UDO: Lots of Changes To Chew On And Not Enough Time

Many of us thought that with the Comprehensive Plan and the zoning map resolved that the adoption of the UDO would be pro forma. As it turns out, on its face, Camiros,the consultants hired by the city and the city’s Planning Department have produced a document that appears to make major changes in the neighborhoods around the downtown. Between three and four thousand homes are potentially impacted. The proposed ordinances would reduce the required minimum lot size by 25% and would change the setback standards which determine how near your neighbor’s house will be to yours. For a lay person like me these seem like major changes indeed. One would have thought that if there were a problem that required these kinds of actions that it would have been discussed during the Comprehensive Plan deliberations.

I use the term “appears” because it is unclear how significant these changes would be. The consultants and the Planning staff have assured us that the negative impact will be minimal and the benefits will be significant. The problem is that while the consultants have done a series of presentations that are meant to describe the ordinances, missing in their presentation has been a thoughtful and easy to understand explanation about why and how these changes will benefit the community. Worse, when the consultants were asked to elucidate the benefits their answers were clearly inadequate. This may have been due to the challenge of presenting a very large and complex document. If, as I expect, that is the case, there needs to be an acknowledgement that there is an urgent need to explain why these major changes in our zoning code are needed in a way that is understandable to the general public.

I am not urging opposition to the plan. I do not understand what is being proposed well enough to take a position one way or the other. What I am proposing is that the city invest the resources to produce educational materials that we as ordinary citizens can understand and that will make us partners in supporting the changes. I am concerned that ending the period for public comment February 7 without proper education will create a poisonous environment of distrust.

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I attended the UDO “workshop” on Wednesday afternoon January 22. It was really not a workshop. The consultants who drafted the UDO did a fairly long presentation followed by a period for people to ask questions and to offer comments. Regrettably there was not enough time for all of the attendees questions to be answered.

Sitting through the presentation reminded me of my undergraduate days in foreign language class. I was not a gifted language student. Sitting in the classroom, I would feel that I thought I was getting the drift of what was going on but in general I was in a state of suspended bewilderment.

The presentation by the consultants proceeded at a rather brisk pace and involved a fair number of technical references with which I was unfamiliar.

In the consultants’ defense, the UDO is an extensive document so trying to present it in the hour and a half they allotted for their presentation was going to be challenging and trying to make the document accessible to a lay person like myself was even more problematic.

The issue that got my greatest attention dealt with the proposed reduction in lot sizes for parcels in the city’s UR-3 zone. The UR-3 zone covers most of the neighborhoods that surround the city’s core business district. The presentation did not address just how many parcels are in the UR-3 zone but I have been told that there are somewhere between three and four thousand.

As noted in my previous post, the UDO would reduce the minimum lot size for a single family in the UR-3 zone from 6,600 to 5,000 square feet and for a two family house, from 8,000 to 6,600 square feet.

The consultants were asked to explain why they were recommending this change in light of the fact that the current standard had been in existence for many years. I am unclear just when the minimum lot size of 6,600 feet was adopted but I’ve been told it has been in effect for at least forty-seven years.

While I think I am more knowledgeable than many citizens on land use issues I still found the consultant’s response to this issue very hard to follow. I do not know how much of this was due to my limited knowledge of land-use terminology or how much it was with the quality of their presentation.

The consultants noted that a large percentage of the homes in the UR-3 district are situated on lots of 5,000 square feet so these properties are considered “non-conforming.” That is to say that they do not meet the minimum requirement for a lot. This is not because the owners did anything improper but that when the city increased the required minimum, it made lots smaller than 6,600 square feet non-conforming.

While these lots may be defined as non-conforming they are grandfathered in so they are perfectly legal.

Why then, the consultants were asked, was it necessary to change the minimum requirement?

The first reason offered was that the owner of a non-conforming unit can experience problems selling their property or borrowing money from a bank.

The second reason offered was that if the owner wanted to modify their home to, for example, build a deck, reducing the required minimum lot size would greatly reduce the need to seek a variance and would save the homeowner time and money.

As regards the first reason offered, I could find no one who had ever heard of problems selling property or borrowing money on grandfathered property. In fact, when I approached the consultant after the meeting she conceded that it might not be a problem here. That evening I contacted a number of people knowledgeable about potential problems selling grandfathered property and they were, to be kind, dismissive of this idea. They pointed out that due to the long history of building in our city, there is a huge inventory of non-conforming properties. If people were having problems selling their properties or getting home loans there would have been an uprising.

As regards the second reason, I wondered why reducing the size of the property would affect the need for variances which most often relate to setbacks. I contacted three people who have considerable expertise in zoning issues and none could think of a reason why reducing the lot size would have an impact on applications for variances.

