The ZBA: In Defense Of Empathy

Following the vote by the ZBA to approve Downton Walk on Monday , there was a troubling incident that speaks to the culture of the ZBA.   As people were filing out, a woman pointed at ZBA member Adam McNeil who led the support for Downton Walk, and said “shame on you.”  Her home abuts the proposed project.  The board had approved a variance that put an eight foot fence only one foot from the edge of her house.  As she explained to me later, aside from its intrusive proximity, this will block the sun from her home.

Mr. McNeil unleashed his unrestrained anger at this woman.  He berated her about her lack of respect for what he characterized as the professional standards of the ZBA.  Now on one level, his response was human.  None of us enjoy being criticized, especially in such a devastating way.  On the other hand, it demonstrated a profound lack of empathy and an utter lack of understanding of the effect the actions of this powerful body and his vote has on people’s lives.

I would also note that at an earlier meeting, Mr. McNeil used the privilege of being on this board to excoriate its Critics.  Among the targets of his anger were the neighbors of the Moore Hall project who had criticized board member Gary Hasbrouck for going out for drinks with Sonny Bonacio, the Moore Hall developer, and his attorney, Michael Toohey immediately following a ZBA session that dealt with this project. Mr. McNeil expressed outrage that the public should attack Mr. Hasbrouck who devotes many, many hours to public service on the ZBA.  I would ask Mr. McNeil to review the stories about ex-president Bill Clinton paying a social visit with Attorney General Loretta Lynch while the Justice Department was considering charges against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private server during her tenure as Secretary of State.  As with Gary Hasbrouk’s social visit, no one knows what Lynch and Clinton discussed. The public attacks on their meeting were nevertheless explosive.  Even Mrs. Clinton’s supporters considered the meeting of the two as ill advised. 

Bear in mind, that the way the ZBA meetings are run, while the ZBA routinely carries on discussions directly with applicants, there is no vehicle for the people attacked by board members like Mr. McNeil to defend themselves.  The “public comment” period involves the opportunity for people to address the ZBA but the board has the privilege of simply ignoring comments.  When the board members do comment, the public has no opportunity follow up.

All of this simply points to how insular and insensitive many (not all) of this hugely powerful board are.



13 thoughts on “The ZBA: In Defense Of Empathy”

  1. RE approval of downtown walk by ZBA – do the members of the ZBA work for residents of Saratoga springs? or for big business?
    Help -I can’t figure it out.


  2. Alice, it seems so easy to figure it out. And I, for one, am disgusted.

    John Kaufman does an outstanding job with this blog, it’s a shame that more citizens aren’t aware of its existence. I am doing my best to spread the word.
    Without a local newspaper, we need to rely on John. He knows the people on the boards, we don’t.


  3. I hightailed it out of there so fast last night that I had no idea the craziness that took place afterwards. This has gotten ridiculous! It was bad enough that Commissioner Mathiesen openly argued with residents at the city council meeting I attended. The Zoning Board of Appeals has shown massive personal disdain for the residents of this city. They sit up there with looks of revulsion and disgust across their faces as we speak; they tell us we have no legal rights to make appeals and have to be schooled by the city attorney that we are well within our rights; and they even have told us in so many words to shut up and sit down. McNeill attempted to stop me from speaking last night by being verbally confrontational about the piece I was reading and questioning if it was the letter my mother had already submitted. I explained I had not read her letter and that I believed even if it was the same information, it was altered for presentation and was being read for the benefit of the public who had no knowledge of it. He didn’t want to let it go and kept arguing.
    Meanwhile, Witt and his attorney whispered loudly throughout my reading (and through another neighbor’s presentation) as a means to intimidate us. I ignored them, and the other neighbor stopped her speech and glared at them until they stopped. It was really disgusting. His attorney butted into the boards deliberations once public comment was closed in order to attempt to have the last word, push her agenda, and intimidate the board members.
    At previous meetings it was implied that the neighbors were the cause of why this was taking so many months. But the truth is, we only caused two adjournments (one for our appeal and one because the city screwed up and didn’t follow protocol in regards to our appeal). Every other adjournment was the doing of the board and/or the developer. They repeatedly placed us last on the agenda so that we were there till after 12:30 in the morning. The whole thing is a game. A disgusting game.


