Proposed change to Comprehensive Plan voted down by council
This lot on Morgan Street is where Saratoga Hospital hopes to build an office structure. jennie grey – firstname.lastname@example.org
By Jennie Grey, The Saratogian
Posted: 05/18/16, 5:09 PM EDT | Updated: 1 day ago
SARATOGA SPRINGS >> With two recusals, the city council voted 2-1 against amending part of the Comprehensive Plan at the May 17 meeting. Two parcels Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen had hoped to change from an institutional designation back to their original residential will therefore remain institutional, and Saratoga Hospital can continue to propose an expansion project on that land.
“I think this never should have gotten so far,” said Mathiesen, the sole assenting vote. “The designation shouldn’t have been changed in the first place. But the city council had a lot of work to do on the Comprehensive Plan and didn’t pay enough attention to this change.”
Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan said she did pay attention and remembers the map reviews. She and Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco voted against the plan amendment, although both said they appreciated Mathiesen’s bringing the matter to the council. The three had a lengthy public discussion before the vote.
“I just don’t see a benefit in changing the plan,” Scirocco said. “It doesn’t make sense to change the designation of these pieces of property. It opens up a whole can of worms, leading to possible requests for more changes.”
He and Madigan said they were in favor of the hospital’s expansion.
The hospital’s project, a $14 million medical office building, has been planned to consolidate the facility’s physician employees, their staffs and their patients in one space in close proximity to the hospital, and provide better patient care and efficiency. The hospital would like to build on nearby Morgan Street, about 200 yards north of the facility’s main location at 211 Church St.
However, the application has been stalled due to residents’ protests, the city council’s ethics and Saratoga Springs politics.
During the May 17 public comment period, Ina Harney of Seward St. expressed the concerns most of her neighbors have. They worry about the growth of the hospital taking over the neighborhood; they are anxious about traffic and parking.
For the hospital to construct this building, the city council would need to vote to make the 8.5-acre Morgan Street lot part of the existing Saratoga Hospital planned unit development (PUD) in that area. The city planning board has already returned a favorable advisory opinion on the PUD to the city council.
The city council is where the hospital’s application has stalled. The mayor’s agendas have called for four public hearings on the PUD, a number both the hospital administration and city council members have called unusual and excessive. During these hearings, hospital staff and residents of the neighborhood have spoken at length. Finally, after months of hearing about the project, the council seemed prepared to vote on the PUD extension.
Then at the Jan. 19 city council meeting, Mayor Joanne Yepsen and Accounts Commissioner John Franck unexpectedly recused themselves from further discussion or voting on this hospital issue.
Yepsen, a professional fundraiser/consultant, recused herself because she had applied to and discussed working with the Saratoga Hospital Foundation, which would give her an indirect financial interest in the hospital’s expansion plan. Yepsen presented her situation to the city board of ethics, which directed her to abstain from voting on the zoning change.
Franck, a certified public accountant, recused himself from the zoning change vote because the Morgan Street Homeowners Association and the Birch Run Homeowners Association are clients of his private business. He does financial work for both groups. These housing developments are located near the hospital, and residents of them are among the members of the vocal citizens protesting any PUD expansion there.
Jan. 29, these residents submitted a petition to the city attorney’s office. Their attorney, Andrew Brick of Albany, said this legally triggered a super-majority, meaning that at least four city council votes must be cast before the PUD could be expanded. With the two recusals, such a vote is impossible at this time and in this situation: Only three commissioners are left on the five-person council to vote.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have five people sitting at the table,” Scirocco said. “It doesn’t make sense for three people to decide for five.”
Madigan agreed the commissioners were too few there.
“The residents of the entire city, not just the Morgan Street neighbors, deserve a fully functioning city council,” she said. “This is one of the most baffling and embarrassing situations I have ever seen on the city council.”
Resident Dave Bronner of Royal Henley Ct., spoke during the meeting’s public hearing, mentioning the concern some citizens have expressed about these recusals.
“This is an important $14 million expansion project for the hospital and the community,” he said. “We need to know why the mayor didn’t recuse herself in October when she first applied for work with the Hospital Foundation and why she did recuse herself in January, when the hospital had decided not to employ her at this time. I hope the mayor isn’t punishing the hospital with this recusal.”
Alice Smith, who lives on nearby Woodland Court, said she thought the mayor had done well to recuse herself. Smith also said changing the Comprehensive Plan designation back to residential was the right things to do.
Jack Despart of Morgan St. lives across the road from the proposed medical office building. He said he too was in favor of the Comprehensive Plan change.
During this period of the council being stymied, Mathiesen, a steadfast advocate for the neighbors, had first proposed changing the institutional designation back to its original residential. He said the lot was a beautiful piece of property for residential building.
As far as traffic and parking, he said Morgan Street was not ready to take on many more vehicles. He would also like the hospital to build parking garages instead of spreading out so many acres of parking lots.
“More traffic and parking would have a direct affect on the neighborhood,” he said.
The Jones Firm’s Matthew J. Jones, an attorney for Saratoga Hospital, said the hospital would wait until a full complement of council members could vote on the PUD.
“Probably that will be after the next election,” he said.
Scirocco said, “The work of the wise is to repair the work of the well-intentioned.”