Sustainable Saratoga On the UDO: #1 Some of the Positives

Sustainable Saratoga praised a number of provisions contained in the UDO. Here are some they listed:

  1. Downtown Building Height and Design Guidelines. [JK: One of the potential threats to positive downtown development is creating the “cavern” effect. This is where large buildings on both sides of a street cut off light and create an unsettling, tunnel environment. There are actually formulas for avoiding this. There is a ratio of building heights relative to the width of the street and sidewalk that separates them. This is the difference between the lovely atmosphere on Broadway as compared to the oppressive canyon that is Railroad Place. Sustainable feels the UDO guidelines will make use of these formlas.]
Railroad Place

2. Some improvements in outdoor lighting standards

3. Some stronger protections for wetland buffers

4. New requirements for vehicle electric re-charging stations

5. New requirements for bicycle parking

6. Continued prohibition of Planned Unit Developments (PUDs) in the RR district (Greenbelt)

7. Sign posting requirements for project applicants. [JK: The UDO would require (with some caveats) that prominent signs be posted on sites where project applications are pending before the Planning Board, Design Review, or Zoning Board of Appeals. So if one of your neighbors, for instance, were applying to expand a porch beyond the required setback or erecting another structure on their property that required a variance, they would need to put a sign up on their property alerting the neighbors to their application.]

8. Good progress toward stronger, more consistent guidelines for tree preservation, planting, maintenance, and protection

Sustainable Saratoga Raises Serious Concerns Re UDO

In a restrained, thorough, and thoughtful paper, Sustainable Saratoga analyzes the current draft UDO. Their paper raises troubling issues about threats to the greenbelt, expanded discretionary powers to the city’s land use boards, design of the city’s gateways, better buffering for the city’s waterways, and the need to strengthen the city’s urban forest program.

Most helpful is that in addition to raising these concerns, their paper offers language that would address these issues.

My reading of their work is that it offers the city a path to take a flawed document and turn it into a tool that could be of enormous benefit to those who love our city.

While I urge the readers of this blog to take the time to read the Sustainable paper, many may find its text challenging. In order to assist the readers of this blog, I am going to post a series of short blog posts meant to highlight and explain a number of key changes being recommended by Sustainable.

In the meantime, below is the cover letter to their white paper along with a link to the document on their website.

Mayor Meg Kelly
Commissioner of Finance, Michele Madigan
Commissioner of Accounts, John Franck
Commissioner of Public Safety, Robin Dalton
Commissioner of Public Works, Skip Scirocco


RE: COMMENTS ON DRAFT UDO

Dear Mayor and Commissioners,

Sustainable Saratoga is a not-for-profit organization that promotes sustainable practices and the protection of natural resources, through education, advocacy and action, for the benefit of current and
future generations in the Saratoga Springs area. We appreciate the opportunity to comment on the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO), a document of great importance to the community.

Sustainable Saratoga has reviewed the draft UDO and, while it contains some good sustainability features, we have some significant concerns regarding provisions relating to the city’s greenbelt, environmental protections, and housing affordability.

Require more rural standards and less intense uses in the greenbelt and gateways:

In light of the Comprehensive Plan’s guidance “that greenbelt uses should be proposed more thoughtfully and sparingly,” Sustainable Saratoga is extremely concerned that the addition of dozens of new uses in the RR zone contradicts both the spirit and letter of the Comp Plan.

A significant number of commercial and institutional uses, such as RV Parks, should be eliminated from the RR district and in the Gateway districts (all of which are located in the “Country Overlay Area” – or the city’s greenbelt).

The UDO also fails to provide any meaningful design standards for structures and site changes that will preserve the required rural character of the greenbelt.

The voluntary design standards for the Gateway Design District #1 in the current zoning ordinance and the voluntary rural design standards in the
current conservation subdivision ordinance should be reinstated and made mandatory.

Also, rural design standards for the conservation subdivisions should be expanded and made mandatory for all projects within the greenbelt, not just for projects covered in conservation subdivisions.


Require stronger environmental protections, especially for waterbodies:

Mounting evidence, worldwide and local, has established that the status quo has not protected us against climate change, species collapse, loss of habitat, and other environmental threats.

