Charter Review Commission Shows Thoughtful Approach To Potential Changes

The previous charter review commission pressed a narrative that the city’s commission form of government was by its very nature riven by conflict and run by deputies who were political hacks. While the members of that commission put in many long hours  their lack of knowledge of how government actually works was reflected in their often meandering discussions .  They basically largely focused on their belief that the problems of city government were the result of the commission form of government and assumed that a city manager would resolve everything.  By their second meeting they had dismissed exploring correctable problems with the commission form.

I received a release that summarizes the work of the current commission whose membership is made up of the Commissioners and their Deputies.  I strongly urge the readers of this blog to take a few minutes to peruse the document.  It made me feel very good about the people who serve us in city hall.  The summary shows that the members of this new charter commission  have a thorough understanding of the way city hall functions.  There are thoughtful recommendations being considered that will ultimately  go to the voters about reorganizing the responsibilities of the various departments so the city can operate more efficiently.  The reader will find an amazing lack of turf conflict.  It is also impressive how civilly and professionally these people handle their differences.  I don’t know how anyone reading this release or watching the videos of their meetings cannot come away feeling a sense of pride about our city government.  Credit also needs to go to Mayor Kelly who selected the members of the committee and crafted its mission.

 The current Charter Review Commission regularly sends out releases that summarize the work of each meeting.  They meet the 2nd and 4th Wednesdays monthly at 4PM in the City Council chambers. Meeting minutes and video recordings are available on the City website.  In addition a public forum will be held Wednesday, May 30th at 6PM in the City Council Room. City residents can also give feedback at each of the commission’s meetings or through the city website  Link

MEDIA ANNOUNCEMENT: 2018 Charter Review Commission Update

Date: May 25, 2018

Saratoga Springs, NY — The 2018 Charter Review Commission (“CRC”) held its sixth meeting on Wednesday May 24th at 4pm in the City Council Room. During this meeting the CRC reviewed the sections and the proposed edits discussed during the meeting held on Saturday May 19th for the benefit of those CRC members who were unable to attend, and also completed its initial review of the remainder of the current Charter.

As a reminder, the CRC was formed on March 6, 2018 by Mayor Meg Kelly with the goal of finding efficiencies and organizational improvements to better serve the people who live and work in the City of Saratoga Springs. The Commission’s proposal will be voted on by City residents via a referendum in the November 2018 election.

Below are some of the topics that have been discussed in the past two meetings, along with a recap of some of the discussion points. No discussion noted below is final. The CRC intends to review and vote on each section later in the process, along with a comprehensive review by outside legal counsel.

• Within the Finance section, the CRC again spoke about moving the Capital Budget from the Mayor’s section to Finance, so that the City Council member elected to create and manage the City’s Operating Budget also manages the Capital Budget. The Capital Budget inherently influences the Operating Budget and therefore the tax rate paid by City residents. Other potential Finance edits discussed included more explicit language around the Finance Commissioner’s role as Internal Auditor and adjustments to the budgeting calendar, as to allow Finance more time to finalize and present a Comprehensive Budget to the City Council and residents.

• When discussing the Public Works portion of the Charter, the CRC referred back to earlier conversations regarding Recreation, Parks, and Open Space all potentially moving to Public Works, given this department’s stated responsibility over City land and facilities. There was also some discussion around facility management responsibilities between Public Works and Public Safety, and if this separation, and any possible changes, should be discussed further within the Charter.

• Regarding the Public Safety section, the most material issue remains the potential merger of Code Administration in Public Safety with Building and Zoning Enforcement with the Mayor’s Department. There seems to be consensus among the CRC that combining the group, either in full or partially, makes sense and would increase efficiencies internally and for residents, though the most appropriate structure has yet to be determined.

• Within Accounts the topic that received the most attention was the requirement that the Commissioner of Accounts shall be a licensed assessor. The CRC discussed what the City’s options might be according to State law.


• In the Legal Matters portion, the CRC largely agreed that the City Attorney should continue to be appointed by the Mayor, but that that appointment should require the advice and consent of the City Council. Per the Charter, the City Attorney serves as general legal advisor to the City and all its departments, not just the Mayor, so many felt the other City Council members should have the ability to vote on the appointment. Also discussed during this section was the potential creation of an administrative unit which would include other groups that support departments across City Hall, though no consensus was reached on the structure or which groups would potentially be included.

