[JK:Another great story by Joseph Levy]
Even Bike Trails Can Be Paved With Good Intentions (Or Not)
By Joseph Levy
What may (or not) be this election season’s latest issue is officially known as the Geyser Road – Spa State Park Bicycle Pedestrian Trail. As currently proposed, the paved path would follow a route parallel to Geyser Road from the Milton town line, just east of Rowland Street, to the Avenue of Pines. At the western end, this would connect trails in the town of Milton, and beyond, to trails in the Saratoga Spa State Park at the eastern end. In turn, the latter would link to the existing and proposed Greenbelt trails encircling the city. The Spa Park trails were recently extended to the Railroad Run trail that begins in downtown Saratoga Springs, so that ultimately one would be able to travel by bike or foot between the outer districts and downtown on a safe byway, isolated from motor vehicle traffic.
At a hearing before the City Council on August 1st, residents spoke for and against the existing proposal, which has been in the works in various forms since 2005. Adding to the mix was a recent offer from the Slack Chemical Co. and its neighbor, beverage distributor Saratoga Eagle, both owners of wooded lands roughly three-quarters of a mile west of Geyser Road. They offered to donate land to the city for free so that the trail could wind through this otherwise vacant parcel, saving the city from acquiring land along the currently proposed right-of-away.
Although some conceptual maps were on display as part of project engineer Peter Faith’s opening presentation, one of the problems I had in evaluating the pros and cons was the absence of published maps delineating the various schemes. So, based on the presentation, I came up with the map below. The city’s current proposal is the Red Route and one concepts for the Slack/Eagle alternative is the Green Route.
The Red Route has been under consideration since 2005 and has a total budget of about $3 million, mostly funded by state and federal grants. In addition to the trail, these funds would improve the intersection of Geyser Road and Route 50, which the trail would cross to join the existing path, which continues parallel to the Avenue of the Pines. The nationwide financial crisis of 2008-2009 put this and many other infrastructure projects on the back burner for a few years, so along with the economic recovery, came the incentive to finish this trail, with a target of 2018.
In his presentation, Mr. Faith pointed out that the Slack/Eagle Green Route had numerous problems and was impractical for a number of reasons, including:
1. The Geyser Road bridge over the railway was recently rebuilt to include accommodation for pedestrians and bicycles on the north side. The alternate Green Route would require a new bridge, not only over the rail line, but over Geyser Creek, as well, pushing costs up another $1 million or so. This is to say nothing of the need for new engineering and environmental impact studies, especially since it’s been reported that the Karner Blue butterfly lives in these woods and that there’s a wide swath of wetlands in those lands, to boot.
2. The alternate proposal would still fail accomplish the primary goal of a continuous path from the Milton town line to the Spa State Park. Let me add that at twice the length of the Red Trail along Geyser Road, the cost of the Green Trail, including additional grading, paving, and a bridge or tunnel, would turn this into a $6 million project and push it back another three to five years.
While the hearing was specifically called to discuss the issue of eminent domain in pursuit of an unbroken right-of-way, many residents and one business owner from the Geyser Road area spoke in favor of the project. Currently, there is no continuous sidewalk along the road and the paved shoulder is too narrow for even a vehicle to pull over. Most speakers favored the major objective of providing a direct, safe pathway for biking and walking from the local neighborhoods to and from the Geyser Road Elementary School, the adjacent local park, the Spa State Park and, ultimately, downtown Saratoga. One resident pointed out that even if the alternate route were to be built, kids would still walk or bike down the much shorter (and much more dangerous) Geyser Road shoulder.
Although residents on the south side of Geyser Road generally favored the plan, Jack Pompay, one of the opponents who spoke at the hearing, lives on the north side of the road and, as shown on a chart presented by Mr. Faith, is one of four private property owners whose land would be needed to complete the project. Mayor John Romano of Ballston Spa, which owns a nearby reservoir situated on a parcel with frontage on Geyser Road, raised several objections, as well.
To be perfectly clear, the city’s claim would be limited to frontage along the road, perhaps 8 or 10 feet deep, and not target entire properties. Most of the parcels subject to this action include structures set far enough back from the road as to be be unaffected. The net change has more to do with relocating landscaping features, such as the scrubs and fencing, than relocating or displacing families.
Mr. Pompay lives at 111 Geyser Road and, as you can see from photos excerpted from Google Earth, the right-of-way would necessitate removing or moving the mature shrubbery that borders his front yard. As a point of fact, Mr. Pompay would stand to loose 0.09 acres of a parcel that totals 7.83 acres. That’s less than 1/10th of an acre.