As such, Sustainable Saratoga recommends that the city adopt standards that will increase protections for our valuable water resources and minimize fragmentation of open space.

Sustainable Saratoga emphatically recommends stronger protections for all classes of wetlands, streams, and floodplains, by increasing buffers and
reducing fragmentation, be added to the UDO.


Include more opportunities for diverse and affordable housing: The provision of housing affordable to a community’s workforce is an important sustainability tenet.

Sustainable Saratoga recommends adding affordability features and strategies to the city’s toolbox of options, including adding new residences by permitting the conversion of carriage houses and accessory structures as long as they are
affordable to the city’s workforce. In addition, the UDO should allow innovative housing opportunities such as cohousing, cooperative housing, tiny houses, microunits, and senior-oriented rooming houses and concierge housing.

And, while we advocate for a density bonus in every zone in the city for
affordable housing, the city should not rely on incentive programs to result in new affordable units, because this has not happened in the past.

Instead, the city should exercise its legislative authority to enact meaningful affordability expansion provisions, such as inclusionary zoning, so that more
integrated affordable units will be built.

Attached is a list of Sustainable Saratoga’s more detailed comments.

These comments provide more relevant detail to the categories of comments described above, and also offer recommendations in the areas of energy, urban forestry, downtown and neighborhood development, and outdoor lighting
standards.

Sustainable Saratoga urges the city to revise the UDO to more accurately and meaningfully implement the key policies of the 2015 Comprehensive Plan. We appreciate that the city is providing a second draft UDO, including maps, before the final draft is issued.

We ask that the second red-lined draft also include explanations of the proposed changes, so the public can be more aware of the basis of the UDO
provisions as they are modified.

Of course, we are always available to discuss these recommendations with you and would be happy to do so.


Sincerely,
Art Holmberg, Chair

Wendy Mahaney, Executive Director


Cc: Deputy Commissioners Finneran, Ladd, Masterson, & O’Neill

Blogger Responds To More City Arguments Defending UR3 Density Increase

The city has offered more arguments in defense of the Camiros consulting firm’s UDO draft, specifically in reference to reducing the lot sizes in the UR3 zone.

Unfortunately part of the problem is that Camiros never formally addressed why they were recommending the most obviously controversial changes to the city’s zoning ordinances. No formal documents explaining why the changes were necessary were provided to our community.

Basically Camiros delivered the first draft of the UDO to the city and produced a slide presentation for the Council and three workshops. What little we know about the reasons for their changes were elicited at one of their presentations during the question and answer period (truncated as it was by the lack of time Camiros allocated).

It is sadly apparent that Camiros ignored the nature of what a public document should be. As the UDO will have a major impact on the city’s neighborhoods and greenbelt and how our land use boards operate among other things, it should be a document that is developed with significant citizen input. It is not unreasonable to assume that the crafting of a UDO would include developing a plan as to how the community will be educated regarding its content and what vehicles will be created for the citizens to communicate to the city government any changes that they view as necessary. The need to design this process was apparently ignored by Camiros.

Instead, Camiros and the city’s Planning Department crafted a 288 page UDO draft entirely out of the public view. They delivered the draft to the Council and in a process that was more symbolic than substantive delivered three brief “workshops” meant to inform the public. The workshops were a poor attempt at creating the appearance of educating the public.

In response to public demand for more and clearer information about what was in the UDO, the city began to schedule additional public meetings and develop more user friendly materials that Camiros had failed to provide. The city, however, found itself in a bind. It was being asked to explain the purpose of these changes while also being asked to solicit public input for changing the document. The result was that the city at times appeared to be advocating for the UDO proposals while trying to present itself as a neutral body willing to entertain any and all proposed changes to the draft. It is small wonder that an honest effort by the city to address people’s criticisms has tended to create more suspicion rather than alleviate people’s fears.

With that in mind, here are the latest arguments put forward to justify reducing lot sizes in UR3. It should be noted that similar proposals to reduce lot sizes and change setbacks, etc. are being proposed for most of the other areas of the city. Residents of the UR3 district have so far been the most vocal in opposing these changes and these rationales have been put forward in response to their persistent questions as to why these changes were being proposed. It is not clear whether these arguments would also be put forward as justifications for the other changes throughout the city.