• Other topics discussed from the remainder of the existing Charter include the necessity for an inside and outside tax district, limitations imposed on the City’s bonding limit, and the term and number of County Supervisors explicitly laid out in the Charter, among others.

• Outside of the Charter review itself, the CRC approved the brief questionnaire that will be given to attendees of the May 30th public forum, and the CRC Chairman updated the broader commission on matters such as retaining outside council and subcommittee meetings with select groups and individuals.

As always, the meeting minutes and video recordings from CRC meetings are available on the City website. City residents are also invited to give feedback at future CRC meetings, the public forum to be held on Wednesday May 30th at 6pm in the City Council Room, or through the City website ( ).




Saratoga Springs To Sponsor Gun Buyback Day

A city gun buyback program will take place Saturday, June 2, from 9AM to 3PM. Unwanted long guns and handguns can be brought to the Unitarian Universal Church parking lot at 624 North Broadway. Local businesses have raised money for gift cards to be given to those turning in guns.

More  information is available on the city website and the Police Department’s Face-book page.

 Here’s a link to the story in the Saratogian: 

Link to Saratogian




Mayor Restarts City Center Parking Facility Process Plan With Expanded Concept

Mayor Kelly has announced the establishment of a committee she is calling the Flat Rock Working Group.  With broad representation the committee is being asked to rethink not only the City Center proposed parking facility but the city owned parking lots and land adjacent to the City Center.  She is quoted in the Saratogian as follows:

“For years the city has continued plans to develop the lots behind City Hall. In partnership with the City Center, we are refining the vision for the city-owned parking lots,” said Kelly. “Our vision includes the creation of an exciting community destination, a rooftop venue, parking for the City Center and city events, improved pedestrian connections from High Rock to Maple Avenue, inclusion of the Greenbelt Trail with new opportunities for green space, an extension of the High Rock Park market, conference meeting space and hopefully the revival of the Flat Rock spring.”

The Saratogian and the Gazette indicated that the membership of the working group is a work in progress but identifies the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, the Special Assessment District (downtown), the City Center Authority, Downtown Business Association, Saratoga Convention and Tourism Bureau.  The Mayor also plans to appoint neighbors and other “stake holders” including the Pedinottis who own the Mouzon House.

The Pedinottis have an on-going suit against the city regarding the City Center’s plans for a parking facility in this area that has been in the courts for at least two years.  They told the Gazette, “If we can come to an agreement that the garage won’t be the same footprint, and that they’ll take our needs and the city’s needs into consideration, we’d be delighted to settle,” she said. “There are a lot of really good things being considered in this new plan, and we’re hopeful it’s something everyone in the city will agree with.”

The city council authorized the Mayor to contract with the L.A. Group for up to $19,500.00 to provide technical support to the group.

Link to Saratogian Article

Link to Gazette Article

The Saratogian and the Hedge Fund Alden Capital

Recently, staff from the Denver Post traveled to New York City to protest in front of the skyscraper owned by hedge fund Alden Capital.  The editor of the Post had resigned over on-going Draconian staff layoffs. 

 In the years since Alden Capital acquired the Post in 2010 the paper had gone from a staff of over 200 to less than 100.  The newspaper has been ordered to layoff another 30 employees by July.

 The company’s records are not available because it is privately owned but a study done by a professor of journalism has estimated that they have been generating a 17% profit.

 So what is the local link?  This hedge fund also owns the Saratogian.  The Saratogian has also been decimated.  While Joseph Phelan does a very good job on the stories he covers, unfortunately the paper no longer has the resources to properly cover the city and the county.

 Here is a link to the New York Times story.



Developer John Witt: He Shouldn’t Do His Own Public Relations

In a May 7 Times Union story, Wendy Libertore brought out the darker side of developer John Witt.  Ms. Liberatore doesn’t have an unblemished record on accuracy and she definitely likes to go for the throat.  In the case of Mr. Witt, he offered up a large target for her.

