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.
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.
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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.