Hospital Purchases Controversial Land: What’s Next?

Saratoga Hospital has announced the purchase of land for its proposed medical offices from D. A. Collins. The 16 acres were purchased for $3.15 million which the hospital characterized as under-market value. They described the price as an expression by the Collins family of its support for the hospital.

After expressing support for the sale, David Collins is quoted as saying that “…for a variety of business reasons, now is the right time to close the deal.” Echoing this, Theresa Skaine, chairperson of the hospital’s board of trustees said in the release, “D.A. Collins has been more than patient, and it is unreasonable for us to expect them to delay the sale and forgo potential business opportunities any longer. At the same time, we simply could not take the risk that the last piece of land within walking distance of the hospital would be lost to us—and this community—forever.”

At the time I read this release I did’t know if I was reading into it but it seemed that the Collins family was pressing to finalize an agreement. The project has been stalled for several years while the issue of whether to make it a planned unit development and then whether to rezone the land delayed action.

Subsequently, I watched the video of the July 2nd meeting at which Angelo Calbone addressed the City Council. He was responding to allegations that the hospital, by purchasing the land, was putting pressure on the Council. He told the Council that the Collins family wanted to complete the sale this summer and that this precipitated the purchase now.

In response to the release about the land sale, the neighbors sent an email to me ripping the hospital for what they characterized as “arrogant, high handed conduct.” They asserted that the hospital is going forward with the purchase of land for its proposed medical office building “…for which they have none of the necessary approvals.” They also asserted that the hospital purchased the property to bring pressure on the City Council.

The neighbors’ comment seems to indicate that there may be some confusion as to the steps the city must go through before an actual plan for the hospital’s project is even looked at. I thought it might be helpful to review those steps that have already been taken and those that will still need to happen before the hospital can begin to build.

The first step was taken in 2015.

The Comprehensive Plan, adopted by the City Council in 2015, recommended changes for a number of areas in the city. The land the hospital has purchased is located in one of these areas.  State law requires the city to come up with zoning for these areas that would be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan. To meet this requirement the city hired a  consulting firm to update all of the city ordinances including the changes recommended by the Comprehensive Plan. All of these changes together are known as the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO).

Both the county and the city planning boards have offered advisory opinions to the City Council regarding whether the proposed zoning changes recommended by the consultants comply with the city’s Comprehensive Plan. The Saratoga County Planning Board approved the zoning category originally offered by the consultants for the parcels that include the land the hospital hopes to build on. The Saratoga Springs  Planning Board chose a zoning category that was slightly more restrictive for these parcels but that still allowed the hospital to construct a medical office building. The City Council will make the final decision.

I guess people of good faith could argue over whether the actions of these planning boards represented “approvals” but there is little question that their actions have helped move the process forward for the hospital.

So what are the remaining steps that will need to be taken for the hospital to build its medical office building? There are three additional actions the hospital must go through before it can build its proposed medical office building.

SEQR

The entire Unified Development Ordinance, which includes the parcels affected by the 2015 Comprehensive Plan, must go through the State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) determinations. (For an excellent explanation of SEQR, Here is a link). An agency must be chosen to be the “lead agency” in dealing with SEQR. As the City Council acted as lead agency for the SEQR for the 2015 Comprehensive Plan, I anticipate they will take a similar role here.

The process is somewhat confusing as the SEQR process is mostly designed for dealing with actual construction projects. Many if not most of the questions in a SEQR application are more applicable to the review of an actual proposed project rather than policies.

The city had to follow the SEQR process before approving the Comprehensive Plan in 2015. In that case Brad Birge, the city planner, along with then Mayor Joanne Yepsen  walked the members of the Council through the relevant answers in the SEQR application. Birge had already put in answers and the Council simply agreed with what he had done. At the end of the meeting the Council unanimously issued a “Negative Declaration” which meant that the Comprehensive Plan would have no negative impact on the environment.

I am assuming the Council will follow a similar procedure for the UDO SEQR.

The problem that the neighbors face is that the SEQR vote is not about an actual project but the set of zoning changes that would allow for certain projects to occur in certain areas. At this stage there is no actual plan from the hospital to evaluate. It is difficult to discuss traffic, lighting, etc. without a specific proposal to critique. The neighbors can speculate about what impact a proposed project might have but it will be difficult to put that square peg into the round hole which is the set of questions actually in the SEQR application.

They also face the problem that the city has already determined that the use of this property for a medical office building will not have a negative environmental impact when they approved the Comprehensive Plan back in June of 2015. The vote of the Council at that time was unanimous.

