Posted: 05/11/16, 4:47 PM EDT | Updated: 2 hrs ago
SARATOGA SPRINGS >> Neighbors are continuing to speak out about a proposed development of several homes in their quiet east Side neighborhood.
At the May 9 zoning board of appeals meeting, the issues of interpreting code and setting precedents came under discussion as a group of citizens appealed a developer’s application to build seven homes on a single 0.79-acre Jumel Place lot.
The developer in question is John Witt, president of Witt Construction, who proposes to build seven single-family condominiums on the site, with the land owned in common. The design plan shows a cluster of $700,000 to $1.5 million Tudor-style homes whose exterior charm has not won over all the local residents.
These concerned citizens live in the neighborhood surrounding Jumel Place. Their stance is that condominiums are defined in Saratoga Springs zoning code as multifamily dwellings. Multifamily structures are not allowed in an Urban Residential-3 (UR-3) Zoning District, where Jumel Place is situated. The neighbors also say only five single-family units are allowed on that size lot, if the property is subdivided, which it currently is not. No application for subdivision has been made.
Since building condominiums on that parcel would constitute a different zoning use, say the appellant neighbors, Witt should first obtain a use variance.
“We do not oppose Mr. Witt per se, or that he should build on this parcel,” the residents wrote in a letter to their neighborhood and to the city at large. “Our aim is to make the zoning board require Mr. Witt to come back with a more reasonable proposal, more in line with the zoning laws that were intended to protect us from projects like this.”
In background information for this letter, the residents explained their point of view: “By not being required to subdivide and by calling these units ‘condominiums,’ he relieves himself of the setback and maximum coverage requirements of our zoning laws, and can arrange the seven buildings any way he wants, tightly packing them in.”
Tuczinski, Cavalier and Gilchrist Principal Jonathan Tingley, the neighbors’ attorney, presented several views of how the property and the neighborhood might look if the buildings were set closely together.
“Seven homes on a single lot constitute multifamily use,” he argued. “And if this sets a precedent, then in the UR-3, a single lot could be used to build any number of dwelling units.”
Such a cluster of dwellings would amount to an apartment complex, he said. Multifamily units are legal and appropriate in the UR-4, UR-4a and UR-5 districts, but not in the UR-3.
Yet if subdivided, the ensuing lot lines would violate almost all the prescribed setbacks, Tingley said, making for a number of area variances.
Members of the board expressed several concerns, among them the question of whether residents could make such an appeal.
Vice Chair Keith Kaplan said, “I’m troubled that the neighbors can appeal like this and possibly stop the zoning process. I worry about the process grinding to a halt.”
Consulting planning board attorney Mark Schachner assessed this neighbors’ group as having definite aggrieved-party status by virtue of their living so near to the Witt lot.
“I strongly recommend the board not try to dismiss this appeal,” he said with emphasis.
Other issues included coding definitions. Board member Susan Steer noted that condominiums were classified as multifamily dwellings in the ordinance and yet as single-family units in this project application.
Nearly all the board members expressed some confusion over why the appeal focused on defining reasons for a use variance, instead of only an area variance, since the neighbors had long protested the project’s scope and density before this. Tingley said the focus on the use issue gave the appeal broader standing. The development of the entire district would be affected by the appeal’s outcome.
“This matter has wide repercussions for interpretations of code and the definition of ‘condominium,’” said member James Helicke. “Here, the definition is about ownership, rather than use.”
Board Secretary Adam McNeill said any concern about multifamily dwellings spreading all across the UR-3 district was overblown. Any applicant for such a project would have to come before the board and be granted an area variance, he said.
“To say that permitting this development sets a dangerous precedent is alarmist,” he said. “It’s like crying wolf.”
Witt’s attorney, Libby Coreno of Carter, Conboy, Case, Blackmore, Maloney and Laird, spoke about procedure, precedent and case law as pertaining to this appeal. Her main point was that the substance of the zoning code was what mattered.
“No matter what a zoning board thinks a city council meant, it’s the plain language of the code that is applied,” she said.
She said the Witt project was not a multifamily condo development, but single-family units on a single lot.
Resident Maureen Curtin said the project should be permitted to build only five single-family or four two-family units under the law.
“Many residents feel variances are abused in the city,” said Saratoga Springs Politics blogger John Kaufmann. “This board may facilitate Mr. Witt circumventing the process and jamming great amounts of dwelling units on the property.”
Witt countered, “Single-family units or duplexes are a permitted use in this district.”
Schachner read pertinent code definition aloud to the board: “‘Residence – multifamily’ is defined as ‘a residential structure containing three or more dwelling units.’”
But again, condominiums are defined in Saratoga Springs zoning code as multifamily dwellings.
“It seems as though there are several possible interpretations in the laws,” said resident Kira Cohen.
After creating and signing an online petition about the issue, now with 478 signatures, resident Sam Brewton wrote, “We’re not against developing this plot, but we oppose the massive scope of the requested variances, loss of setbacks and cramming-in of more buildings than this lot is zoned for. What’s the point of zoning if it can be this easily skirted? This lot can be successfully developed, and we’d welcome this same developer if a more reasonable plan were presented.”
The ZBA will decide on the appeal at its next meeting on May 23 at 7 p.m. in City Hall.