Witt wants to build a large development of 31 homes he calls “Cedar Bluff”  on 111.6 acres on a steep ridge overlooking Saratoga Lake.  According to Ms. Liberatore’s story, the neighbors are alarmed about the potential impact of removing at least half the trees on the property.  The neighbors along with the Saratoga Lake Association and the Saratoga Lake Protection and Improvement District believe Witt’s proposal could “…destabilize the ridge, cause flooding due to an excess of storm water run-off, erode 9P below, and adversely affect the health of the lake.”  They also fear the runoff will compromise the water table that they depend upon for their homes.

It is unclear just how many times Witt met with Ian Murray the chairman of the Stillwater Planning Board, but at a March 28 meeting of the Planning Board Murray apparently referenced meeting with Witt.  His statement was recorded in the minutes of the meeting.  According to Liberatore’s story, he actually told his fellow board members and the public that he had met privately with Witt and the town engineer.

In classic Wendy Liberatore style, she offers that the “Open Meetings Laws do not prohibit planning board chairman [sic]from meeting privately with an applicant.   It would only be prohibited if a quorum of the Planning Board was present at a closed-door meeting.”  This is inaccurate on so many levels.  To begin with, if there were a quorum present, he would not be meeting privately since others would be present.  The area of the law she is referencing has to do with the fact that if a quorum of the board assembles, the law considers that to be a de facto meeting and therefore requires that the public be allowed to be present.  In fact, the law precludes such a gathering without the proper notices being published prior to the event.

She does,  however, quote Jim Cashin, an opponent of the project and an attorney, who accurately characterized the meeting between Witt and Murray as a violation of the New York State General Municipal Law as an ex parte contact.  The planning board is a quasi judicial body that bars inappropriate contacts between applicants and members of the board.  It would be similar to a plaintif in a civil suit meeting privately with a judge.  Ex Parte contacts are strictly prohibited.  Sometimes they are hard to avoid.  For example, an applicant might accost a board member at a supermarket.  If that happens, the board member is supposed to advise the board at the earliest possible time of the details of the event.

According to Liberatore, Witt has accused his critics of “spreading lies.”

Liberatore reported that residents were concerned about an incident Witt was involved in in 2014.  She reported that to provide a view for a development he was constructing he clear cut an area in spite of the fact that his plans had not included this.  Code enforcement secured a stop work order but the trees were gone before Witt could be served.  Attorney Cashin told Liberatore that Witt claimed there had been a filing mistake because he had originally planned to do the clear cutting.

Liberatore contacted Witt for the story.  He told her he would not speak “to the trashy newspaper” regarding his project.  He told her he would only speak to a reporter willing to cover the story in a “positive light.”

I understand that Mr. Witt builds some beautiful homes.  Apparently that skill set does not translate into PR skills.

Our ZBA: Mayor Yepsen’s Legacy

It is important to understand that the current Zoning Board of Appeals is really Mayor Joanne Yepsen’s legacy. During her two terms in office she appointed 5 of the current 7 members.

While she made some good appointments of people who are independent of the real estate industry, she also reappointed former Mayor Scott Johnson appointee Bill Moore as chair. As readers may recall Bill Moore played a significant role in the approval of the Murphy Lane debacle as well as the Witt Downton Walk project among others.

Consider also Yepsen’s appointments of Oksana Ludd and Brad Gallagher as alternates. As it turns out, both work for the law firm Barklay Damon.  This is a large corporate law firm with offices across the state.  It employs approximately two hundred and seventy-five attorneys.  The Barklay in the name is William “Will” Barklay who is the Republican deputy minority leader in the New York State Assembly.

Here is an amusing tidbit from his Wikipedia page:

As chairman of the New York State Republican Assembly Campaign Committee, Barklay set in motion—and insists in the legality of—the so-called “Edward Hennessey Stalking Incident” in which on behalf of Barklay’s chosen candidate Dean Murray, a Democratic opponent, Edward Hennessey,was surveilled in his home and a GPS tracking bug affixed to his automobile, to which Mr. Barklay expounded: “One of the methods of doing that is tracking where the guy is staying at night.”

This is a link to the full article:

According to a reliable source, Barklay Damon’s practice includes lobbying services and they have represented corporations fighting Super Fund clean ups.

In the true spirit of these kinds of practices, they are not partisan when it comes to donating to politicians or in who is associated with their firm. Senator Neil Breslin who is a Democrat and represents Albany is associated with their firm.