Chris Mathiesen, who was Commissioner of Public Safety at the time, later expressed regret for his vote noting that protecting the neighborhood near the hospital should have been a priority and that he was unaware of the potential impact of the proposed change to that area when he voted to accept the Comprehensive Plan and supported the negative declaration for the SEQR. Still, his effort to reverse the decision received no support from his fellow Council members at the time.

It should be noted that reopening the Comprehensive Plan to reconsider the area around the hospital could lead to a whole series of other challenges to decisions that were made about preserving the greenbelt for instance. There were many contentious battles over what permitted uses there would be in that area that could be revisited if the neighbors were to be successful in getting the Council to reopen any part of the Comprehensive Plan.

Adoption of UDO (Zoning Changes)

The next step after the SEQR review is for the Council to adopt the UDO. This would include adopting the revised zoning map for the city. This will require a majority vote by the Council.

Site Plan Review By The Planning Board

Assuming the zoning changes are approved the hospital would now be able to bring forth a specific plan for a medical office building. The plan would then be subject to site plan review by the Planning Board. The Planning Board must review the proposed construction and either approve the hospital’s plans or require changes in the plan to address any adverse effects they determine it might have on the area. It is at this point that the specifics of traffic, lighting, setbacks, etc. will be addressed.

It Still Comes Down To The Comprehensive Plan

While the attorney for the neighbors asserts that the rezoning for the UDO deserves a “positive declaration (It will have a major environmental impact),” it is unlikely that that will happen.  Were the neighbors then to sue it would seem it would be difficult for them to prevail given the history of all the unanimous actions by the previous Councils and planning boards.

I am not a lawyer but it appears to me that the only way forward for the neighbors is to get the City Council to amend the Comprehensive Plan, a process as noted earlier that could have some unanticipated consequences. As I find it unlikely that the Council will complete the process of adopting the UDO before November, this issue could play a role in the upcoming November election. All the candidates will be under pressure by the protagonists in this conflict to come out for or against revising the Comprehensive Plan. Judging by the signs opposing the hospital in the adjacent neighborhoods, there is a constituency that feels passionately about the issue and will vote accordingly. My own sense is that outside of those neighborhoods there is less interest in the outcome and probably considerable support for the hospital in light of its role of providing healthcare to the community. We may find out how the public feels in November.


Below are the press release from the hosptial and the email from Dave Evans


 

N E W S   R E L E A S E

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

June 27, 2019

 

 

Saratoga Hospital Buys Land on Morgan Street for Future Growth

Seller cites healthcare services as ‘best use’ for the property

 

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 27, 2019—Saratoga Hospital has bought land on Morgan Street from D.A. Collins Companies to ensure that the last undeveloped parcel bordering hospital-owned property can be used to expand healthcare services.

 

The sale of the 16 acres was completed Wednesday. The under-market purchase price of $3.15 million reflects the Collins family’s support of the hospital.

 

“Ever since we decided to sell the property, we hoped it would go to Saratoga Hospital,” David Collins said. “We believe in the work of the hospital and its essential, unique role in ensuring the health of Saratoga. Given the location of the property, healthcare is clearly the best use, and for a variety of business reasons, now is the right time to close the deal.”

 

Saratoga Hospital has long been interested in the parcel as a natural, strategic option for much-needed expansion to keep pace with one of the fastest-growing counties in New York State. A proposed zoning change—part of a multiyear effort to align the city’s zoning map and comprehensive plan as required by state law—would enable medical office use on the property.

 

“D.A. Collins has been more than patient, and it is unreasonable for us to expect them to delay the sale and forgo potential business opportunities any longer,” said Theresa Skaine, chairperson, Saratoga Hospital Board of Trustees. “At the same time, we simply could not take the risk that the last piece of land within walking distance of the hospital would be lost to us—and this community—forever.”

 

She described the purchase as “another smart, targeted investment in the future of healthcare in the Saratoga region. Whether we’re talking about technology, facilities or programs, patient care is the determining factor behind every dollar we spend and every decision we make,” Skaine said.

 

The hospital wants to develop the land on Morgan Street for a medical office center where physicians could more easily collaborate on patient care and, in an emergency, could get to the hospital within minutes. Aside from that project, currently there are no other plans for the site.

