The City’s Greenbelt: What Is It and Is It Threatened by the UDO?

As the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) moves into its final stages of review, concerns remain about how this document could affect the city’s greenbelt.

The term “greenbelt” is frequently used but seems to mean different things to different people.

While the Comprehensive Plan and the UDO offer technical definitions for this area of the city, the idea that it was desirable for the city to have a more densely developed inner core surrounded by a less densely developed outer zone, namely a “greenbelt”, has over the years become a widely supported general vision for how the city should grow.

Development in the greenbelt first became a contentious focus of Saratoga politics in the 1980s when a number of proposals for large scale residential and commercial development on the city land east of the Northway (such as what is today known as Water’s Edge and a plan for an office park at Exit 14) came before Saratoga’s land use boards and the City Council. It’s hard for many to realize now, but at this point this area of the city was so sparsely populated that hunting was permitted.

While the term “greenbelt” refers to an area surrounding the city, most of the controversy about development tends to focus on this eastern part of it.

In 1987 then Skidmore professor Ron Edsforth coined the phrase “Small City in the Country” to describe the vision of local Democratic candidates running for city offices who opposed uncontrolled development in the city’s outer zone. Except for Tom McTygue, all those candidates lost that election, but the phrase eventually became a widely used and popular way to describe Saratoga Springs. Now, however, it has different specific meanings for different individuals and groups.

Few have ever argued that there should be a total halt to development east of the Northway, but there has been over the years considerable debate over what kind of development should be permitted. This debate continues with the proposals in the UDO.

To understand how all the current controversy has evolved, I offer a brief history of the UDO along with an analysis of the most recent iteration of the “greenbelt.”

Land Use, The UDO, And The Greenbelt: A History Of Conflict

Among the objectives of the UDO is to update the city’s zoning to comply with the 2015 Comprehensive Plan. Some readers may remember that the Comprehensive Plan was the subject of bitter conflict. The Committee that was to craft the plan was split between representatives of the development community and what I call the quality of life people. This latter group had minimizing development in the city’s greenbelt as a top priority.

The division over the plan was so intense that the Comprehensive Plan Committee was never able to complete its work. In the end it dropped the plan and all the unresolved issues into the lap of the then City Council. That Council adopted a plan that generally favored the quality of life people.

The UDO

The creation of a Unified Development Ordinance has been a torturous continuation of the conflict burdened by confusion and suspicion. As discussed in previous posts, the campaign to craft the UDO has gone on for years.

Most people do not appreciate the scale of the work that was required. In addition to updating the city’s zoning laws, the UDO had to incorporate practically every document the city has that is related to land use and construction. In addition to the Comprehensive Plan this includes for instance the Open Space Master Plan, the Complete Streets Plan, the Urban and Community Forest Master Plan, and the Saratoga Greenbelt Trail Plan. Language had to be included from major documents dealing with everything from zoning, to standards for management of the city’s trees, to required parking for commercial properties, to energy efficiency needs, to the required space between buildings, to design standards for signs, to…[you get the idea]

The project to craft a UDO was funded by a grant from the New York State Energy Development Agency. The project was underfunded to begin with. The first year of the grant was squandered by poor management by the city’s planning office. Mayor Kelly, when elected, dismissed the original consultants and reset the process. The city had to scramble to find money to supplement what funds were left to hire new consultants.

The result was that the project had to be done within an even more bare bones budget.

The process was further tainted by the new consultants, Camiros, a Chicago-based urban planning firm. In the first draft they designated a major area of the city for greater density. The neighborhoods in question were outraged, and it turned out that the change was in conflict with the Comprehensive Plan. The Mayor’s office quickly corrected the error, but the damage had been done. I still do not understand how Camiros could have made such an egregious error.

The consultants also attempted to weaken the setback requirements for the neighborhoods around the city core. They claimed that the change would have little effect on density, but it turned out that they had cherry picked the numbers. Again when residents of these neighborhoods raised this as an issue, the Mayor’s office deleted the change.

The UDO: An Overwhelming Document

By its ambitious nature it had to be expected that the UDO would be a tome that would overwhelm anyone who is not a professional planner. It is unquestionably intimidating.

Normally such a document would distinguish the proposed changes by indicating the language being removed with red lines through it, and language being added in blue. As the UDO incorporates so many different documents related to the city’s land use issues into one document, however, it did not allow for a simple comparison between the proposed changes and what currently exists.

What was needed was an additional document that would annotate what the current standards are and how the UDO would change them. Unfortunately, the city apparently did not have the money to pay the consultants to do this kind of additional work.

The result was that most of us simply could not tell everything that was being proposed. Lisa Shields, the Deputy Mayor, made an heroic attempt to identify many of the most consequential changes in a spreadsheet she drafted, but it was too much to expect that her work would comprehensively cover everything in such an extensive and technical document.