The increase in density for UR3 is consistent with carrying out the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

This argument asserts that the Comprehensive Plan intends for the city to become increasingly dense as one progresses from the outer greenbelt to the city core. The city argues that making UR3 even denser by diminishing lot sizes would implement this approach.

This is an interesting argument in that it appears to contradict Camiros’ public comments which sharply minimized the potential impact that reducing lots sizes would have on increasing density. This argument is addressed in an earlier blog post but briefly, Camiros selectively focused on the few remaining parcels of land large enough to allow for subdivisions. Comparing the number of lots these could produce using the current required 6,600 square feet with the proposed reduced size of 5,000 they came up with a number for new lots that they characterized as insignificant.

Now the public is being told that reducing lot sizes is a virtue that should be maximized in order to implement the Comprehensive Plan’s goal of directing increased density in the area closest to downtown.

Reducing The Minimum Lot Size For Two Family Homes Will Implement the Comprehensive Plan’s Goal Of More Affordable Housing

While the construction of more two family homes may produce less expensive housing per square foot, it remains to be seen what the impact of this change would have materially on “affordable” housing. This kind of promised effect needs some kind of analysis in terms of both what “affordability” means and what kind of scale can reasonably be expected in terms of future housing. In other words, there needs to be some sort of analysis done to document how much reducing lot sizes for two family houses would actually address the need for affordable housing. So far this has not been produced.

Handy Charts on City Website Lay Out Proposed UDO Changes in City’s Neighborhoods

In response to the public’s request for information to help better understand the myriad of proposals in the UDO, Deputy Mayor Lisa Shields has put together some very helpful charts comparing proposed changes in the various zones with current regulations.

Although the focus of many comments at various meetings has often been on changes proposed for the UR3 zone, it is important to understand that lot size reductions, setbacks, uses and other changes in building requirements are being proposed in almost all areas of the city.

Go to the zoning map on the city website to identify the area where you live, then go to the charts now available on the UDO page of the city website to see the changes proposed for your neighborhood. Thanks again to Deputy Mayor Shields for making this information more accessible and easier to understand.

Comments submitted about the UDO have now also been posted so it is possible to see the issues others in the community are focusing on. The comment period has been extended until February 21 on this first draft and comments may also be submitted on this UDO part of the city website.

The final public forum for this phase of review of the UDO will be held on Tuesday, February 18 at 5:30 at the city Recreation Center, 15 Vanderbilt Avenue. Remarks may also be made at the pubic comment period preceding the City Council meeting that will begin at 7PM.

The Defense Of Lot Reduction Minimums in UR3: A Solution Seeking a Problem

In my experience observing city hall for more than four decades, Vince DeLeonardis is unquestionably the best City Attorney we have ever had.  Full disclosure: I consider him to be a friend and I feel fortunate.  With that said, I have to take exception to the defense that he offered at the February 4 City Council meeting of the Camiros draft UDO proposal for UR-3 to reduce lot size minimums from 6,600 square feet to 5,000 square feet

To my mind, a proposed change to zoning for a district needs to have a very, very compelling reason if the people in the neighborhoods affected oppose it.   I do not think the arguments put forward met this threshold.

Here are the arguments point by point:

1. Non-compliant parcels and “right sizing”

Vince offered the following statistics regarding the properties in UR3. According to his calculations there are 1475 parcels. This is much less than the over three thousand I had originally understood. Knowing Vince, I will accept his number.

Of these he told the Council that only 341 meet the currently required minimum lot size and minimum lot width for the UR3 zone.

351 meet the required lot width but not the lot size.

119 meet the required lot size but not the lot width.

664 meet neither the lot width nor lot size.

He told the Council that this means most of the lots in the zone “do not accurately reflect the very parcels it [the zoning] is intended to regulate.”

Using the language of Camiros, he argued that the zoning needs to be changed to “right size” the parcels. He told the Council this would “bring a higher level of conformance.”

Response:

A. The Data Offered By Camiros Fails To Provide An Accurate Assessment To Determine How Many Parcels Would Actually Go From Non-Conforming To Conforming.

Vince’s analysis, based on the Camiros data, fails to address all the factors that would make a parcel “conform.”  Lot size and lot width are only two of many regulations that determine conformity. 