I have previously posted information about Mr. Gallagher’s area of law. Here is a description of Ms. Ludd’s practice from the Barklay Damon website.

“Oksana Ludd concentrates her practice in commercial real estate and various types of commercial lending and other finance transactions. Oksana has extensive experience representing clients in all aspects of commercial real estate development including acquisition, construction, financing, and leasing. She handles complex financings and is actively engaged in commercial mortgage and asset-based secured loans on behalf of lenders and borrowers.”

Ms. Ludd and Mr. Gallagher joined with Johnson appointees Keith Kaplan and Adam McNeil to approve the extraordinary variances granted the owner of the S. Franklin Street scrap metal business located across the alley from Chairman Bill Moore’s home which was described in a previous post.

For some of us it is extremely frustrating that with all the appointments that Mayor Yepsen had the authority to make, that we are still saddled with a current ZBA majority that votes for the kind of projects we saw approved on S. Franklin Street.

Unfortunately Meg Kelly recently appointed Mr. Gallagher to a regular board position for a seven year term.

City Denies Singling Out Blogger

I received a response from the city regarding my unfortunate experience at the Planning Department office.  As readers may recall, I had requested the folder for the development proposed for the metal scrap yard located across an alley from the ZBA Chairman.  Rather than the usual procedure of filling out a FOIL form at the counter and receiving the file, I was told to make a formal request to the city’s attorney.  In a previous post, I published my email to the mayor expressing concern about the incident. Below is City Attorney Vince DeLeonardis response and my email back to him.

 Mr. DeLeonardis’ response needs to be put in context.  As the city’s Attorney he sees his role as defending the city.  As I have repeatedly noted, I like and respect Mr. DeLeonardis and his response was what I expected.  I do think that his argument suffers from the limits that defending a poorly thought out policy necessarily entails.  As always I leave it to the readers of this blog to make up their own minds after reading the emails.

 My hope is that in the privacy of their offices, the Mayor and her Attorney will reconsider the need to establish a consistent and transparent policy for handling requests for property folders maintained in the Planning Office.



In response to your e-mail below, as well as your April 27th e-mail and your May 2nd blog, please allow this to confirm that you have neither been denied access to records maintained in the Planning Office nor been provided with “special status”.

At the outset, it is the policy of the City that all requests for publicly available records are to be made through a FOIL request.  There are, as you correctly indicated, multiple methods for accessing and completing such requests.

My office receives and processes hundreds of FOIL requests annually which can be, and often are, voluminous and time consuming.  In order to expedite the process for files maintained in the Planning Office and Building Department, we have allowed for certain FOIL requests to be completed at the counter and, in most cases, the records can be reviewed at the counter.  If, however, the file is extensive, or if it contains documents which staff determines need to be reviewed prior to release, the FOIL will be responded to through my office.

Allowing certain FOIL requests to be submitted and the records reviewed at the counter is not intended to circumvent the process but, rather, to expedite it whenever possible.  Moreover, the expedited process has everything to do with the nature of the request and absolutely nothing to do with the individual making the request.  In other words, and contrary to your suggestion, neither you nor anyone has “special status” when it comes to accessing publicly available records.

You then questioned, in your April 27th e-mail, as to why it was necessary to view the files with Tony as opposed to simply reviewing them at the Planning Office.  As indicated above, the requested documents are contained in four separate files and, as such, it would be difficult or less practicable to review them at the counter in the Planning Office.  For convenience, we intended to allow the files to be reviewed in the City Council room, however, any time files are removed from the Planning Office or Building Department and handled by members of the public, a city employee will accompany the file for what I trust are obvious reasons.  Again, this has everything to do with the nature of the request and absolutely nothing to do with the individual making the request.  This is the same procedure that has been followed in the past for other FOIL requests.

Be assured that access has not been denied and the records are (and have been since April 27th) available for your review.  Please contact my office to schedule a time which is convenient for you to do so.

Best regards,


Vincent J. DeLeonardis

City Attorney Saratoga Springs City Attorney’s Office 474 Broadway – Room 7 Saratoga

Springs, New York 12866 (518) 587-3550 ext. 2414

From: John Kaufmann []
Sent: Friday, May 04, 2018 3:33 PM
To: ‘Vincent DeLeonardis’; ‘Meg Kelly’
Cc: ‘Michele Madigan’; ‘’; John Franck
; Skip Sciroco
Subject: Response To Email Re FOIL Standards

Thank you for your prompt response to my email regarding recent FOIL issues.