The other private property owners are Munter Land Holdings LLC (they would loose 0.04 acres out of 45.83 acres of vacant land), Van Hall Holdings LLC (0.07 acres out of 3.58 acres of vacant land), and the Saratoga Springwater Co. (0.6 acres out of 46.6 acres). Thomas Harrington, Jr, who owns 159 Geyser Road, had concerns about how much of his property, if any, would be taken, but he was not on the list presented by Mr. Faith. Neither was the property at 119 Geyser Road, right next to Mr. Pompay’s, though it would seem that strips of both parcels would be necessary to complete the trail.
In 2005, the principle of property owner’s absolute right to their land was struck down by the US Supreme Court in a Connecticut case known as Kelo v. City of New London. Like it or not, a claim of eminent domain in the furtherance of development is perfectly legal. Despite this, Amanda Jackson, an attorney with the law firm of Harris Beach announced that she was representing both Mr. Pompay and the Saratoga Springwater Co. and would oppose any attempt to claim eminent domain over their respective properties in court.
Dave Morris, a commentator well known to readers of this blog, also came forward to denounce the process and served notice that two Geyser Road property owners, whom he did not name, also planned to sue the city over eminent domain. He took a very aggressive stance and claimed that two of the city council members, also unnamed, had privately admitted to him that they thought the Red Trail had safety concerns due to its proximity to the very busy thoroughfare, an argument used by everyone who spoke against it. Although he did not mention his exact residence before addressing the council, there is a David Morris who lives on Tamarack Trail in the Geyser Crest development, off the south side of Geyser Road. His property would be unaffected.
The figures, noted above, show that the actual amount of eminent domain-related property under discussion is fairly minuscule, so what’s the big brew-ha-ha all about? What’s missing from the public view? To find out, a mutual friend put me in touch with someone who has closely followed this project from the beginning and who is familiar with many of the principals. This individual, who preferred to remain anonymous (let’s call him Deep Woods) mentioned a number of points, to which I will add a couple based on my own observations:
1. The appraiser, who was hired to evaluate the proposed parcel buy-outs, apparently lacked certain diplomatic skills and offended land owners with both his manners and his math. To illustrate this point, Mayor Romano mentioned that Ballston Spa was offered a mere $1,800 for about 1/4 of an acre of prime road frontage. This, after being threatened with an eminent domain action before there was even an opportunity to negotiate, among other insults.
2. We know from his posts elsewhere on this blog that Dave Morris despises Mayor Yepsen, who backs the trail, as proposed, along Geyser Road.
3. Deep Woods alleged that Adam Madkour, the CEO of the Saratoga Springwater Co., is an extreme conservative who also despises Mayor Yepsen and is also thought to be the financial backer of the proposed lawsuits against the city’s eminent domain actions, including one by Mr. Pompay (Ms. Jackson pretty much confirmed this).
4. Saratoga Springs Republican supervisor candidate John Safford spoke up, as well, and urged the city to delay action until it had more thoroughly considered the proposal by Saratoga Eagle and Slack Chemical. He was defeated for mayor by Yepsen in 2015 and was also the recipient of campaign donations from Jeff Vukelic, the president of Saratoga Eagle.
Frankly, it looks like the principal objections are coming from individuals who are out to embarrass the mayor over a project that she’s promoted and worked to advance for the past several years. But what’s the point? She’s not running for re-election, the Geyser Road Trail was initiated by her predecessor and will be certainly by inaugurated by her successor, so why gang up on her now? I’m not a big believer in conspiracies, but there seems to be some sort of political mischief at work here, if only by coincidence.
If I may further editorialize, the safety objections are superfluous. Mayor Romano suggested that increased foot traffic would lead kids to stray from the path, go into the woods and then into the reservoir, where they might drown. Of course, they could do that now and what would stop them? The whole point of the path is to increase safety for bikers and hikers, as attested to by many of the speakers. If there is a genuine need for additional safety measures, then put a low fence or bollards between the path and the road. Should conditions call for it, this can always be done retroactively.
Rather than waste money on a legal dispute that it’s likely to win, anyway, the city should negotiate a reasonable price with Ballston Spa, put a fence around the reservoir to limit their liability (why isn’t it there now?), and apologize for the appraiser’s ill-mannered treatment of the mayor. It should take the same action with the property owners. Offer them a generous settlement, relocate their fences and shrubs, and agree to a year’s worth of maintenance in order to guarantee restoration of the landscaping to its original appearance.
The next hearing will be this Tuesday, August 15, and the public is invited to submit additional comments, after which the comment period will end. If you’re really passionate about this, don’t just comment here — tell it to the City Council where the vote to proceed, modify, or delay will take place.
For additional insight, a LookTV video of the August 1st City Council meeting can be viewed on YouTube http://www.looktvonline.com/saratoga-council-meeting-8-1-17/. This particular discussion begins at marker 8:08:00. If you’re curious to see and hear Dave Morris in action, he comes in at marker 1:27:25.