The lack of a comprehensive annotation of the changes has hung over the UDO.

The Mayor’s office did its best to address issues as they arose. The Mayor’s key staff spent many hours meeting with concerned citizens including Sustainable Saratoga to try to address concerns. The reality was that while the Mayor’s staff could respond to individual issues, the meetings could not address the vexing problem that there was no reliable resource for understanding all the changes the draft UDO included.

Readers may better understand the Mayor’s commitment to complete the UDO in spite of its problems if they consider that the Comprehensive Plan was adopted in 2015 so we are now in the sixth year of trying to implement it. Thousands of dollars in cash and major staffing resources have been invested in this effort.

Given the city’s Covid related fiscal challenges, it is unlikely that money will be found for consultants in the foreseeable future to annotate the proposed changes.

Who Do You Trust

So the issue really comes down to one of trust. Do problems exist in the UDO obscured by the document’s size and technical language? Some people may feel that without a document that annotates the UDO they simply cannot support its adoption. Given the choices, they would prefer to keep things as they are. This is an understandable position. What is unfair is to question the motivations of those who feel that it should still be adopted.

Suspicion and distrust run especially high in regard to proposed changes in permitted uses in the city’s greenbelt.

I know all the members of the Council, and I feel confident that they are committed to continuing to minimize development in the the city’s greenbelt.

Powerful Forces for Change in the Greenbelt

The readers of this blog may not be aware of the powerful forces who would very much like to rewrite the zoning regulations in the greenbelt.

  • The Anderson family owns a large swath of land that runs from Exit 14 north to Route 29. For decades they have been trying to build an ambitious project there including an office park and a large housing development. In fact they have sued the city to try to force it to allow them to proceed.
  • The principals who own Saratoga National want to build, among other things, a hotel and condos in the greenbelt.
  • The Chamber of Commerce has been outspoken in their criticism of the city for its resistance to development in the greenbelt.

I find it particularly troubling that there have been unpleasant attacks on Mayor Kelly that allege that she is trying to shred the protections for the greenbelt. The record of the Mayor’s resistance to large scale development in the greenbelt is clear. No proposal for greenbelt development has even been considered by the current Council . Nothing has changed at Saratoga National Golf Course and the extensive land owned by the Anderson family remains undeveloped.

If Mayor Kelly or anyone else on the Council didn’t care about the greenbelt, the city would be having hearings on rezoning the RR district to accommodate proposals from the three above and others.

There Are Still Issues

That is not to say that there are not still outstanding issues regarding the UDO in general and aspects of the UDO that deal with the greenbelt in particular.

Discussing the greenbelt can be confusing. In the comprehensive plan it is referred to as the Conservation District (CDD), and in the UDO it is referred to as the Rural Residential District (RR).

Here is the definition of the Rural Residential District from the UDO

A. RR Rural Residential District

The RR Rural Residential District is intended to accommodate low density residential development and agricultural uses in a manner that helps to preserve open space and Saratoga Springs’ rural character areas. Low densities within the RR District are also designed to accommodate specific features of the rural areas of the community, such as prime soils, limiting topography/steep slopes, and a lack of public infrastructure.

UDO Draft #3

It is important to understand what is meant by “low density residential development.” This specifically refers to how large the lot sizes must be for residential dwellings only. This does not address other types of structures that might be allowed in the RR district.

The following is the definition for the greenbelt, called the Conservation Development District (CDD), from the Comprehensive Plan.

Conservation Development District (CDD)

The Conservation Development District designation reflects the “Country” of the City in the Country. This designation allows for low density residential, outdoor recreation, agricultural, and other rural uses [JK: My emphasis] utilizing land conservation methods such as clustering. Areas typically include single-family lots and subdivisions, existing planned developments, farms, estates, and natural areas. Commercial activities should be limited to those that support rural and recreational uses [JK:My emphasis] and which protect valuable open space, protect natural resources and maintain natural systems. This designation reflects a rural or agrarian character that works to preserve contiguous open spaces, protect natural resources and restore and maintain natural systems, which will all become increasingly important and valuable community resources.

Development in this area shall require a “conservation analysis” and utilize land conservation methods to protect environmentally sensitive areas and features, minimize the development’s edge effects and conserve significant open space.

2015 Comprehensive Plan

So the question then is what uses should be allowed that conform to the Comprehensive Plan?

The following list of UDO proposed uses in the greenbelt have drawn the attention and concern of Sustainable Saratoga and were raised by Commissioner Dalton at a recent City Council meeting as subjects for consideration as to their appropriateness:

  • Camp Grounds
  • Community Center
  • Country Clubs
  • Schools
  • Marinas
  • Private/Social Clubs
  • Small Animal Care Facilities Without Outdoor Area

I know my friends at Sustainable Saratoga have also expressed concern over “domestic violence home” and “Children’s Home” as permitted uses.

