Hospital Rezoning: The Strange World Of SEQR And The Inevitable Litigation That Will Follow

Before the City Council could act at its December 23 meeting on the proposed rezoning called for by the Comprehensive Plan (which included the controversial Hospital parcel) the Council had to complete the State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) process. The process involves answering a series of questions that are meant to determine whether or not a proposal will require a more extensive environmental study before approval.

The SEQR process is really designed to address actual building proposals. The requirement that zoning changes had to go through the SEQR process created the classic situation of trying to fit a round peg in a square hole.

The SEQR form is structured as a series of questions with boxes to check for the answers yes or no. Here is an example (the last question on the form):

† A. This project [JK: Emphasis added] will result in no significant adverse impacts on the environment, and, therefore, an environmental impact statement need not be prepared. Accordingly, this negative declaration is issued.

Part III Item A

Both Commissioners Peter Martin (who is an attorney) and John Franck commented on the repeated use of the word “project” in the questions on the form. There is no specific “project” under consideration by the Council. City Attorney, Vince DeLeonardis, explained to the Council that for purposes of dealing with the zoning changes before them, the word “project” should be understood to mean the zoning changes on the map they were to vote on.

Poorly crafted legislation results in situations like this.

After considering each SEQR question separately the Council unanimously agreed that the zoning changes called for by the Comprehensive Plan would have no negative environmental impact ( a double negative known as “neg dec”) .

A confused public might rightly ask, how is this possible since the rezoning will allow the Hospital’s project to move forward. On its face it seems axiomatic that a project of this magnitude would seem to inevitably impact the environment.

The answer is that the Council was not considering an actual project that would involve architectural plans, and specifics about lighting, drainage, etc. Zoning simply determines what kinds of uses will be allowed on particular parcels of land and this was the only issue under consideration at the Council meeting. The specifics of what any project proposed for that parcel may actually look like are unknown so any discussion of details of what might be constructed would be entirely speculative.

In stating his opposition to the zoning changes before the Council John Franck claimed the Hospital had a “plan” calling for constructing a building larger than the White House on the parcels under consideration for a zoning change.

It is important to understand, however, that while the proposed zoning change that was before the Council allowed for a medical office building, it did not speak to the issue of what kind of building will actually be built.

Theoretically the building could be some small office that would have a tiny footprint with negligible impact on anything. Of course this is not what the Hospital has in mind but the central issue here is that whatever facility the Hospital would like to construct will have to go before the city’s Planning Board for what is called site plan review which will include another SEQR process.

It will be in the “site plan review” process by the Planning Board that all facets of the actual Hospital project will be presented and scrutinized. The Hospital will have to convince the Planning Board that it can build its idea of a medical office building while mitigating the many potential negative impacts such a structure might have on the areas around it,.

As someone who has endured too many Planning Board meetings, there actually has been on the rare occasion a case of the Planning Board telling a developer that their proposal was too big to be accommodated by the plot on which it would sit.

So the motion crafted by the City Attorney and adopted by the Council on December 23 took great pains to state that the Council had no actual proposal for any site before them. The motion noted that any actual development on any of the parcels that were to be rezoned (there were eighteen total with new zoning) would be subject to a further SEQR process when and if landowners pursued development.

John Franck: “I missed it.”

Commissioner of Accounts John Franck, in his remarks explaining why he would vote no on the rezoning proposals before the Council, went on at some length that the battles over Saratoga National Golf Course’s desire to be allowed to build a hotel in the greenbelt and other major development proposals back in 2015 had resulted in the Comprehensive Plan Committee being blind to the impact of the zoning sought by the Hospital.

John mentioned several times his regret that he had missed the controversial nature of the Hospital issue himself and claimed other Council members had missed this as well when they adopted the Comprehensive Plan in 2015.

While it is undoubtedly true that people who would subsequently oppose the rezoning originally missed it, the issue has been front and center now since 2015 when the hospital applied for a Planned Unit Development to the Council as a means to allow for their expansion. The PUD died because Joanne Yepsen, Mayor at the time, and John recused themselves.

