The UDO: A Blank Check Should Never Be Signed

As part of their contract, the consultants Camiros, hired by the city to develop the UDO, conducted what they referred to as three “workshops” on their UDO draft. I simply assumed that these were meant to educate the community about the document they had created. I had assumed that, like most workshops, we would break up into small groups being led either by the consultants or the city’s Planning staff. I thought they would provide us background materials and work their way through them clarifying any confusion by taking questions.

Instead the consultants did a slide presentation and offered a commentary as they briskly went through their slides. In talking to other participants, I was not the only one who found their presentation overwhelming. The most helpful part of the program was the period they provided for questions. Unfortunately at the session I attended they cut off discussion even though there were obviously people who still had questions. In fact, after the first few questions were about UR-3 issues, they asked that people with these questions wait until others with different issues had a chance. This was not an unreasonable request but when they returned to UR3 there was insufficient time left for those with questions.

As noted in a previous post, it turned out that the consultants’ presentation misrepresented a key issue regarding the reduction of lot sizes in UR-3. I will not go through it again here and instead direct readers to the post titled: UDO: Lots of Things To Chew On But Not Enough Time

So recently, in an attempt to get a better understanding of the information the consultants presented, I went to the city website and went through their slides again. I found that even looking at their slides more carefully , though, they were to me just as confusing as at their presentation.

I am not sure who the presentation and the slides were designed for but they were not designed to educate people like myself.

Putting aside the fact that critical issues like comparing the old and new setback standards that will decide how far apart homes must be from one another were not addressed, the text was often impenetrable. The two consultants were highly skilled professionals and it seems incredible that they would think they had created a presentation that would help the general public grasp the changes they were calling for.

Here is a link to the slide show.

The following is some text from a chart labeled “Residential Districts.” This is the same chart that showed the reduction in lot size minimums for UR-3. Under the heading for UR-3 labeled “Notes/Analysis” they offered the following:

[As a little help, “SF” stands for “single family” and “2F” stands for “two family.”]

SF: 68% conform (versus 47%) lot area 2F: 47% conform (versus 27%) lot area

SF Subdivision: currently 40 lots – new standard 130 lots – total of 90 new lots that could subdivide

In their commentary as almost an aside they alluded to this text as demonstrating how little effect the change in lot size would have.

Myself, I do not understand what this note means. I welcome readers to offer their explanation.

Here is another example:

Nonconforming Site Elements

* Brought into conformance when a principal building is constructed on a site or an existing principal building is increased in building footprint square footage by 50% or more

* Additional exceptions for parking and exterior lighting

I find this language unnecessarily obtuse and at times impenetrable, a major barrier to understanding what is being proposed. Maybe other readers will find it quite accessible and I welcome people’s input. If it turns out that my assessment is not unfair, though, I hope others reading this blog who share these concerns will contact our elected officials.

I do not see the members of the Council as committed to forcing the UDO to be adopted as written. Casual conversations I have had reaffirm my faith that Mayor Kelly and other Council members truly see this as only a draft.

I believe that the source of the problem we face is rooted in the prevalent attitude of planners which is to facilitate the maximum use of a community’s land resources. The consultants are also focused on producing documents like our UDO and have little interest in the very expensive and time consuming project of educating the general citizenry. They seem to have produced a document that may be meaningful to other planners but is not useful for lay people who need to be able to evaluate how the work of these planners will affect their neighborhoods. As a sign of their indifference to helping the public understand their work they have not established a vehicle for citizens to have questions asked and answered now that the public “workshops” are over. Their site only invites comments, not questions.

I am confident that our Mayor and Council want Saratogians to have the time and resources necessary to fully comprehend and weigh in on the very important changes in land use that will guide our community for many years to come. To do this will require materials that are clear and accessible and more time for the community to digest the information and evaluate it.

5 thoughts on “The UDO: A Blank Check Should Never Be Signed”

  1. THANK YOU so much for looking into this, and helping us to (try to) understand what is going on. There hasn’t been nearly enough information disseminated about what could potentially be a very disruptive change in our community. Thank you for all you do.


    1. Our community is already disrupted, but obviously the intent is to increase the density…….as stated before……to benefit the developers. Of course there must be some homeowners who want to cash in on their substandard vacant portion of their lot.


  2. The section you quote above refers to buildings that are not in comformance with the current zoning codes. The new UDO allows normal maintenance and repairs, but no reconstruction or addition is permitted that would not conform to the the new UDO.
    So -when an existing building is increased in building footprint square footage by 50% or more -it has to conform to new UDO specifications.
    The presentation by Camiro’s was terribly long, confusing, impossible to follow.
    It is easier to comprehend if you see the UDO on the city website. It’s a lot more extensive to read, but more organized.
    Abbreviations and technical terms are also explained. The specific area that explains non-conformance that you quote above is under article 19 (See 19.5 Non-conforming elements)
    They talked a lot about square footage. A more serious issue I believe is in the word: MIXED-USE.
    I suspect there are some lucrative plans when the UDO is approved.
    Just one favor: when it is approved, please skip all the praise for our wonderful city council


  3. The existing urban core and several other gerrymandered parcels that were the recipients of the transect explosion of twenty years ago left their indelible marks on those landscapes (cityscapes) that would place five story buildings next to two story ones. That tower house on State Street is one good example of this spot zoning, while others, are simple examples of the distribution of wealth that was last experienced during the days of urban renewal.

    I have little issue with the implied density potential of the city’s urban core since that is traditionally, the best district for its structures to go up. A refusal to address residential development in that district that does not include parking for its residents, has resulted in the elephant on the street. This new frontier for development, initiated most likely by developers and builders and indulged by municipal planners determined to make their marks, have all but ignored those residents in their UR-3 designated neighborhoods who live mostly in modest residential homes, mostly, one and two-family structures. It is because of a proliferation of pre-existing apartments and two and three family homes; that the original city stewards designated these areas as UR-3 multifamily.

    Density changes neighborhoods. Pre-existing, non-conforming parcels within this district have always required relief from a strict interpretation of the zoning ordinance and that has never been the problem, it is the process. This proposal does not reduce that effort. Banks and Insurers have not penalized the owners of these properties when requesting mortgage, improvement loans or insurance. Non-permitted and unauthorized modifications that do not conform with city property file date on the other hand, does cause lending and insuring institutions to pause, as well as city building and safety inspectors.

    I suggest that the UDO proposal rethink its approach for public dissemination of its proposal by focusing on the residents first, and the market potentials of land development second.

    Deriding our City Council for this review is unnecessary. Familiarizing oneself with the city’s legislation is an ongoing responsibility of supporters and challengers alike. We have had a Zoning Ordinance for more than half a century and occasionally changes are made to that document. Read and ask questions for clarifications, but don’t discriminately disparage our elected officials who are only trying to do their work.


  4. Mea culpa on my initial response to the UDO application before the city. I had not attended the meeting and had not reread the proposal before taking off on this thread. Glaringly, my example of the State Street property had nothing to do with transect zones, although when those zones were first established, the land boards were later charged with recognizing transitions between 60 feet and those adjacent structures at 30 or less feet in height. In fact, the recommendations of this UDO application would address the approved existing height of 60 feet reducing it by some 20 feet. I did a disservice to all those volunteers and city staff who spent a great deal of time reviewing this application, to have addressed it the way I did.

    I stand on density and believe that any reduction of required areas that purport to standardize existing non-conformance is troublesome. The preservation of and maintenance of public rights-of-way and off-street parking requirements is fundamental to maintaining the quality of life in a community or neighborhood.


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