First let me note that I have no question that if the FOIL requests I make are covered by FOIL that your office will make sure that I have access to them. With respect, however, there are a number of reasons for my skepticism regarding the city’s handling of this recent matter and several of your arguments.

First, in the past there has never been a reference to the physical limit of the files that  can be viewed at the counter in the Planning Office.  The now infamous barn “rehab” on Murphy Lane was something of a tome.  Not quite the size of the novel War and Peace but nevertheless, substantive.  The files concerning the Bonacio Moore Hall project had considerable heft as well.   They were both also  more controversial than the Dawson project yet I had ready access to those documents through the expedited FOIL process available in the Planning Office.

More troubling was the manner with which I was denied access to the Dawson files when I visited the Planning Office.  Had someone come out and explained the reasons you laid out in your thoughtful email I might have found it somewhat odd but that would have been the extent of my reaction.  What I found disturbing was that not only was no one available to explain to me why I was being required to make application to your office, I was not even allowed to know who it was who had made the decision to require this.  I will not conjecture as to why the person preferred anonymity but I would expect any objective observer would have shared my understandable concern that this kind of opacity was unnecessary and troubling.

There is also the outstanding question as to future access to these files.  I expect that the construction people for Mr. Dawson’s project will, in all likelihood, be visiting the Planning Office to check the files for information.  Are they going to have to go through your office and will they only be allowed to view the files in the presence of Tony Izzo?  That is a rhetorical question.

I know you and the Mayor are very busy and I am not asking you to respond to this email.  I would just offer that this kind of thing can be handled better and that it would probably be worth seeing this as a “teachable moment” and adopt some procedures to handle access to documents in the Planning Office in a more elegant and consistent manner.


The Zoning Board Outdoes itself: Thank God They Do Not Have the Authority to Site Nuclear Plants

Many of us asked could the ZBA possibly act more irresponsibly than it did in the case of the Murphy Lane “Barn Conversion”?  The answer, as demonstrated by their actions at their April 23rd meeting, is a resounding “yes”!

Here is ZBA board member James Helicke summing up just how egregious this  project is.  This short clip is well worth watching.

Spa City Recycling, previously known as Figelman & Son Scrap Metal, has been something of an open sore on the city’s west side.  It is located  at 77 South Franklin St. and the property runs down Cobb Alley. The operation predates zoning so it has been able to continue in spite of the noise and traffic it has generated.

In 2012, Anthony Dawson’s company, Moto Holdings, purchased the company from the Figelman estate.

More recently, Mr. Dawson constructed a new facility in the town of Milton, and this winter he ceased operations at the Saratoga Springs site.  He alleges that he has just closed it for the winter.

Recently Mr. Dawson announced that he wanted to develop the Saratoga Springs site by constructing four houses there.  He alleged that if he did not receive the radical variances he needed that he would reopen his operation there.

Mr. Dawson is seeking the same kind of variances that the notorious Murphy Lane barn “conversion” received which are truly stunning.  The following variances are for three of the lots on Mr. Dawson’s property.  A fourth lot is only slightly larger.

So the variance for the front of the property is for just a 6 inch  setback, instead of 10 feet. This is a reduction of 95%.

The minimum lot size in the UR3 zone where these houses are to be located is 6600 square feet. Three of the buildings will be 2,500 square feet.  This is a reduction of 62%.

The minimum set back from the rear is supposed to be 25 feet.  Three of the buildings will have setbacks of 7.5 feet.  This is a reduction of 70%.

Minimum lot width is 60’.  Three of the four lots requested will have a width of 50’.  This is a reduction of 17%.

A principle building can cover 30% of the property in this zoning area.  This project will be allowed 50% coverage.  This is a increase of 40%.

The Chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals lives across the street

William Moore is the chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals.  He hired Sonny Bonacio to build a house for him on a plot of land across the alley from what was then Figelman’s  scrap metal operation. Sonny has come before Mr. Moore so many times that many of us think he deserves a seat with a plaque. Many readers may remember the controversy over the ethics of hiring Mr. Bonacio which was covered by the Times Union.

