Sometime ago I did a post on a development that John Witt is pursuing that would affect Saratoga Lake and the slopes that abut it.
Recently I was contacted by John Cashin who has been active in opposing this project. Mr. Cashin has put up the good fight in trying to protect the area. Recent events surrounding the chairman of the town of Saratoga’s Planning Board chairman add to the ugliness of the situation. I offered Mr. Cashin to be a guest writer for my blog to share with the readers the most recent developments.
The following is a brief biography of Mr. Cashin:
John Cashin is an attorney and has been a resident of the Town of Saratoga since 1984. He practiced law for over forty years in both the private and public sectors. Now semi-retired, he serves as a member of the board of directors of the Saratoga Lake Association and chairs its Community Affairs Committee. Mr. Cashin is an ardent advocate for Saratoga Lake and was one of the founders of the Saratoga Open Space Preservation Committee.
Will A SHORELINE HILLSIDE OF DECAYING TREE STUMPS PRESERVE AND ENHANCE THE SCENIC BEAUTY OF SARATOGA LAKE?
THE TOWN OF SARATOGA SEEMS TO THINK SO.
Local officials in most rural and sub urbanizing areas1 have made a long-term choice to abandon conventional subdivision development in favor of conservation or open space development which preserves the rural character of our communities. Conservation subdivisions allow the same overall amount of development that is already permitted. The key difference is that this technique requires new construction to be located or clustered on only a portion, typically half, of the parcel. The remaining open space is preserved in perpetuity for the benefit of the community for generations to come.
The beauty of open space subdivision zoning is that it is easy to administer, does not take development potential away from the developer and can be extremely effective in permanently protecting a substantial portion of diminishing forested lands. It does not require large public expenditures to purchase development rights or acquire land outright and allows farmers and others to extract their rightful equity without seeing their entire land holding bulldozed for complete coverage by housing lots. By clustering the homes in one area, towns can preserve certain types of irreplaceable natural resources, protect a watershed or preserve other scenic features of a hill crest and mature tree stands. Ongoing stewardship of the set aside open space is typically the responsibility of a homeowners’ association (HOA), deeded to the municipality or a land trust under a permanent conservation easement. Appropriation of the open space to an individual lot owner disenfranchises the community of the natural setting of what should be set aside for the benefit of the community.
The Town of Saratoga recognized the value of open space preservation in the Town’s Comprehensive Plan with its stated intent to focus on “…preservation of the most environmentally sensitive lands. These lands include steep slopes, floodplains, wetlands, mixed forests and streams, together with a protection corrido on both sides. The long-term goal is to preserve one-hundred percent of these sensitive environmental resources.2 In conjunction with the Comprehensive Plan, Saratoga’s zoning code reflects the goals of protecting our rural character, scenic beauty and natural resources. The Town’s zoning code for Conservation Subdivision Development specifies that its “…primary consideration will be focused on the preservation of forest lands, open space and viable farmland, provide residential developments that respect, conserve and enhance current topography, natural habitats, forests, hydrological, archeological, historical and visual features of the town.”3
While the goals, intents and purposes espoused by the Town are laudable, they can only be brought to fruition by rigorous adherence to and enforcement of our zoning code against those developers and their lawyers who persistently attempt to ignore them. A case in point is the Cedar Bluff Subdivision application now before the Town Planning Board. This Conservation Subdivision covering 111.6 acres consists of 32 homes clustered on 58.0 acres above Saratoga Lake. The allegedly “Preserved Open Space” portion of the parcel covers 54.27 acres which is largely steeply sloped, forested land. The trouble is the application calls for the complete clearing of the 54+ acre forest in the “Preserved Open Space” to create lake views from the housing lots above it. Contrary to science on the topic, to prevent erosion and sediment from flowing off the steep slopes into Saratoga Lake, the plan is to leave the tree stumps on those slopes. In papers filed with its application, the developer indicates this will have “No Impact” on the Town’s aesthetic resources.
