I sent emails out to the City Council candidates appearing on the Democratic, Republican, and independent ballot lines asking them to respond to a question on the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO). All of the candidates on the Republican line and two candidates running on their own line, the Saratoga Strong line, responded. Only one candidate running on the Democratic line submitted a response to my request.
Why It Was Important To Respond
I cannot overemphasize the impact that the UDO will have on our city. Its scope is breathtaking. The UDO will determine what kind of development will be allowed in the greenbelt. It will decide how tall our buildings will be downtown. It will determine the size and number of parking spaces required for residential and commercial properties. It will determine how much buffering for our streams and wetlands will be required to protect our watershed. I could go on but these provide some sense as to just how broad and important this document will be for the future of our city.
I was interested in knowing what the various candidates running for city offices thought about the proposals in the UDO.
Given the scope of the document, however, I thought I could get a sense of where the candidates were coming from if I just asked them to focus on the advisory opinion on the UDO recently issued by the Planning Board. This opinion given to the City Council is fairly brief and easily understood.
I thought this would provide some important insights into the candidates. It would show:
- How informed they are about major city issues.
- What their position is on some controversial questions.
- How articulate and thoughtful they are.
Revealing Answers That Are Troubling
The answers of those who responded are brief and revealing. In some cases the responses are sufficiently bland and vague that it does not appear the authors actually read the Planning Board’s advisory opinion. In others the authors carefully avoided the most contentious recommendations from the Planning Board. There were also a number of responses that demonstrated both a grasp of what the Planning Board recommended and a refreshing willingness to address the full scope of the advisory opinion.
I plan to address the responses below in a later post but for now I leave it to my readers to do their own assessments.
It is most unfortunate that the four Democratic candidates chose not to answer at all. This continues a disturbing trend where candidates for office and elected officials refuse to engage others that differ with them and instead limit their public comments to venues that they themselves control. It makes a mockery of protestations of transparency. If your ideas are sound you should not fear directly dealing with your opponents.
The Candidates’ Responses:
Ron Kim (D) Mayor
Dillon Moran (D) Commissioner of Accounts
Minita Sanghvi (D) Commissioner of Finance
James Montagnino (D) Commissioner of Public Safety
Angela Rella (The Accountability Party) Commissioner of Accounts
Domenique Yermolayev (D) Commissioner of Public Works
[JK: Correction Re Ms. Yermolayev’s comments. Longfellows restaurant/hotel is not located next to Saratoga National Golf Course. The restaurant and hotel are part of a massive Planned Unit Development that was approved back in 1981 and that also includes the Interlaken and Regatta View subdivisions. Subsequent to that project a later City Council included in the regulations for the Rural Residential District (RR = Greenbelt) that PUDs would no longer be allowed in the greenbelt.]
Heidi Owen West (R) Mayor
Since my decision to run for Mayor, I have been following the progress of the UDO and have paid close attention to the discussions of the Council during the recent workshops.
When I initially read the Planning Board’s advisory opinion, I was impressed that, except for four inconsistencies, the board determined that the UDO is compatible with the Comprehensive Plan. In my opinion, translating the vision from the Comprehensive Plan into law via the zoning ordinance, and combining it with other key City planning documents, is an enormous undertaking. It seems to me that the City’s staff and its consultants have generally accomplished this task, and the four issues that must be addressed for compliance seem reasonably straightforward to correct.
My general assessment is that this version of the UDO is very close to meeting the original objectives. Based on the workshops held by the council it appears that the major concerns raised by the Planning Board and the Design Review Commission for further sustainability and protection measures will be incorporated into the final document.
In discussions with constituents and other business owners, all of whom care about Saratoga Springs, I have heard concerns that the UDO does not go far enough to protect our Greenbelt, and I’ve also heard complaints that the new requirements and board reviews discourage development and increase costs to build in Saratoga Springs. Based on my limited knowledge, there appears to be a balance needed here.