Because of the revised ethics standards adopted by the city as a result of Chris Mathiesen’s advocacy, the proximity of Mr. Moore’s home to the Dawson project required Mr. Moore to recuse himself from the proceedings.

Our city has a very high standard regarding recusal for which we should be proud.  The board member may not vote on the issue of course but in addition the board member must do more than abstain from the discussion but must physically remove themselves from the room.  The idea is that the other members of the board should not be pressured by the person’s presence.

This, however, did not discourage Joan Salmon, Bill Moore’s wife, from being the first speaker during the public comment period to address the Board.

I happen to like Bill Moore.  He has always been warm and friendly in his dealings with me in spite of my many criticisms of him.  Still, as chair of the ZBA, one would have expected him to be scrupulous regarding the spirit of recusal and having his wife address his Board is not consistent with this standard.

More troubling was her statement to the ZBA.  She pointed out to the board two other properties with similarly jammed designs.  The problem with her comparison was that in the case of one property, it predated established zoning and in the other it is in a different district of the city that has zoning that allows greater density.  I do not think it is unreasonable to assume that Bill, her husband, was aware of what she had written.  At the risk of appearing old fashioned, I do not think that the chairman of the ZBA should be associated with submitted comments meant to deceive his colleagues.

An Unseemly Rush and Reckless Indifference To Proper Design And Oversight

This project was problematic from the beginning.  Normally a development with four houses would be required to go before the city’s Planning Board for site plan approval.   Their plan would be the subject of careful scrutiny for everything from rain runoff to traffic safety.  The ZBA has neither the expertise nor the temperament to provide this kind of oversight.

Unfortunately, the four parcels pre-existed current zoning and are exempt from Planning Board review.  Board members Cheryl Grey and James Helicke, recognizing this, particularly as regards the traffic issues, attempted to refer this project to the Planning Board for advisement which the ZBA has done before.  Keith Kaplan who was acting as temporary chair dismissed this request and it was obvious that he had the support of the other board members present.  Referring this to the Planning Board would have significantly delayed the approval that even the most casual observer could see was their priority.

Density?  That inconvenient 2,000 pound guerilla

As noted above, Mr. Dawson is trying to drop his houses on virtual postage stamps.  By any measurement, the scale of the variances being requested is extreme so the innocent among us might have expected this to be a central part of the discussion.  Not with this ZBA.

At an earlier meeting acting chair Keith Kaplan actually reassured Dawson that he had no problem with the density of this project.  Even for this ZBA, this was a shocking statement.  A friend with extensive experience on land use issues offered the following.  He told me that it is one thing for Mr. Kaplan to say that such extreme variances may not disqualify their approval but to dismiss any concern about them ignores the fundamentals of zoning.  There would have needed to be recognition of the problematic nature of these variances and some sort of discussion about what compelling issues would overcome the obvious problem with them.

If you endure, as I did, the deliberations on this project you will see that there is almost no discussion on this matter. A video of the meeting is available on the city’s website.

James Helicke and Cheryl Grey tell their colleagues that they cannot approve the variances because they are excessive.

Keith Kaplan tells the Board that because there are other small plots in the area and because the project is near the UR4 zone which allows greater density, he is for the project.  There is a sort of Kafkaesque quality to this.  I say that because there are not many plots as tiny as these and those plots pre-exist the zoning.  I find it particularly a bridge too far for him to argue that because these houses will be located “near” a zone that allows greater density that the board can dismiss the density of the zone where the houses are actually located.  This gives the reader some sense as to how the ZBA manages to approve pretty much every variance request that comes before them.

Keith Kaplan was the only member voting to approve the variances who felt the need to even acknowledge that there was an issue.

Basic Design Considerations Are That Alleys Should Only Have Secondary Buildings

If you travel down the alleys in Saratoga Springs you will observe that the vast majority of structures on the alleys are garages, storage buildings, and small workshop type buildings.  This is because this was how our streets were conceived.  The residence faces the regular street while the garage in the back accesses the alley.  Alleys are really to accommodate ancillary buildings.  For one thing, there is really no room to park a car on our alleys without impeding traffic (the photos graphically illustrate the problem).  Imagine what these alleys would be like if they had homes lining both sides.

None of the board members supporting the variances to allow these homes to be built on Cobb Alley acknowledged this issue let alone addressed it.