Interestingly a Planned Unit Development in a way combines both the zoning and the actual project in one package for consideration by the Council. In the case of a PUD, a developer proposes that a parcel be used for a particular purpose and presents the actual plans for the structures that will be built on that land. This provides the City Council wide latitude and control over a project. It is a two edged sword as this degree of flexibility in terms of what can be done is also potentially subject to abuse.

In fact, this has been the vehicle for previous expansions by Saratoga Hospital and it had attempted to go this route for developing its proposed medical offices back in 2105.

A subsequent effort by Chris Mathiesen, Public Safety Commissioner at the time, to block the Hospital’s plans by changing the part of the Comprehensive Plan that would allow for the Hospital’s expansion died . At the time, John offered no support to Chris and recused himself from the discussion and voting. John has not until recently raised concerns about the Hospital’s plans and has not pressed for a reconsideration of the Comprehensive Plan.

It seems to me pretty obvious that since the Comprehensive Plan that included the rezoning of property for the Hospital’s expansion was adopted in 2015, the Council has become acutely aware of the Hospital expansion issue. The fact that he and others may have originally missed it has been most clearly corrected. One would have had to be living under the proverbial rock to be unaware of the issues today. The members of the city council are fully aware that they have the authority to change the comprehensive plan and they have chosen not to.

The Hospital has successfully made their case as evidenced by the four to one vote approving the zoning change.

The attorney for the neighbors has told area newspapers that she believes there were legal flaws in the process so it is reasonable to expect that the neighbors will challenge the city’s interpretation of the SEQR along with other as yet unknown issues in court.

One thought on “Hospital Rezoning: The Strange World Of SEQR And The Inevitable Litigation That Will Follow”

  1. SEQRA can seem confusing especially when the process addresses an action that is not what would commonly be referred to as a project. It is helpful to explain why each of the required questions may not seem relevant to the action being considered as one progresses through the form.

    I went back to listen to the December 23rd meeting. Commissioner Madigan states that the neighbors would have been better served by expansion of the Hospital’s PUD approved by the Council rather than having a zoning change and separate project analysis and approval by the Planning Board. The neighbors would best be served if the zoning for Parcel #1 remained residential.

    John Franck was correct about the Council’s lack of focus on Parcel #1 during our deliberations. I think that I now have a better perspective why Commissioner Franck and I ”missed it’. Commissioner Madigan stated that the two people whom she appointed remembered that the entire Comprehensive Plan Review Committee voted in favor of the change in use for Parcel #1. What she did not say and could not say was that the Comprehensive Plan Review Committee spent significant time looking at this change and understanding the possible ramifications. Unfortunately the Parcel #1 proposal was a very last minute addition to a very long and contentious process being considered by a group suffering from ‘issue fatigue’. I assumed that the issue of rezoning this parcel HAD been given the necessary attention by both the Comp. Plan Review Committee and by our Planning Department especially given such a dramatic change in allowed use. Ultimately, I dropped the ball here but, upon reflection, I do see how it happened. It was only after we approved the Plan and then the Hospital presented their proposal to us that I realized what we had done. I then unsuccessfully attempted to amend the Comprehensive Plan.

    Commissioner Franck’s comment that Parcel #1 would have been given more attention had it been associated with the Hospital’s plan which was put forth soon after the approval of the Comprehensive Plan in June of 2015 is correct. It was a good strategy on the part of the Hospital. The Saratoga National and D’Andrea property zoning change proposals were given most of the attention by the Comp. Plan Review Committee and by the Council. He was also correct about the poor conditions on Morgan Street for such an intense commercial use. His arguments were very valid and enlightening.

    Commissioner Madigan’s statement that she was very aware of what she was doing regarding Parcel #1 when she voted to approve the Comprehensive Plan was disappointing. If she was so knowledgeable of the proposal and its impacts, wouldn’t she have an obligation to make sure that everyone else understood, including Council members and area residents.

    I was also disappointed with Commissioner Martin’s reasons for supporting the Parcel #1 zoning change. It’s sad that the hospital in his home town failed but that has nothing to do with Parcel #1. He didn’t address any of the suggestions that Commissioner Franck made for alternative approaches to achieve our Hospital’s goal.

    There were no real surprises on the evening of December 23. It was not the first time and nor will it be the last that the City Council makes an uncharacteristically poor choice on an important issue.

    Chris Mathiesen

    Like

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