The following are the four specific inconsistencies identified by the Planning Board and their recommended actions:
- Incorporating appropriate density limits in the GCR district for residential uses
- Re-zoning two parcels on the east side of Marion Avenue to align with the Comprehensive Plan’s future land use designation;
- Establishing design standards for the GCR zoning district in the vicinity of the State Park to better reflect the Specialty Mixed Use-Park designation in the Comprehensive Plan; and
- Requiring a conservation analysis for all site plan and special use permit applications for development in the SR and RR zoning districts.
These changes all seem well thought out and based on the videos of the workshops they appear to enjoy a consensus at the council. Once the final draft is adopted there will be a series of public hearings. At this point I support the council’s deliberations but I reserve judgement until the public has been heard.
I have been a longtime proponent of protecting the greenbelt and Saratoga Spring’s “City in the Country” character. It’s a large part of what makes our city and the surrounding area special.
I’m in favor of the planning board recommendations and revisions that “clubhouse” not be added to the list of approved uses and that the standards for Country Club, Greenhouse/Nursery and Marina be more clearly defined to ensure their uses are consistent with the Comprehensive Plan. It’s important to establish clear definitions for use to avoid any misinterpretations in the future.
John, I am sure you recognize that land use is a complex process. After time in office, I expect to become much more aware of how to achieve the balance between improving the city’s downtown development with quality projects, while still protecting our greenspace.
Skip Scirocco (R) Commissioner of Public Works
The city’s Planning Board advisory opinion regarding the UDO made a series of recommendations, most of which would amend the UDO to better protect the rural parts of the city from the kind of development that would undermine its “green” character. I think they have done an excellent job and I support their approach.
The Rural Gateway
The southern gateway to the city that runs along route 9 has suffered for decades from unattractive, aging structures. The Planning Board generally supports the UDO’s effort to encourage development that would enhance the experience of entering our city.
They note that the “rural” part of the title (GDR) should be respected. The current zoning involves strips of narrow land interspersed between sections of the state park along Route 9. Given the extensive wetlands that are part of this zoning, in order to make any kind of development possible, the depths of strips may have to be increased.
I am agreeable to allowing for this expansion but it must be done in a manner that respects the rural factor. Most important, we need to establish rigorous design standards for what fronts on Route 9. The hotel recently approved and built along route 9 is entirely out of keeping with what most people would consider rural. Without rigorous design standards the city could end up with an even uglier entrance than we have now.
Approved Uses For The GDR
The UDO lists approximately fifty-five uses for what can be constructed in the rural gateway (GDR). The Planning Board advisory opinion recommends that all but twenty allowed uses be removed from the UDO.
The city currently requires that before calculating how many structures can be built on a parcel in the greenbelt, certain wetlands, slopes, and other land features must be removed from the calculation. So if a parcel has four acres of which two are wetland, the calculation for what can be built is based on only two acres.
Currently the requirement for this kind of calculation is limited in the greenbelt to subdivisions. The Planning Board would like this requirement extended to all projects that require site plans and special use permits. I think this is an important enhancement to the UDO.
Tightening Up Definitions
The Planning Board advisory opinion included the following:
“The Planning Board recommends revisions to the definitions and standards for ‘country club’, ‘greenhouse/nursery’ and ‘marina’ to ensure that these potentially intensive existing uses are consistent with the CDD designation going forward.”
“Country Club: The proposed definition in the UDO is too broad and the last portion of the sentence – “and/or similar uses” – should be removed.”
“Greenhouse/Nursery: The proposed definition should reflect a design standard for a small-scale plant/flower propagation center similar in character to Balet Flowers and Design.”
“Marina: The standard design and layout of a typical marina may need to be modified within the RR zone (CDD area) in areas that abut public land and where nature trails and protected open space is envisioned.”
All of this has my support.
Defining A Club House
My colleague, Michele Madigan, asked the Planning Board to consider adding a “club house” as an allowed use in the greenbelt.
The Planning Board responded as follows:
“Introducing additional uses such as banquet facilities, business center, lodging for up to 100 rooms and up to 6 free standing golf lodges, containing up to 8 guest rooms with associated common space” presents a significant risk to preserving the rural character in the ‘country’ part of the city. It should be noted that ‘Clubhouse’ as a distinct use is not proposed for inclusion in the UDO and the Planning Board sees no compelling reason to establish a definition for such use.
