The City Council is convening a special meeting for Monday, December 23, 2019, at 6PM at the city Rec Center on Vanderbilt Ave. to vote on the proposed zoning map that will be part of the Unified Development Ordinance. The map includes the controversial rezoning of land on which Saratoga Hospital hopes to construct a medical office building.
As people who follow this blog know, I support the zoning change that will allow for the Hospital’s epansion.
This has not been a happy process. The neighbors of the parcels whose zoning would be changed have for years enjoyed the undeveloped land that has served as a kind of passive, bucolic preserve. They understandably are upset about the loss of this resource. They also fear the potential impact this project may have on their neighborhood.
It is important to note that these parcels were already zoned for residential development so it was only a matter of time before this land would be built on.
It is hard to say what the final impact will be if the office building is built. It is reasonable to assume that there will be more traffic than the residential use would have generated. There is also concern about the impact of runoff from the project. The neighbors currently are plagued by flooding during some storms. There will also be the potential problem of the lighting that the extensive parking lot will require. The neighbors fear the project will adversely affect their property values. There is no question that the loss of the charming greenspace will likely have an impact. How much more an office building will affect this than a housing development is less clear.
The reality, though, is that the Hospital plays a critical role in the city. There is overwhelming support to enable the Hospital’s continued development of high quality health care into the future by situating in-patient services in a contiguous area.
The Role Of The Planning Board In Protecting The Neighbors
If the Hospital is successful in gaining the zoning change, it still will need to undergo site plan review by the Planning Board before it can put a shovel in the ground. It will be the Planning Board’s responsibility to address the many potential problems such a large project would entail.
It is hard to overestimate the significance of recent changes in the composition of the city’s land use boards. For many decades the Planning Board was comprised of representatives of the real estate industry and members of the business community who put the profits of land development before any consideration of the impact on quality of life in the community. People new to our city will not remember the incredible abuses that past Planning Boards have been responsible for.
To give readers some idea of the more extreme cases, I offer the attempt to put an oil storage facility on the banks of Loughberry Lake, the reservoir that provides drinking water to city residents. A man named Tom Healy was the principle owner of Congress Gas and Oil. I don’t know if the company still owns the Mobil Station at the corner of Route 50 and Route 9 but it did then. Their main storage of fuel oil and gasoline was situated in tanks directly beside Loughberry Lake. In the 1980’s the United States Environmental Protection Agency revamped the standards for oil storage tanks. Congress Gas and Oil had to remove the aging tanks that they had along the lake. They were required to seek approval from the Planning Board to construct new tanks there.
Mr. Healy was on the Planning Board at the time. It tells you a great deal about the culture of the Planning Board then that he would even apply to the Planning Board to construct the tanks. The Planning Board unanimously approved the application. That’s right, unanimously.
Tom McTygue, who was the Public Works Commissioner and as such responsible for protecting the city’s water, challenged the Planning Board. There was an amazing public mobilization against the proposal. The crowd that attended the next Council meeting was the most people I ever recall attending a Council meeting . They literally filled the halls of the first floor of City Hall.
Overwhelmed by the public response, the City Council adopted a resolution calling for the Planning Board to reverse its position. Again, emblematic of the culture of the Planning Board at the time, they refused. Yes, they refused. It was only after the City Council authorized a lawsuit against the Planning Board that they backed down.
The current Planning Board is reflective of the new culture of our city. They are far more sensitive to the public. They also have an outstanding chairman in Mark Torpey. My support for the Hospital has been made easier by the knowledge that he and the members of the current board will take very seriously the concerns that will be raised by the neighbors.
As an aside, at the last hearing for the Hospital rezoning, the vestiges of our unfortunate past were in evidence in the remarks of Cliff VanWagner. Mr. VanWagner served for fourteen years on the Planning Board and was its chairman during part of that tenure.
Mr. VanWagner was emblematic of the worst elements that dominated the Planning Board in the past.
If you are a neighbor of a proposed project, going before the Planning Board to voice concerns can be very stressful. Unfortunately the experience was often made even more stressful by Mr. VanWagner’s attitude. His body language and his stage whispers to his allies on the Board when residents were speaking reflected a not so subtle contempt for them and the issues they were trying to raise.
His comments to the City Council at the last hearing on the Hospital zoning were sadly consistent with this past behavior.
In his remarks he offered that if the neighbors had wanted to keep the land the Hospital had bought undeveloped they should have purchased it. He offered that the final plan put forward by the Hospital would “win the trust and confidence of most of the neighbors.” He told the Council and the public that his long history on the Planning Board had taught him that “…in most cases the fears of neighbors adjacent to a project rarely materialize after the project has been built…” He asserted “it just doesn’t happen.”
He went on to reference “an attorney that had addressed the Council.” The attorney he referred to was Michael Toohey. Mr. Toohey is probably the most successful land use attorney in the city. In all the years I have followed land use issues there has never been any space between Mr. Toohey and Mr. VanWagner. Mr. VanWagner could always be relied on to parrot whatever argument was put forward by Mr. Toohey on behalf of his client.
Mr. VanWagner’s remarks prompted me to reach out to the neighbors of the Beaver Pond Village, a project the Planning Board approved after a long and torturous process that included litigation. It may come as something of a surprise to Mr. VanWagner, but apparently the project has not caused those who opposed it to now embrace Beaver Pond Village.
While I fully support the Hospital, it is insulting to belittle the fears of the people who will be impacted by it.
Fortunately, Mr. VanWagner was not reappointed to the Planning Board when his term expired last year.