UDO: Will Passing It Trump Understanding It?

By any standard, Mayor Kelly’s first term in office was an extraordinary success.  City project after project that had languished, sometimes for years, was brought to fruition.  Currently the Mayor is working on an eastside emergency facility that I have every confidence she will make happen.

Her success can be seen as rooted in her approach to governance.  It begins with a profound dedication to the wellbeing of her city.  Despite her paltry salary of $14,500.00 she devotes hundreds of hours each week to everything from ribbon cuttings to strategic meetings meant to achieve a goal she sees as critical.  It is also rooted in a modesty that is laudable, especially in a politician.  She shuns the spotlight and focuses on crediting her successes to her staff reflecting the fact that the Mayor is also a very private person.

The Mayor’s approach to chairing City Council meetings is consistent with this.  She speaks little and designs agendas to be efficient working sessions.  She has radically reduced the marathon sessions of her predecessor.

Basically, the Mayor’s approach to management is “get it done.”  Forget the fanfare.  Forget the limelight.  Get it done.

While this approach has served her well, regrettably the same strengths that have brought so much success have collided with the city’s efforts to produce a Unified Development Ordinance.

The UDO is currently a two hundred and eighty-eight page document.  It covers everything from how to landscape parking lots to how far away a house must be from its neighbors.  It will decide how tall our buildings will be on Broadway in the future and it will decide what kind of activities and land use will be allowed in the future in our greenbelt.  It is hard to overstate the breadth of impact the UDO will have on Saratoga Springs.

The UDO is another city endeavor that has gone on for years.  The original consultants were fired by the Mayor. 

Bang!  Here is the UDO!

Last spring, the new consultants, Camiros, selected by Mayor Kelly, laid out their plans for the development of a UDO in a document titled a “Technical Report” and solicited comments.  Those of us with little technical background, found the document produced at the time abstract and vague.  According to the city website, it drew only one comment.  Most people simply waited for the next phase.

In a process that was completely opaque, Camiros, working with the city’s Planning Staff, crafted the first draft of the UDO.  On January 6, 2020, the draft of the UDO became available to the public.  It was 288 pages long.  Arguing that the zoning changes were only part of the UDO, and that this was an entirely new document, not  a revision of a single existing document, the consultants and the Planning Office asserted that it was impossible to provide a redline edition.  “Redline” is the usual way that the public and other government institutions document the changes they make in statutes, regulations, etc.  In a redline document any language from the past standard that is to be removed has a red line drawn through it.  Any text that is to be added is shown in blue.

The consultants basically dismissed the need to document the changes they are proposing. Instead we had a very large and dense document with no way to compare the changes it was recommending with what currently exists.  In effect, the citizens of this city were being asked to support the adoption of a proposal that would address every aspect of how our city should evolve without the ability to understand the full scope and significance of the changes. 

Following the release of the draft, the consultants did three presentations.  As documented in an earlier post these presentations did nothing to clarify all the changes.  Whoever was responsible for the graphics of the slide show produced an impressive looking program.  Unfortunately, sitting through it, I was reminded of the emperor’s new clothes.  Loaded with jargon, it lacked any serious analysis of what impact the UDO would have on the city. I sat there wondering whether anyone else in the room found these slides helpful.  At the risk of being snarky, it had the feeling that someone had cut and pasted pieces of information for the purpose of meeting an obligation in a contract rather than creating a presentation to actually inform.  If you think I am being unfair I invite you to review the materials used in the presentation yourself.  Here is a link to it.

It was also indicative of the value put on informing the public that the consultants did not leave enough time at the presentation I attended for the all the people there to ask questions.

One thing that had earlier come to people’s attention was that the draft recommended that the minimum lot sizes in the UR3 district that includes Railroad Run be reduced.  The single family lot size minimum was reduced by 25%.  The two family lot size was reduced by 17%.

I will discuss in a subsequent post the poverty of Camiros’ rationale for these changes but the key issue was that this set off alarm bells about the potential impact of what was being recommended.

The key fact is that without a rigorous paper that pulls out of the UDO the proposed changes and compares them to the existing standards most people in the city will have no idea what is coming.  Only a highly skilled person steeped in the technical language of the document and willing to devote many hours going back and forth between the UDO draft and the city’s current zoning laws, design requirements, etc. will be able to understand what is being proposed for changes.

Not surprisingly, the reaction to the UDO has been strong.  People with homes in UR3 opposed the changes in lot size.  People from across the city called for extending the February 7 deadline for comments on the first draft.  Most centrally people called for the city to provide a readable document that laid out both the proposed changes and their rationale.

At the February 3 agenda meeting the Mayor announced that the February 7 deadline for public comment on the UDO draft would be extended but did not indicate what the new date would be.  Still, I was optimistic that the Mayor and the Planning Staff had taken the community concerns to heart and were planning a campaign to educate us.

During the public comment period at the February 4 City Council meeting, attendees repeatedly asked the Council to provide documents that would assist them in assessing the changes being proposed and provide sufficient time for people to effectively absorb the changes and offer comments.  They told the Council over and over that they were overwhelmed by the UDO draft and that it was impossible to effectively respond to it without supporting documents.

Following the convening of the Council meeting, the Mayor announced that the February 7 date would be extended by two weeks.   It was also announced that there would be four Q&A sessions on the UDO  held at the Rec Center during these two weeks but there was no mention of the city providing materials to make the UDO proposals more understandable.