I support the Planning Board on this issue.
JoAnne Kiernan (R) Commissioner of Finance
Thank you for your invitation to respond to the question you have posed to the candidates as follows: “The city’s Planning Board issued an advisory opinion regarding the most recent draft of the UDO. What is your reaction to their opinion? Please be as specific as possible.”
From my perspective, decisions involving the Comprehensive Plan and the City’s Zoning Ordinance are among the most important decisions considered by the City Council under our Charter. The Council enacted an update to the Comprehensive Plan in June 2015 following roughly 18 months of study by a Comprehensive Plan Committee. The Council then retained a local planning firm to assist it in the development of a Unified Development Ordinance (“UDO”). In all, it has been just over six years since the City Council embarked on the drafting of the UDO with consultants.
Working with the City’s planning staff, Camiros (the consultants) published its third (and final) draft in April 2021. That draft is just over 275 pages in length and it includes a number of exhibits that supplement the draft.
The Planning Board has participated in the review of all three drafts presented by Camiros during the multiple public presentations over the past two years. Most recently, the Planning Board adopted a resolution incorporating an Advisory Opinion (April 2021 draft) as per the request of the City Council. That resolution provided a relatively narrow scope of recommendations to the Council which were considered by the Council during the four public workshops conducted this month.
I must give credit to the City Council members who have served over the last six years and devoted an enormous number of hours to the re-write of the Zoning Ordinance. The Council’s work has resulted in the preparation of a document that incorporates subdivision regulations and other planning documents into a single document – the unified development ordinance. It has been an enormous undertaking and I am grateful to the Council for getting to this point where the current draft can be circulated for public review prior to the public hearings that will be scheduled by the Council this fall.
The City is also indebted to the Planning Board who over the past six years has received updates on all three drafts of the UDO and provided meaningful feedback to the consultants and planning staff. I know that some members of the public are not aware of the many, many hours Planning Board members devote to the broad responsibilities under their charge. We are fortunate to have such dedicated citizens willing to devote long hours solely in the public interest.
The Planning Board’s advisory opinion to Council recommended correcting conflicting information between the comprehensive plan and UDO and changes to ensure the rural area is protected and better energy and sustainability standards.
The council has worked to incorporate most of the PB recommendations into the current version of the UDO. Protection of the rural areas is very important and that was evident from the conversations and decisions that were made. The current UDO aligns with the comprehensive plan regarding energy and sustainability. The recommendations put forward by the PB offer further steps for ensuring energy and sustainability. While all of the proposed energy and sustainability recommendations may not be incorporated into this current version, they are future opportunities for additional enhancements and should be reviewed regularly to see how and when they can be added.
I am aware that there is a long history in our City of vigorous debate before the Council on matters related to zoning. I expect such will be the case if I am elected Commissioner of Finance. If I were to hold that office, I would seek to obtain the most accurate information available and weigh the facts before me to balance the interests of the individual property owners against the interests of the City as a whole. There is no magic formula that can be applied to this balancing test. Ultimately, it is a matter of the sound exercise of judgment by those five individuals on the Council responsible for the decision.
My background as a CPA causes me to do whatever is necessary and appropriate to gain the complete information necessary to make a fair and reasoned decision for all Saratogians.
Tracey LaBelle (R) Commissioner of Public Safety
“First and foremost, I LOVE OUR CITY. I truly appreciate and will forever be grateful for the beautiful city I was born in and will raise my children in. The greenbelt is extremely important in preserving our historic- wonderful city.
As a lifelong Saratogian, I am intatmatley aware of the importance of preserving our historic green spaces and landmarks. As Commissioner of Public Safety, I will do everything in my power to keep this city as beautiful and as green as possible, while taking into account the various and diverse interests that make up our community.”
Please let me know if you have any questions.
All the best,
Samantha Guerra (R) Commissioner of Accounts
As you may know, this is my first run for public office, and I am enjoying many aspects of being a candidate for Commissioner of Accounts. Among the things that has presented the biggest challenge for me is the UDO process. The document is long and very technical. That said, I recognize the importance of the components of a new Zoning Ordinance for our City and the need for all candidates to become well versed in the basics of the document. I pledge to do that.