The history of the neighborhoods in UR-3 goes way back.  Most of the homes built on the parcels in UR-3 predate the establishment of any zoning.  These homes were built without regard to the idea of setbacks.  Homes were constructed on plots wherever builders decided to put them.  Chris Mathiesen has pointed out that the zoning map for the district shows a patchwork of parcels of all different shapes and sizes.  He offered that the only way you can describe them is that they are uniformly different.

An architect who has been involved in city real estate for decades told me that non-conforming setbacks are ubiquitous.  He was highly skeptical as to what the impact would be of addressing non-conformity by instituting the changes called for by Camiros.  He was reluctant to estimate how many homes would still violate the setbacks, but he told me that they would be substantial and that without taking an inventory, which would be a major endeavor, no one can legitimately estimate how the proposed changes would impact the inventory of conforming properties.  He called the numbers I showed him, “cherry picked.”  

Conspicuously missing from Vince’s analysis, then, is any data on how many homes would remain non-conforming even if the new minimum lots sizes and lot widths were adopted.   

Even if we exclude all the other zoning restrictions on the parcels in UR3, using his numbers, the proposed changes would raise the conforming percentage to 67.9%.  The problem is that he admits that approximately half of the 67.9% do not meet the current lot width requirement.  He does not offer how many would conform regarding lot size with the proposed changes.  This would still leave the district a long way from the goal of bringing parcels into compliance.  Now consider that many of these same parcels will still be non-conforming due to other zoning restrictions.  

It is clearly impossible, based only on the Camiros data, to determine how many parcels can be brought into conformity. The obvious questions to ask is, “What percentage of parcels would need to be brought into conformity to be worth rezoning?” Would it be 60%? 65%? Was the decision to go with 68% just arbitrary?

And what is the value, in and of itself, of achieving more conformity?  The owners of the parcels can sell their property and borrow on it in spite of the fact that it may be non-conforming.  If they need to alter the footprint of their property, to the extent that the change does not create problems for their neighbors, they can pretty much be assured of securing a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

How does increasing the number of conforming properties that currently exist provide any value to the neighborhood?

B. “Right Sizing” Is A Nebulous Concept And Not A Standard

Vince draws on Camiros’ appealing phrase, “right sizing” in describing the proposed reduction in lot sizes.

I did a google search on the meaning of “right sizing” as it refers to zoning.  The only item that came up was an article about Detroit’s effort to write off major areas of their deteriorating city and focus development on the rest. With respect to Camiros it is a rather squishy term with no clear definition or standard.

The current standards for zoning in UR3 have been in effect for nearly fifty years.

What has never been addressed is why were the standards of 6,600 square foot minimum lot size and other related regulations established in this zone fifty years ago? A city’s history is important. I would think that it would be axiomatic that the first step in considering whether to reduce lot sizes would be to determine why the existing ones were originally established. I think it is possible to assume that the people who framed these standards fifty years ago believed they were “right sizing” the district. Surely they did not arbitrarily select these numbers. While it is unhelpful to be blind to change, it is important to draw from the past when we make decisions today.

It would be helpful if the Planning Office could determine why the standards they are seeking to change were adopted in the first place.  Surely this is a reasonable question to both ask and answer.

I put this question to a friend who is a local architect with many years of experience here in the city.  He speculated that they may have wanted the neighborhoods to be less dense.  Greater setbacks and larger lots would maintain the basic character of a core neighborhood but allow for a more open feel.

C. Why Do We Want To Promote Greater Density In UR3?

Vince argued that the change in lot size would have little effect on density because there was limited land left to subdivide.  I will address the data he used later.

The reality is that the UDO draft calls for a change in land use policy.  If you reduce the lot size and also reduce the required set back you are promoting larger houses on smaller plots.

Anyone who follows the real estate industry is aware of the trend in “tear downs.”  All over town we can find examples of tearing down an existing house to build (usually) a bigger house.

The reality is that there is very little land left in UR3 that is not developed and what is left makes building on these parcels a challenge.

With few available vacant lots, the pressure to tear down existing buildings and replace them with new construction can only intensify.  Reducing lot size and reducing setbacks will now make existing parcels more attractive to developers.  