 

A small group of residents in the mixed-use neighborhood surrounding the hospital opposes the medical office plans and is fighting the rezoning proposal. In recent months, both the Saratoga County and Saratoga Springs planning boards have issued positive advisory opinions related to the zoning change, which was recommended by the city’s Comprehensive Plan Committee. In all three deliberations, there were no dissenting votes. The proposal now rests with the Saratoga Springs City Council.

 

“We realize that the final decision on the zoning has not been made, but we could not pass on this opportunity,” Saratoga Hospital President and CEO Angelo Calbone said. “It’s not unusual for organizations to buy land in anticipation of future needs, especially if the property is strategically located.

 

“Our hope is that, ultimately, we will have a medical office center on this land,” he added. “We are absolutely convinced that providing healthcare services at this location is the best way to serve our community now and for the long term.”

 

***

 

About Saratoga Hospital: Saratoga Hospital is the Saratoga region’s leading healthcare provider and the only acute-care facility in Saratoga County. The hospital’s multispecialty practice, Saratoga Hospital Medical Group, provides care at more than 20 locations, ensuring easy access to programs and services that can have the greatest impact on individual and community health. Saratoga Hospital has maintained Magnet designation for nursing excellence since 2004. Through its affiliation with Columbia Memorial Health and Albany Med, Saratoga Hospital is part of the largest locally governed health system in the region. For more information: www.saratogahospital.org or www.facebook.com/SaratogaHospital.

 

# # #

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT:

Peter Hopper

Director, Marketing and Communications

518.583.8679

phopper@saratogahospital.org

 


Statement From Dave Evans On Behalf Of Hospital Neighbors

Displaying complete disrespect for the city review and approval process and the concerns of its neighbors, Saratoga Hospital has completed the purchase of 15 acres of residential land on which it plans to build a massive medical office building for which it has none of the necessary approvals.

The timing is notable. The Saratoga Springs City Council has not approved the controversial zoning change that is required for the project to go forward. No permits or approvals have been issued for the building itself. Yet Saratoga Hospital has chosen to move ahead in what appears to be an attempt to pressure the City into approving both the zoning change and the project despite strenuous neighborhood objections and significant negative impacts to a historic residential neighborhood.

Throughout this process, the hospital has sought to dismiss the legitimate objections of its neighbors and economic harm they will suffer (reduced property values and reduced resale values), not to mention the loss of privacy, if their longstanding residential neighborhood is converted to an office park with a 75,000- to 85,000-square foot building and a parking lot for 300-400 cars.

Now, by buying the land – and issuing a news release to announce it — the hospital is maximizing its pressure on the City Council to approve the project.  This raises the of whether the City Council and other agencies can and will act independently and conduct the thorough review that the law requires and every Saratogian expects. This arrogant, high-handed conduct is not what one would expect from an institution that serves our community.

Saratoga Hospital is a vital community asset, but it is not entitled to a zoning change that would allow it to build on the last undeveloped green space in our neighborhood. Saratoga Springs’ beautiful neighborhoods are precious. The legacy of this City Council should not be the destruction of a historic neighborhood – especially when it can be avoided by the hospital expanding on its own property, an option it has but refuses to pursue.

14 thoughts on “Hospital Purchases Controversial Land: What’s Next?”

  1. Consider for a moment, that the claimed ‘under market value’ of sale is closer to that value of land for UR-I classified neighborhoods that have been offered for as much as $500,000 for a premium lot of 12,500 SF area. That would suggest that 55 homes could have been permitted and sited here. If it remained SR-2 than 26 homes could have been sited but the land value for that would not be nearly as high, perhaps half as much. Highest and best use for the owner was to look at the the potential highest value UR-1 option or that of the Hospital for a single building as opposed to as many as 55. Either way, the increased volume of traffic for residential use would be more than a single use building.

    While some have defended the sanctity of this parcel as the “last undeveloped green space in our neighborhood” yet, it remained undeniably privately owned and offered for sale and is presently an unfenced property that is neither parkland or assured green space. It is not part of the undefined green belt that connotates many things to many people. Of all the green space that once existed in this once rural residential neighborhood, it does remain the last to be developed. Who really has control over that? It is more like the last camp on the lake argument or the last trees on someone else’s property that shouldn’t be cut because we have removed all our trees.

    To suggest that this neighborhood on some faint remote level is historic because a young visitor to the city lived a summer in a cabin before moving into town and starting his life and reputation is a stretch. Significance, integrity and age are the criteria that identifies properties worthy of saving and recognition. Given that the provenance is extremely weak, and the undefined structure is extant, leaves little to that argument. The local Preservation Foundation has never in their 40 years noted the relevancy of this parcel or landscape.