As your average fourth-grader knows, tree stumps are dead. Dead things don’t grow; they decay. In fact, depending on the tree variety – hard-wood versus soft-wood – a tree stump will lose between one-fifth and one-third of its biomass in the first two years.4 This can accelerate in the warmer months when insect infestation is more likely. Hillside tree stump retention is only suggested in forestry when immediate tree replanting is implemented. The theory is that stump retention may serve to obstruct ‘sheet-flow’ stormwater run-off until replacement trees’ root systems are established. This was all explained in a research paper prepared for the Planning Board by Dr. Thomas Yannios. Unfortunately, no replacement trees are included in this application as they would eventually obstruct lake views from the million-dollar homes on the hilltop.
It is stunning to think that the Planning Board is accepting this proposal without question. As the December 19th meeting minutes reflect, “Chairman Ian Murray asked if there were any Board questions; there were none.” How is it possible that a Planning Board of 8 people appointed to serve the interests of the residents of our town, can review this proposal in detail and not raise a single question? Were they intimidated into silence by the developer or the non-resident Planning Board Chairman? Can you imagine how an entire hillside of decaying tree stumps will enhance the scenic beauty of our community? As the stump decay continues over time, without replacement trees, how will this prevent erosion and runoff into the lake? A panel of fourth-graders would do better. In the end, the community gets to look at Nature’s junkyard, while the million-dollar-home owners get their lake views. If this doesn’t incite outrage among our residents, nothing will.
Dense clusters of trees on steep slopes slated to be cleared with only stumps remaining
To make matters worse, the cleared open space will be owned, not by an HOA or any other independent body as required under the zoning code. Rather, one lot owner will have exclusive ownership of what should be perpetual, set aside open space preserved for the benefit of the community. Such privatization and obliteration of the forest are not what was contemplated and promoted in the zoning code nor the Town’s Comprehensive Plan. Yet, at the December meeting, not a single question was raised, as members of the public in attendance were prohibited from speaking.
These drastic deviations from the Comprehensive Plan and zoning code set the trajectory of future development as other developers demand similar treatment. The Planning Board appears poised to approve this travesty. It can only happen if a groundswell of lake community residents fails to object. Several Town activists have provided the Planning Board with extensive letters, legal memos and technical papers. To date neither the Town Board nor the Planning Board have offered any response on the merits of these submissions. It appears we are all being dismissed as mere NIMBY’s by the ‘we know better’ Planning Board. Believe me, you can’t make this stuff up. It is there for all to see in the minutes of the Planning Board meetings on March 26th and December 19th as well as numerous documents filed with the Board.
If you care about conservation of open space, protection of Saratoga Lake, enforcement of the zoning code, preservation of our Town’s scenic beauty and rural character, please write or call Town Supervisor, Tom Wood, and ask him to protect our irreplaceable natural resources for the future generations of our Town. Tell your friends and family members to do the same. If we don’t express our concerns now, we’ll be living with the consequences forever.
(firstname.lastname@example.org; (518) 695-3644 ext. 314; 695-4034, 695-3263; FAX: (518) 695-6782)
- A notable exception is the proliferation of high density Planned Development Districts (PDD’s) on the lake shore in the Town of Stillwater (see: https://www.timesunion.com/7dayarchive/article/Stillwater-tries-to-speed-up-process-for-11739895.php)
- Town of Saratoga Comprehensive Land Use Plan – Statement of Issues, Goals and Recommendations at Chapter 2-1. (2002) (available at: http://www.townofsaratoga.com/contactinformation/Comprehensive%20Land%20use%20Plan%201aa.pdf)
- Town of Saratoga Zoning Code Section 400-14. Conservation Subdivision Development (available at: https://ecode360.com/11101341)
- “Stump Removal in Landscapes”, Dr. Kim D. Coder, Professor of Tree Biology & Health Care Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources, University of Georgia, May 2014, at p. 17.