How much more interest will there be in tearing down houses on these small lots?  I don’t know.  

What I do know is that before you reduce lot size and setbacks it seems important to consider what the impact of this could be on tear downs.  Such analysis would need to consider that a city has a very long life and that this analysis would have to consider the long term potential for a change in density.  Regrettably, Camiros never addressed this.

It is not an academic exercise or a frivolous thought.  The failure of Camiros to even acknowledge this issue let alone attempt to factor it in raises grave questions about the rigorousness of their work.

2. Why Count Only Subdivides?   

Vince addresses the potential impact of the change by citing a statistic from Camiros. He asserts that under the existing 6,600 minimum lot size it would be possible to subdivide existing land into forty parcels. If the minimum were reduced to 5,000 the land could yield one hundred and thirty parcels. That is it could create an additional ninety parcels. He argued that since this is a small percentage of the total lots in the UR3 district its impact would be minimal.

Response:

A. It appears that Camiros was selective in choosing which data to use in assessing the impact of reduced lot sizes.  It seems the data was chosen to support their recommendation rather than to accurately address all the potential building options that the reduction of lot size would make possible. 

Subdivisions are defined as the dividing of an area of land into two separate parcels.  

By dividing 5,000 square feet into an area of land rather than 6,600 square feet, you are going to come up with a larger number of lots so I will accept that ninety more plots could be created should this UDO policy be adopted.

But wait.  What about the fact that in addition to subdivisions there may be individual vacant lots that are 5,000 square feet.  In fact there may be lots that are under 6,600 square feet that are vacant.  This means that with the new standards larger houses may now be built on smaller plots on parcels that cannot be subdivided.  Would anyone argue that building on these lots would not have an impact?

Again, it seems axiomatic that the development of these parcels will contribute to greater density not just in terms of the number of buildings that may increase in a given area but in terms of the feel of the neighborhood as larger structures appear with less open space on a plot and closer to their neighbors.  Why are these parcels not included when determining the impact?

As noted earlier there is the real possibility that when allowed to construct larger homes on smaller parcels tear downs may become more attractive leading to greater density.

B. It Matters Where These Subdivisions Are

It may be that these parcels that can be subdivided are evenly spread throughout  UR3.  This would minimize their impact.  But what if they are not?  Because the number of sub dividable lots was determined through modeling and not through an inventory of existing plots, we have no idea where they are.  In fact, if numbers of them were located in specific areas, they would have quite an impact on the immediate neighborhood. 

3. One of the prime reasons offered by Camiros for reducing lot size and setbacks was that it would decrease the need for home owners to apply for variances to the Zoning Board of Appeals. They argued that variance applications are burdensome in terms of money for attorneys and in terms of time for the home owner.

In support of this it was noted that UR3 comprises only 13% of the parcels in the city but between 2010 and 2019 they generated 27% of the applications for variances.

Response:

A. I inquired of Vince and Deputy-Mayor, Lisa Shields, what were the actual number of applications as opposed to per centages.  They were kind enough to respond giving me the total number for the decade which was 103.  That number would represent an average rate of applications for each year of approximately ten.  By month it would average less than one.  

Among these 103 applicants there would have been builders as compared to homeowners.  Judging by the new construction in UR3 they would have to represent at least a modest portion of these applications. So in terms of homeowners seeking variances, the number of applications would be even lower.

Having observed the Zoning Board of Appeals, homeowners with modest variance requests often appear without lawyers and uniformly receive a sympathetic review and determination from the ZBA.

I spoke to Chris Mathiesen who served as the ZBA’s chairman for seven years.  He told me that the ZBA easily handled the applications it received.  He did not see that there was a problem that needed to be addressed.

While they represent a higher proportion than other districts that in, and of itself, does not necessarily constitute a problem.  

The more troubling aspect of this proposal is that no matter what the size and width zoning requirements, builders can be expected to seek variances to build the most house they can.

It is very possible that reducing the required lot size might create even more variances as builders struggle to construct projects in even less space.


Reducing the lot size and setbacks effectively moves the goal posts.  Instead of starting at 6,600 square feet to negotiate with the ZBA they will start at 5,000.  The same thing goes for the reduction in setbacks.  This will almost certainly lead to even smaller lots. 

