Commissioner of Public Safety Peter Martin has told the Times Union that he will be voting to approve the proposed rezoning map that will come before the City Council Monday evening. He cited the requirement that the city’s zoning should adhere to the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
Mayor Kelly and Commissioners Scirocco and Madigan have already announced their support.
It is expected that the neighbors of the Hospital’s parcel up for rezoning will challenge the changes. Zoning law provides that if a certain percentage of the property owners abutting a property challenge a zoning change to it, it requires a super majority to pass. In the case of Saratoga Springs this would require four Council votes, and it is clear that the votes are there.
Commissioner of Accounts John Franck told the Times Union that he will oppose the change. He cited the impact a project of the scale the Hospital is expected to build would have on the neighborhood. He also asserted that there are other options which would allow the Hospital to meet its goals.
I contacted John Franck and we discussed his concerns. He was especially worried about the geography of Myrtle Street. He argued that the street is narrow to begin with and that existing utility poles will make addressing this problem particularly difficult.
As adhering to the Comprehensive Plan was a compelling argument for Commissioner Martin, I asked John why he did not support Chris Mathiesen’s effort to amend the Plan back in 2016. He cited what he believed was his need to recuse himself because he provides services to two of the neighborhood associations impacted by the change.
I asked him why he had not more recently brought the issue of amending the Plan to the Council. He felt that any effort to do this would not have gotten a second. He also asserted that he was in a catch 22 situation because if the Council separated the vote for rezoning the Hospital parcels from the other zoning changes he would have to recuse himself.
The Comprehensive Plan Is Owned By The City Council
I think it is important to revisit the process of how the Comprehensive Plan is created. The Comprehensive Plan draft is developed by a committee appointed by the Mayor. Traditionally, the bulk of appointments are made by the city’s Mayor who usually allows members of the Council to make some additional appointments.
Writing a draft of such a document is a major undertaking. In the case of the last plan it was a particularly long and contentious process. Many of the members were appointed by Mayor Scott Johnson. These represented the traditional business and real estate interests. Todd Shimkus, the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, and developer Sonny Bonacio were representative of those he chose. Michele Madigan used her two appointments to place representatives from Sustainable Saratoga on the committee and Chris Mathiesen made similar appointments.
It was no surprise that the committee was riven by conflict and its deliberations dragged on for months. In fact it continued into Mayor Joanne Yepsen’s tenure. She replaced Johnson’s chair with Geoff Bornemann who had been the city’s planner and who was active in Sustainable Saratoga.
In the end, the bitterness of the divisions was so deep that there was never a vote on the final document and a group of the committee, including Mr. Shimkus, disavowed the entire plan.
Two of the major controversies were over expansions sought by Saratoga National Golf Course and development plans put forward for property on the eastern plateau owned by Bobby D’Andrea who had been a member of the New York Assembly for many years.
While there had been consensus on many of the elements of the Comprehensive Plan, there were a host of items such as the ones associated with Saratoga National and D’Andrea that were unresolved. This whole messy package was dumped on the City Council. In the end the City Council basically adopted the items that had been agreed on by the group and dismissed the controversial ones.
This debacle in its own way, highlighted the fact that in the end the Comprehensive Plan is a child of the City Council. While the Council depends heavily on the work of the Comprehensive Plan Committee, the Council remains the essential player. The Mayor enjoys much more power over the committee appointments, but whatever a committee dominated by the Mayor may produce, it is the Council that finally votes on the plan.
It Has Always Come Down To The Council
It is unclear to me why the critics of the Hospital never pressed the Council to revise the Comprehensive Plan to address their concerns. The law seems fairly clear that the city zoning should adhere to the Comprehensive Plan. Therefore defeating the zoning change would seem to necessitate changing the part of the Comprehensive Plan calling for the change.
In the end, for those of us who have observed this long process, the critics have never been able to muster the support of a majority of the Council. Their failure is perhaps reflective of the situation that most of the voters in the city are either ignorant of what is transpiring, don’t care about the issue, or support the Hospital. The critics would like to believe that somehow the Hospital has bought the Council by making campaign donations. Wendy Liberatore, the reporter for the Times Union, has done her best to promote this narrative. Pretty much every story on the Hospital issue she writes includes the fact that the Hospital’s attorney, Matt Jones, contributed to their campaigns. The fact is that he gave money to John Franck as well as everyone else on the Council and has been an active contributor to City Council candidates for years including former Mayor Joanne Yepsen.
It is my own belief that the four members of the Council who I anticipate will be voting for the zoning changes Monday night will be doing so not only because they believe they are required to because of the provisions in the Comprehensive Plan, but also because they believe the changes are in the best interest of the city as a whole. In the end, though, that is simply my opinion.
Monday night, the Council can be expected to approve the zoning change that will affect the Hospital. The neighbors, I expect, will resort to the courts. It will drag on and sometime in the future we will all find out if the Hospital will actually be able to build its medical office building.