    Morgan Street and Myrtle Street and those neighboring streets have long lost their claim to being in some outer rural district that was not required by the city to invest in basic improvements like sidewalks and curbs when they constructed their homes. Its residential density today demands from a point of pedestrian safety, that those improvements be made. The residents and public should not be forced to walk on those roads given all the traffic they themselves generate with all of their vehicles. The public rights-of-way should be accessible.

    Unfortunately for the local opposition, I don’t see that the city has reason to veto those opinions by the city and county planning boards.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hey Jim–

      You said; “It is more like the last camp on the lake argument or the last trees on someone else’s property that shouldn’t be cut because we have removed all our trees. ”

      Wow! Loved it. Excellent comment and “surgical” clarification.
      Good work, James!

      -JC 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “While some have defended the sanctity of this parcel as the “last undeveloped green space in our neighborhood” yet, it remained undeniably privately owned and offered for sale and is presently an unfenced property that is neither parkland or assured green space.”

    Thank you, Jim, for one of the most cogent arguments done without personal or emotional bias.

    Like

  3. I erroneously overstated the number of potential single-family homes that would be possible. In my quick math, I left out the roadways. I’ll restate that conservatively, the number of single UR-1 homes (located as close to the adjacent property lines as permitted) could be 40+, but that’s a lot of cars (2 per residence minimum) and pools and late-night activities that a singular office medical building located in the furthest corner of the property would impact. I trust the Hospital in mitigating most all concerns of residents regarding lighting and landscape screening and will be as good a neighbor to this district as they will be to it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. John Kaufman states that ‘re-opening the Comprehensive Plan to re-consider the area around the Hospital could lead to a whole series of other challenges to decisions that were made about preserving the green belt for instance’. He also states that ‘amending the Comprehensive Plan could have some unanticipated consequences’. I am not sure how amending the Comprehensive Plan specifically to reverse the 2015 decision regarding the Morgan Street property would possibly undermine the City’s efforts to protect the green belt. In fact, it would further protect green space and have no effect whatsoever on other aspects of the Comprehensive Plan.

    Chris Mathiesen

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  5. Has anyone asked the hospital the question, if you are unable to grow and unable to build this office Park, what is the impact to the hospital? What would be the hospitals next course of action? Saratoga hospital has to grow to compete with Albany Med and St Peters, if they can’t grow here that means they will grow somewhere else. Exit 12 maybe?

    If Saratoga hospital were to move to exit 12, what would that impact be on the town? What would the town do with acres of an empty hospital. That surely would bring down home values.

    How come no one is asking those questions, because it could be a potential reality.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They are not proposing an ‘office park’ as some opponents would suggest. A singular building in the remotest portion and least obtrusive part of the site. In order to meet the purchase price this land would have become dense residential (most likely, with all those existing trees removed). Unfortunately for some, this land was not deemed sacred or encumbered with a covenent that prevented anything from changing. No one is to blame.

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      1. It is most certainly going to be an office park, anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool- this one building is 88,000 sf in a residential neighborhood. Their placement of this building in the “least obtrusive” (a ridiculously inaccurate statement), is purely indicative of their intention to maximize the land use. The hospital’s actions have been arrogant and without oversight – until now.

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      2. Dave:
        It is accurate to state that the site plan as presented, locates a single structure in the least obtrusive (furthest corner) of the parcel away from the residential property owners who chose to locate their structures as close to the shared boundary lines as required by zoning, with little foresight to include some extra land for buffering whenever this parcel was developed.

        A single medical office building should not be described as or confused with, an office park, which in my world has always been defined as a number of buildings that are constructed at the same time on landscaped grounds.

        I do not speak for the hospital, but I have no indication from what I have reviewed of their intentions other than what has been presented. I can’t understand how this leads you to believe or assume that the hospital is planning to construct more than this one building but then, I can’t see into the future as you apparently believe you can.

        This is a mixed-use residential neighborhood that contains a golf and swim club, condominiums, private residences, garden apartments, a myriad of independent medical offices, a medical office park, professional offices, professional office park, a hospital and up till now, an unprotected, unrestricted, unbarriered private parcel that has been offered for development for decades. I would imagine that some people should have seen this coming.

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    2. The Hospital can grow on or from its present campus There are other options for growth. Does anyone believe that if an entity had purchased the Collins property six years ago and developed it for residential purposes, the Hospital would have had to re-locate?