The Public Safety Department Has Documented That The Design Poses A Danger: Who Cares?

The proposed structures in this project have only six inches of setback from the alley they face.  James Helicke and Cheryl Grey strenuously opposed the project because as designed people would be backing out of three of the garages directly onto an alley with their vision obstructed so they could not properly see oncoming cars or bikes.  The walls of the garages make proper sight lines to observe on-coming traffic impossible.

Having refused to seek advice from the Planning Board, Keith Kaplan asked planner Susan Bardon to ask the appropriate expert in city hall to provide an analysis.

Mark Benaquista, who works for the Public Safety Department, wrote to the ZBA through Ms. Bardon warning that the project as designed was a public hazard.

“The project as designed presents a significant safety concern.  The garage design does not provide critical lines of sight for either future residents, or for vehicles, bicyclists, or pedestrians traveling along the alley.  Residents will be backing out of their garages directly into the travel way with no ability to see oncoming traffic.  The design also does not provide for needed Stopping Sight Distance warning for traffic traveling along the alley.  Traffic will be traveling down this very narrow pathway and suddenly might encounter a car backing into their path and have no warning or space to avoid hitting the car.”

The letter goes on to discuss other traffic related problems with the design.  It advises that the applicant consider other designs to address this problem.  Here is a link to the full document

Public Safety Memorandum

Now the innocents among us might have expected that Ms. Barton, having gotten the unfavorable advice contained in the memo, in addition to forwarding it to the Board prior to the meeting, would have advised the Board at the meeting to take appropriate action to mediate the problem.  She is the City Planner after all.  One might also have expected that the acting chair, Keith Kaplan, would raise the need to address these problems, if not as the first order of business, at least sometime in the meeting.  If you expected any of this to happen, you would be wrong.

Instead, acting Chairman Keith Kaplan, finessed the issue.  The memo from Public Safety suggested that by combining the driveways the project could redirect the cars on site to a different location.  In correspondence from the applicant which is not accessible on the city website, Mr. Dawson refused to make this change.  So all Mr. Kaplan did was to ask Mr. Dawson if he would consider changing the design as suggested by Public Safety.  He already knew what the answer was.  Dawson said no and that was it.  It was as though the warning from the Public Safety Department did not exist.  Kaplan moved the meeting on.  I know the readers of this blog will find this hard to believe but the video is available on the city website.

I should indicate that the Public Safety letter also advised that the narrowness of the alley would make even turning the vehicle as needed when backing out of the alley a problem.  The applicant did address this by showing a video he had made that simulated backing out of the proposed garage.  Of course Mr. Kaplan and the other supporters of the application ignored the fact that in the simulation there was no plowed snow that would have narrowed the alley.

It was instructive that the applicant conveniently ignored the problem of the sight lines.  His video demonstration had the cars maneuvering around parking cones.

Neither Mr. Kaplan nor Ms. Barton insisted that the Board take action to insure that the safety concerns as raised by the Public Safety Office be addressed.

The only Board members who acknowledged the danger of the design were James Hellicke and Cherry Grey.

McNeil Lectures On How Safe Backing Out On To A Road Is

Board member Adam McNeil did offer a defense late in the meeting.

He explained that he had driven around the alleys of the city and had found many garages with no set back.  He then dismissed the whole premise as ridiculous.  He explained that it was common in parking lots to have one’s car sandwiched between two SUVs.  He counseled his fellow Board members that all that was required was to very cautiously back up slowly until you could see beyond those vehicles.

I am almost embarrassed to point out the fallacies in Mr. McNeil’s analysis to the readers of this blog, but here they are.  Pretty much all the garages on alleys that he is referring to were built prior to the establishment of most of our zoning regulations.  They are grandfathered.  As far as I can tell, no land use board has ever approved a proposal to have a garage abut the street on an alley.

One of the reasons that we have established our zoning laws was out of recognition that many earlier land use decisions were unsafe.  So rather than continue to construct buildings in ways that were hazardous, we established laws to insure that future structures would be safer.