Your email asks us to provide comment on the Planning Board’s Advisory Opinion issued earlier this month. That Opinion addresses a broad scope of issues. This email will address several.
1. I agree that density limitations are appropriate for residential projects along South Broadway. For mixed use projects, I’m inclined to follow the methodology used in the transect zones.
2. I concur with the resolution discussed by the City Council at its recent workshop pertaining to the proposed change for the lands near Marion Avenue.
3. I disagree with the conclusion reached by the Planning Board in its discussion of the Specialty Mixed Use-Park (SP). The Board’s recommendation for the uses that are appropriate eliminates roughly 60% of the proposed uses,including nearly all of the residential uses as well as restaurants, hotels, and retail. In support of its recommendation the Board selectively quotes the provision from the Comprehensive Plan (page 59) that “allows for a mix of commercial and residential uses…” I concur with the recommendations of the City’s consultant and Planning Department that the uses identified in Article 8 of the UDO are appropriate and should remain.
4. I agree with the recommendation that a conservation analysis should be included for subdivisions as well as site plan and special use permit applications.
5. I agree that the City’s Sustainability Coordinator and the Open Space Advisory Committee as well as the City’s Administrator of Planning and Economic Development should be consulted by the Planning Board when the Planning Board concludes that it is appropriate to do so.
6. On the question on energy and sustainability, I agree that the City should encourage applicants on the four bulleted points. The mandatory nature of the proposal in the advisory opinion, without the corresponding cost implications, is premature.
7. I would recommend that the Administrator of Planning and Economic Development be included in the list from which the Planning Board is encouraged to seek advisory opinions.
8. The “process” recommendations set forth at the foot of page 4 and the top of page 5 are matters with which I am not currently familiar. Additional research would be needed to provide an informed opinion on these items.
9. I am not persuaded that the “Just Cats” approval on South Broadway resolves the question of the need for zoning changes along South Broadway. I concur with the resolution recently reached by the City Council to expand the GC-R District at the south end of South Broadway to 600 feet.
Should I serve as the City’s Commissioner of Accounts, I will endeavor to provide a balanced approach to zoning and land use issues while taking into account the needs of the City as well as the rights of individual property owners. The term “balanced approach” is difficult to define, but I am cautious in expanding zoning regulations that make it more difficult or expensive for homeowners and other citizens to seek relief from our land use boards.
Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts on your blog.
Robin Dalton (Saratoga Strong Party) Mayor
Basically, I support the points made in the Planning Board’s advisory opinion.
There are uses allowed by the UDO that in and of themselves could be acceptable but history has demonstrated that without clear definitions and design requirements they can become potential threats to the rural character of the greenbelt.
The marina is a prime example. The Planning Board offered that the definition for a marina needed more work. A marina that is simply a well designed and modest set of docks and launches that serve local boat owners could be an asset to the outer district. A marina that includes a restaurant and that offers a fleet of boats for hire could take on a scale and character that is entirely inconsistent with the goal of maintaining the country part of the city in the country.
Saratoga National Golf Course is an asset to this city but expanding it to include a potential hotel and condos as well as additional retail would compromise the rural low intensity usage that is at the core of the greenbelt.
I like the recommendation that a conservation analysis should be done for all projects requiring site review rather than just subdivisions. This would better serve to protect what green space remains in the greenbelt.
The Council has a lot of work on its hands to address all of this and while the adoption of the UDO is an enormously important step, it is not an end. The city will continue to evolve and the zoning and design standards will be ongoing well beyond the UDO’s adoption. As mayor I think I can play an important role in realizing our community’s goal of being a city in the country.
Adam Israel (Saratoga Strong Party) Commissioner of Finance
Saratoga Springs has devoted more than 5 years and countless resources in developing its Unified Development Ordinance (UDO). Multiple experts including city employee’s and outside consultants have contributed to its formation. I respect our sitting Planning Board and their advisory opinion. I also respect the opinions of the various experts who have helped to form our UDO. I understand the impact this ordinance will have on shaping our city’s future, and appreciate all the work that went into forming the current UDO.
Adam W. Israel
Candidate for Commissioner of Finance