      Also, the Hospital is no longer competing with Albany Med. They are working together.

      Chris Mathiesen

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Out of curiosity, given its prominence in this defense, has anyone ever seen a city map that delineates the “green belt” or “green spaces (public and private) that must be preserved”? We have defined historic core neighborhood designations but beyond that, we have a concept turned into metaphor.

    Another neighborhood recently challenged the city’s use of their own urban renewal land claiming that the city had proposed poor urban design, was acting as a solar baron and publicized shortsightedness when in fact, a new city plaza concourse and park could be imagined. Of course, these self-anointed urban planners wouldn’t admit that the parcel in question was in fact sandwiched between the two largest parks the city’s core that was always destined for T-5 development and that the proposal was the product of licensed and registered professionals whose problem, while almost never ideal, had been respectfully presented for review.

    Like the long-standing Hospital and the City Center, the newest neighbors claim egregious victimization of that land that was never deemed sacred. Private land (without the lien of ‘forever wild’ greenspace) offered for sale and city land, cleared for future development, does not come with those kinds of restrictions.

    I’m always reminded of one of our city’s land board presenters, who once stated to the opposition, “that just because I would like to be taller, thinner and have a bit more hair, I’m not going to get it”. I think that should be memorialized in gold leaf above the frieze in the Council Chambers for posterity.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think that Jim is complicating a simple concept. Preserving our green belt means not allowing commercial sprawl to overwhelm our City the way it has for other communities along the Northway corridor including Clifton Park, Colonie and Wilton. The corollary of this is that a dense urban core continues to be developed surrounded by established residential neighborhoods.

    Chris Mathiesen

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  8. It is a simple concept doctor. A dense urban core surrounded by green space.

    Years ago, the idea of New Urbanism entered the city’s lexicon. It was never something that a community of our size could experience, but in the wrong hands it became part of the planning nomenclature that suggested a few buildings along with a graphic artist could transform land at our periphery into a new community. The word was coined for independent satellite communities whose population was often greater than that of our whole city. It was the catch phrase of that day.

    I once fought to save the only entrance to a city along the Northway corridor from NYC to Montreal that did not have a signs, structures or visual impairments, like an unsightly repository for cars, some for sale, some for rendezvous and all parked illegally for more than 20 years on the acceleration ramp of the Interstate. It was a noble approach to the simple concept of our entry viewshed as noted in our Comprehensive Plan, yet where were all those people who should have rallied to this occasion? I went it alone – and after 15 months of advocating its removal, the sky parted, and the Commissioner of Public Safety acquiesced and accepted that this New York State land could not accommodate such insane uses as a city truck inspection station, a homeland security interrogation location or a city commuter lot because simply, WE DID NOT OWN THE LAND. I was always surprised and somewhat disappointed by the failure of his minions and those who chose to stand on the sidelines rather than to openly support this preservation effort.

    The hospital’s new acquisition IS NOT PART OF THE CONCEPTUAL GREEN BELT nor can it be considered commercial sprawl. It is simply a SINGLE BUILDING adjacent to a hospital, next to a golf and swim club contiguous to a medical campus and further beyond land that is presently a nursery whose days may be numbered. The homes located nearby are not in a historic setting or in some outlying green belt, but instead have been enjoying this URBAN PARCEL for decades without having any assurances that its owner was going to let it lie fallow till perpetuity. The 9N corridor and Wells Street is anything but bucolic and this neighborhood’s MIXED USES with the medical facilities and dense residential development is anything but the image of serene established residential neighborhoods in the outer fringes.

    Furthermore, a dense urban core is only a simple concept if one is not redlined into it by well-intentioned weekend arm chair planners and those who live beyond in the conceptual ethereal and bucolic green belt. It always suggested to me of the Morlocks living in the dirty urban core, tending to the urban machinery, providing commerce, retail and inventory for the Eloi’s living out at the fringes frolicking in the sunshine and clean air from the H.G. Wells novel, The Time Machine. What the Eloi’s need to understand, is that the Morlocks also live in neighborhoods, some of mixed use, mostly older historic and some contemporary structures but that all things desirous in a smart city cannot simply be simply achieved by conceptually creating a barrier against residential density – suggesting that multi-family residences could find their way out into the hinterlands.

    I am not complicating a simple concept, but instead restating that it is always the devil, that is in the details.

    Incidentally, is it really a green belt … more like a sash … or perhaps a simple emerald scarf?

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