As for the SUV example, let’s begin by noting that one cannot compare the rate of speed cars in parking lots travel as compared to cars driving down streets.  There is also the danger of assuming that everyone is going to exercise the caution and skill in observation exercised by Mr. McNeil.  I think we all can think of the reckless drivers we encounter more than we would like.  There is also the problem of people who may be distracted by problems such as unruly children, elderly persons who may not see well or react quickly, or drivers who are simply reckless.  It is the responsibility of land use boards to minimize these risks, not create them.

It is also critical to acknowledge that Mr. McNeil and his colleagues are establishing a very low bar for a standard.  I guarantee the readers of this blog that the city’s Planning Board would never have accepted this.  Apparently, when the ZBA evaluates building on alleys we now have a new standard.  One can be assured that future applicants will use this decision to support similar designs.  How will the ZBA be able to oppose such requests?

Potential Toxic Pollution And Magical Thinking

The resolution to approve these variances was drafted by Cheryl Grey and Susan Bardon.  It included language that would have required that the site be fully evaluated for the presence of toxic materials.

In his application Mr. Dawson had been required to submit documentation of any recorded spills or other indicators of pollution.  Oksana Lund is an alternate board member appointed by Joanne Yepsen and she is an attorney whose practice includes the real estate industry.  Ms. Lund noted that there were no recorded spills or accidents for the site as indicated in the original documentation. She asked that the language that would require a full site assessment be removed from the resolution.

She received support for her arguments from Keith Kaplan, Adam McNeil and from Brad Gallagher.

James Helicke could not contain himself.  He pointed out that this facility was established in 1929 and operated for decades in an environment that was lax to non-existent regarding the dangers of toxic materials.  For decades there was nothing to keep them from handling heavy metals which are considered to be highly toxic now.

Ms. Oksana was sure that there were other agencies out there that would insure the public safety.  It was noted that before materials can be removed from a site they must be tested.

I asked Ms. Barton why they had included that requirement in the resolution.  She told me that it insured that the city would be informed of potential hazards before excavation began.

Keith Kaplan rationalizes why there is no need to assess the property for potential hazards


The Usual: This Is The Only Financially Viable Plan For This Land The Applicant Claims!!!!

One of the standards that must be met in order to get a variance is that there is no other alternative available to do whatever the applicant wants to do.  Those who follow this blog will remember that when Sonny Bonacio wanted to rehab Moore Hall (The Pink Palace) he told the ZBA that the cost to remove Moore Hall made any other options for the property unfeasible.  Today Moore Hall is gone.

In the case of this project, Mr. Dawson claims that he and his architects looked at every other option and that none of them worked economically.  In addition, he alleged that the operation on the current site which had been closed down this winter would reopen if he were not awarded all his variances.

Common sense suggests that there is the real possibility that he has permanently closed the current Saratoga Springs site. Access to the property is limited and the size of the property itself makes an efficient operation problematic.  Given that he has opened at a new location in Ballston Spa, it would seem likely that consolidating the operation on one site would be more efficient. I fully admit that while there is logic to my argument, in the end it is conjecture.

Now again, the innocents among us might have expected the Board to grill Mr. Dawson on all of this.  They might have been expected to question his assertion that this was the only viable design.

They might have, but they didn’t.

The Newest Appointment By Mayor Kelly Appears To Be Quite Unfortunate

Chris Mathiesen donated his time for many years to the land use boards.  He has shared with me, on a number of occasions, his strong belief that the city is better served if the members of the land use boards are made up of people who are not associated with the real estate industry.  It is understandable that when you make your living serving in that industry, your predilection is towards policies that involve maximizing the value of the property to the owner.

Mr. Gallagher is a corporate attorney who was appointed as an alternate to sit on the ZBA by Mayor Joanne Yepsen. He was recently promoted to a seven year term as a regular member by Mayor Meg Kelly.  I looked him up on line.  Mr. Gallagher is an attorney with the law firm Barklay Damon.  His description on their site ( )notes:

Negotiated favorable settlements for owners, general contractors and subcontractors in multi-party construction cases involving issues with roofing, siding, fire suppression systems and excavation work.

Mayor Yepsen also appointed Oksana Lund as an alternate to the ZBA.  Observing Gallagher’s and Lund’s support for granting the variances to Mr. Dawson pretty much demonstrates the validity of Chris’s assessment.

Hopefully, Mayor Kelly will take into account Chris Mathiesen’s  perspective when making future appointments to our land use boards.