I was stunned.  What value would Q&A sessions have if people came to them largely ignorant of the document that was the basis for discussion at such a gathering.  

To their credit Commissioners Scirocco, Madigan, and Dalton all spoke in support of the need for the kind of materials the public had been requesting.  They admitted that they themselves were in need of such materials. Commissioner Scirocco asked for an executive summary or a redlined document. Commissioner Dalton suggested more charts such as that presented comparing current regulations to proposed UDO standards for setbacks, etc. in UR-3 would be good to have for all districts. Commissioner Madigan suggested the workshops could focus on certain aspects of the UDO changes and suggested the city provide white papers on these topics.

Attorney DeLeonardis’ response was to offer again that the UDO could not be redlined.  When pressed, he offered to meet with any of the members of the Council to address their concerns.   

It was my hope that at this point Mayor Kelly would agree to the need for clarifying materials  and extend the date for comment further so that materials could be produced to assist the public in understanding the UDO proposals.  Unfortunately, this did not happen.

Just as distressing was the timeline for the Q&A events.  The first one is to be on February 6 at 3:00 PM.  This was less than two days later.  On Wednesday the schedule was posted on the city website. At that point it was only one day before the event. I expect that the only people aware of this proposed event are those who are reading this post before February 6 at 3:00 PM and those who were at the Council meeting.  Scheduling a meeting with so little notice made no sense.

It is also important to note Mr. DeLeonardis’ role at the meeting.  The Mayor asked him to address the Council regarding the UDO.  In his remarks he defended the UDO proposal to reduce the lot sizes in UR-3.  I will write about Mr. DeLeonardis’ remarks in a later blog.  Mr. DeLeonardis basically presented the consultants’ rationales.  Unfortunately, his remarks did not address what I believe to be the compelling problems with the consultants’ arguments put forward by the Railroad Run neighbors.  It was apparent that Mr. DeLeonardis saw his role as an attorney arguing a case on behalf of the proposed UDO.

It may appear differently to others, but to me this new schedule seems to be an attempt to appear to respond to the critics of the UDO without genuinely allowing the public to meaningfully weigh in on the proposed draft. I understand that a second draft is being proposed which will also allow for public comment but again with no plan to produce materials to make this document accessible it’s easy to imagine that a second draft will only add to the chaos and confusion as the public struggles to understand what the new changes are and how they differ from the first draft and how all that relates to what we have now. If we cannot get to the point where the public is comfortable that they understand the first draft and can make comments it doesn’t bode well for the review of yet another draft.

This is not to vilify Mayor Kelly.  I have no question that she sees what she is doing as in the best interest of the city.  My assessment is that she believes that the city has spent a great deal of money and devoted a great deal of time to complete the UDO and that her role is now to see that it is completed and adopted.  For the city to craft materials that would compare the existing statutes and standards with those proposed by the UDO would be very challenging.  It would require either paying the consultants more money or trying to get Vince DeLeonardis or Deputy Mayor Lisa Shields, who are already badly overworked to take on yet another difficult task.  It also would mean that the UDO process would be very much delayed just in terms of creating these materials and providing them to the public.  It risks greatly prolonging the UDO timetable  or worse, might end up generating so much conflict that the UDO would never be completed.

I sympathize with these concerns.  As noted earlier, one of the Mayor’s greatest strengths is her determination to complete the city’s projects.  The UDO, however, is a very different endeavor than completing a bike trail or getting the City Center’s parking facility built.  The adopting of something like the UDO requires a very different mindset.  It requires enlisting our community in a public education campaign and the resulting messy business of trying to reconcile the conflicts of interest that will invariably arise.  We do not know all the changes being called for in the proposed UDO.  We do know that if the change in density in the UR-3 district is any indication, the document potentially will touch the lives of everyone in our city. 

Taking the time to educate the citizens of our city so they can understand the potential impact these proposals could have on them seems to me to be worth time, the money, and the risk of the failure of the UDO.  It requires accepting the reality that to do this right will take considerable time.  If the UDO will benefit the citizens of our city, it should be possible to provide the public with the knowledge of what it is.  It will not be easy but in the end, it will benefit us all.

3 thoughts on “UDO: Will Passing It Trump Understanding It?”

  1. Well said John. The implication of such a policy by the City to not provide an analysis of existing versus proposed requirements is that a select number of residents who attend the workshops and ask questions may develop a rich understanding of the contents of the draft UDO. However, the residents of the City will not be afforded the opportunity to have a common understanding of the impact of the proposed UDO. I do disagree with the issue of the time needed to produce such a document by City staff. With such a huge impact on the City, it really is the City’s responsibility to build in sufficient time to produce explanatory comments.


  2. Any way that the Council can perhaps dedicate a new and temporary part time position to creating a redline comparison? They did something similar-not-quite-similar for parking (see below), but if the people are demanding more information and City Hall does not have the bandwidth, it’s a possible solution. The catch: it’s not free.

    From the August 20, 2019 City Council minutes:   
    Announcement: Part-Time Position in the Department of Public SafetyCommissioner Martin announced this is a temporary part time position. This position will be a traffic study proposal writer to draft an RFP to seek a vendor to complete a comprehensive parking proposal for the City. The position will be paid $30 per hour up to 20 hours per week up to 5 months.


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