On the positive side

Vince pointed out that the change in zoning would decrease the area allowed for impervious surfaces from 75% to 70%.  This would potentially modestly minimize the problem of run off.  Aside from the problem of negatively impacting the neighbors, the more porous land we have, the better the water quality will be for our lakes and streams.  The earth acts as a kind of filter.

The building height limit will be dropped from sixty feet to forty feet.  This strikes me as an eminently excellent idea.

Let’s Make It Better

While I have been frustrated by the failure to date to provide an annotated document that compares the current standards to the proposed standards in the many areas the UDO addresses, I know that the Council listens as does Vince. If our arguments are sound and they will make the UDO better I continue to believe that the UDO will be amended to address public concerns.

Excellent Insights On UDO by Chris Mathiesen

[JK: I wrote to Chris Mathiesen to get his take on the UDO. Chris chaired the Zoning Board of Appeals for seven years. His response to me was a very clear and concise assessment of the things that appeared sharpest to him. I hope he will weigh in more as the city provides better documentation for the UDO and as he has the time to go through the UDO draft itself.]

John,


I am in Florida for the week so I don’t have access to my zoning maps.

I did look at the City’s zoning map on my I pad just now which gives a pretty good resolution of the document.


I don’t think the fact that that 27% of variance requests were for properties in the UR-3 zone is that high given the number of properties that fall under this designation and the fact that most of those parcels were developed long before zoning ordinances were formulated. As you look at the map, you see that parcels in UR-3 come in all shapes and sizes. Their common trait is a lack of common traits.

I was disappointed to read that advocates for the proposed reductions lot size in UR-3 were arguing that property values and ability to sell those properties had been undermined by the current zoning ordinance. Anyone with general knowledge of the history of property sales in our City would know that homes in the UR-3 areas have done extremely well for their owners. It would be better to stick to claims that are not so easily undermined.


I have not attended any UDO workshops since those that were held late last spring. At the time, I was impressed with the consultants that were endeavoring to complete this procedure which I had originally thought would have been done long before I left office at the end of 2017. The Council approved the Comprehensive Plan in June of 2015. I am amazed that the corresponding UDO has not been approved nearly five years later.


I attended the City Council meeting on February 4 and I have to agree with the sentiments expressed by many of our citizens during the public comment portion of the meeting. It is very difficult to find all the changes that are being proposed in the draft of the revised zoning ordinance as presented at this time. I tried. A red-line version would be most helpful.


Given my limited understanding of the proposed revisions to the ordinance, my comments are of questionable value. I support two changes. I have no problem with the proposal to allow developers to increase the height of buildings in our downtown in exchange for providing additional units for families with more moderate incomes. Historically, many buildings in our downtown had heights much greater than those that make up most of our current architecture. Increased residential density in our downtown is a good thing. It allows for greater support for our downtown commercial entities. It is the cornerstone of the ‘City in the Country’ concept. It is development which relies less on vehicular traffic and requires no increase in City infra-structure. Also, it would be nice to have more economic diversity among residents in the City’s core.


I also strongly support the changes in notification requirements for properties subject to land use board hearings and zoning changes. This may seem like an unimportant issue to some people and there has been significant resistance to this for years from our Planning Department. The UDO calls for signs being physically displayed on properties for a period of time prior to the land use board or City Council hearings pertaining to those properties. For years, the only notifications went to property owners within 100 feet or 250 feet of the subject properties (depending on the type of hearing being conducted). Too often, projects were approved and building permits issued before others in a neighborhood or a section of the City knew anything about them. Other municipalities in our area have been requiring the posting of signs for many years. I feel that it is a fundamental transparency issue. It is long past the time that Saratoga Springs should have been incorporating this requirement to assure all of our commitment to open government.


Regarding the changes proposed in the UR-3 zone, I am not a supporter. It is my sense that the original dimensions and lot sizes were established in order to encourage a more ideal use of properties in this district. Yes, the changes proposed might reduce the work load for the Planning Department somewhat. But the existing standards have worked well for many years. It would be better if the City Council instructed the UDO consultants to bypass their recommendations for zoning changes in UR-3.


Chris Mathiesen