  4. I also want to mention the fact that after the previous meeting, John Witt tried to be charming towards the neighbors in the hallway. He shook my hand out of nowhere and called me his “favorite check out girl.” It was highly condescending. Then the night before last night’s meeting, he came through my register at work and attempted to charmingly discuss the upcoming meeting. When I ignored his remarks and continued to do my job, he said, “I’m just trying to be nice. I’ll be a good neighbor, I promise.” He persisted in trying to use charm to harass me at my job. It was beyond inappropriate.


    1. Mr. Witt is a salesman, period. As such, he’s a singular incarnation of “good cop, bad cop.” If he can’t charm you, he’ll call his attorneys to act as attack dogs or use the city boards or officials to do the dirty work for him.

      When he found it wasn’t economically feasible to build five houses on a tract in my neighborhood, he charmed then city planner Geoff Bornemann into proposing an 11 house subdivision which the relevant boards subsequently approved.


      1. Geoff Bornemann has not worked for the city in more then a decade. This has been dragging on that long?
        The problem here is that the ZBA (Zoning Board of ADJUSTMENT) is not supposed to grant variances except in very rare cases. This mess and the Murphy Lane disaster are all because the ZBA will not say NO.


      2. That was in 1999-2000. Mr. Witt pretty much followed the same script — invited select neighbors to view the proposal in advance which showed an attractive group of houses that were in proportion to the site (later they all doubled in size), made promises to keep mature trees (they were all clear cut) — with the purchase contingent upon ZBA approval. It’s a routine that he’s used many times.


  5. Good points John. Arrogance is the perennial potential character defect of those who hold office and wield power. Empathy is the antidote.


  6. Mr Witt appears to be building these “cottages” on speculation. In real estate lingo, that means he builds…..hoping that someone will come along and actually purchase what he built. In today’s market….”build anything and they will buy it” seems to be the norm. Look at the many condos, built on speculation. New apartments still being built, and two new hotels, one at the Racino, and one at the former Weathervane/Country Gentleman. Will there be vacant hotel rooms, causing competition among the hotels? Lower room rates?
    And, finally, what about the water crisis that Commissioner Tom McTygue warned us about, THIRTY years ago. He told us that Loughberry Lake would not have the capacity to supply water for our growing city, way back in the 1980s. Are we headed for a drought this summer? Something to think about, but nobody in City Hall, Mayor and Commissioners included, and our ZBA doesn’t even consider the supply of water for all the new construction.


  7. The truth is that for ordinary citizens, the deck is always stacked against you. Developers spend thousands of dollars on attorneys to push their plans and unless the neighbors are willing to match them, dollar for dollar, it’s a lost cause.

    We have to ask, what motivates these boards to be shameless whores for the building industry? If it isn’t money (I believe they’re all unpaid positions), then it must be power and, lacking a representative City Council, it’s power that goes unchecked. A representative on the council would be the citizens’ advocate. As is, council members only represent themselves and their departments, which is what’s really wrong with the commission form of government. We don’t need a strong mayor or a city manager (that was the misguided centerpiece of previous attempts to change the charter), we need a representative government to check these runaway boards and the cozy relationships with applicants who appear before them.

    Joseph Levy


    1. Joe, since all the commissioners run citywide they would be considered to be the representatives of the citizens of the city. The real problem is that the Mayor has the sole power to appoint the members of the land use boards according to NY state law so the Council members have no power to weigh in on her decisions.


      1. While it may be true that the commissioners can be considered representatives of the citizenry, in reality they rarely, if ever, act in behalf of residents on individual issues like this. Do they even have the power to do so? As is, the mayor makes appointments and the boards do whatever they want, without practical checks. Has the mayor ever stepped in to offer an opinion or acted to remove a board member who has obvious conflicts of interest or who acted unethically (but not illegally)?

        The only example that I can think of in which grass-roots citizen action reversed an unpopular project is the disposition of the Moore Hall property. Why should the residents of the Jumel Place area have to spent $10K (or whatever it takes) on legal fees to fight a zoning variance? The commissioners have no motivation to do so. The boards act like insular fiefdoms and short of going to court (at great expense), there’s no recourse and the developers know this.

        Joseph Levy


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