These are considered residential, however, and as long as they are residential then they are subject to the limits established for homes in the district which is one per two acres. This does not appear to me to be an issue.

Technically speaking, I believe that the definitions in the Comprehensive Plan are so broad as to allow all the things proposed in the UDO. Still, I am not a lawyer.

For me, the argument that any of these proposed uses actually violate the Comprehensive Plan is weak.

The real question to me, and one that people of good will can disagree about, is whether the uses for the Greenbelt as proposed in the UDO would fit into whatever vision individuals may have about what activities are appropriate in the greenbelt.

My concern is that in and of themselves these uses might or might not undermine the rural character of the greenbelt. Their potential impact is really determined by the scale and the design of projects. Many proposed uses require that before particular projects are approved they are subject to a special use permit by the Planning Board. I believe that the appointments made by Mayor Kelly to the current Planning Board represent people who would be properly cautious about approving any proposals that would compromise the rural character of this area of the city .

I am, however, concerned that future mayors might make appointments to the Planning Board of people who would support projects that I would find excessive.

For me, Saratoga National Golf Course is an asset to the city. It is a premium venue and an important resource to draw people to our city as well as providing recreation for our own citizens (who can afford a round of golf there).

Unfortunately, the history of Saratoga National Golf Course is a cautionary tale of how attorneys and developers can exploit the city’s planning process. When they submitted their original plan they asked to include a structure to serve food. It was assumed that they were proposing a snack bar for their golfers. They also agreed to limit parking on the site to some modest parking lots.

What they built was the Prime Restaurant. By all accounts Prime is an excellent restaurant but the city’s comprehensive plan called for such operations to be placed in the city’s core and not in the greenbelt. The Planning Board stipulated that parking was supposed to be limited to the modest parking lots on the golf course. Unfortunately, the language in the approval for parking was poorly crafted, and today many more cars park on the grass adjacent to the lots.

Saratoga National also agreed to provide two nature trails and to maintain them. In a post some years ago, I documented that for all intents and purposes, one of these two does not exist.

This is why I, and many others, look with suspicion and concern at many of the new uses being proposed for the Greenbelt.

When I look at the list of approved uses proposed in the UDO I worry about how those might be abused in the future. For example, one proposed use is a “country club.” Here is the definition of a country club:

An establishment open to members, their families, and invited guests organized and operated for social and recreation purposes and which has indoor and/or outdoor recreation facilities, eating and drinking establishments, meeting rooms, maintenance facilities, and/or similar uses.

8.4 PRINCIPAL USE DEFINITIONS AND STANDARDS ITEM V

When I read this I am struck by the potential for abuse that this definition affords. I understand that a use like this would require site plan review and that the Planning Board would have some authority over its scale. I simply do not have confidence that future planning boards would sufficiently limit this “country club” so that it would not compromise the rural character of the greenbelt. “Drinking establishments”, “Meeting rooms”, “and/or similar uses” all seem to have the potential for excess.

There are other uses that also seem to me could become problematic.

It Is About Dialogue And Not War

I know the members of the City Council. These people have no interest in turning the greenbelt into a sprawling amusement park. They are actually open and courteous to people who approach them with thoughtful comments and are truly willing to listen, but listening does not mean agreeing.

This is a recent analysis done by Deputy Mayor Lisa Shields in which she lays out a comparison between the currently approved uses and the proposed uses. “P” represents a permitted use for the greenbelt (does not require planning board approval). “S” represents a special use requiring oversight by the planning board:

Let’s Get Involved

Here is a link to the UDO. On pages 49 to 61 is a list of the permissible uses allowed in the different zoning districts in the city. The first column in each chart is RR which is the greenbelt.

I would urge the readers to go through the list and if they have concerns to write Mayor Kelly and copy the other members of the Council. I can assure the readers of this blog that the Mayor will read what you send her. It is best to use thoughtful arguments rather than threats to convince the Mayor of your position. Being an elected official does not bring with it the license for people to abuse you.

One thought on “The City’s Greenbelt: What Is It and Is It Threatened by the UDO?”

  1. Thank you for this comprehensive and balanced review of the UDO and the Greenbelt issue. Although I am not a resident of the City, I believe the Greenbelt is a signature element of the ‘City in the Country’ and should be preserved to maintain the quality of life for residents and visitors alike. I also applaud the work done by Sustainable Saratoga to point out the flaws in the UDO and hope the Mayor heeds their cautionary advice.
    John Cashin

    Like

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