So the next morning I arrived early at the last of the consultants’ public events and asked if they could explain how reducing lot size would reduce the need for variances for existing dwellings. After some discussion the consultants conceded that the only circumstance where reducing a lot size would reduce the need for variances was in the case of new construction on an undeveloped lot. They now told me that the lot size reduction was part of a package that included changes in other restrictions most notably in setback requirements. I was told that the focus on lot size in their presentation rather than going through the other zoning changes was due to the time restraints and the need to simplify the issues.

I was shocked. Reducing setbacks is a major issue. It potentially has an enormous impact on the character of neighborhoods and more specifically on the quality of life for neighbors adjacent to properties being developed.

I have to admit to readers that this triggered a very strong response in me. Fairly or unfairly I immediately took the worst interpretation of this which was that the consultants were hiding a critical issue in their presentation.

It should be noted that I was operating with very limited information. I did not know the magnitude of the proposed change in setbacks nor the number of parcels that this would impact. There was also no time to pursue answers to these questions. There is no question that there are many non-conforming homes in the UR-3 zone due to the evolution of the city. There is no question that reducing the minimum lot size would contribute to bringing many (but not all) of them into compliance. The real questions are what would the benefits of these changes be and what potential problems might these changes generate?

As it happened, as I was exiting the Rec Center I encountered Mayor Kelly. I shared with her my concerns and, to be honest, I was sufficiently agitated that it was surprising that the Mayor didn’t take one look at me and flee. Instead, she emphasized to me that the UDO under discussion was very much a draft and that it was important for people to know that citizens should assume that every element of the UDO was subject to change as a result of input.

Later on that morning I received a text from Lisa Shields, the Mayor’s Deputy, inviting me to a meeting that day with herself, Vince DeLeonardis (the City Attorney), and Patrick Cogan (head of the Building Inspector’s office). Later that day, Jane Weihe and I met with them.

First, full disclosure, I trust and admire these three people. In an age in which people rarely listen, these three people are a true exception. They combine a wealth of knowledge regarding city issues along with the endearing ability to admit when they don’t know something.

In spite of their busy schedule we met for over an hour. I felt our conversation could have continued had I wanted it to but I didn’t think taking more of their time would be fair.

I still do not, however, fully understand the very complex issues related to changing the minimum lot size in UR-3 . I don’t understand what the owners of undeveloped parcels under 6,600 square feet are currently allowed to do with their property. I don’t understand the difference between the current zoning requirements on these parcels as compared to the proposed new requirements. I am still vague on how many parcels are non-conforming in the UR-3 zone. I do not know how many of these are vacant lots. I do not know what the impact will be on the non-conforming lots that are smaller than 5,000 square feet or what the potential build out is for combining lots.

As reducing the minimum size of lots in UR-3 is a very important element of the UDO (one of many), I asked them if they or the consultants would draft a white paper explaining the potential impact of minimum lot size reduction as an educational tool not just for me but for others with similar concerns. It is unclear whether this will happen.

RV Parks In The Greenbelt?

The draft of the UDO also included a list of land uses for the greenbelt. The proposed list was much longer than the current list. The consultants said that they had simply refined the list and that it was essentially the same.

The new list included items, though, that I think most reasonable people would see as quite distinct and new. For example, they would now allow for Recreation Vehicle (RV) parks in the greenbelt.

There was the very odd addition of something called “micro production in alcohol.” Is this a brewery? How small is micro-production?

The list would now include solar energy systems and a wind energy system. These are worthy projects but I think that whether they should replace existing flora in our greenbelt is worth a discussion.

The list includes a variety of human service related facilities in the greenbelt.

I am uneasy about compromising the greenbelt in the guise of public service.

Try To Find The Time To Support The Process

I am quite worried that there is simply not enough time to do the necessary community education and then give the public the opportunity to absorb and respond to the proposed changes in the UDO by February 7, the deadline for comments. I hope the Council will consider extending the comment period to allow for a full vetting of the UDO proposals and allow the community to have confidence that they understand what is being proposed and how the changes may affect them.

I am no Pollyanna when it comes to government. One need only cast an eye to Washington D.C. to be reminded that there are too many elected officials who care little about what I think about something. I am sympathetic with the cynicism of many of my friends about impacting public policy.

Still, I think we are fortunate that the current City Council is among the most open that I have experienced in the close to fifty years I have lived in Saratoga Springs.

I will be posting more information on the UDO. Here is a link to where you can post your suggestions.

One immediate item which I would encourage readers to support would be to extend the deadline for public comment from the current February 7.

Saratoga Hospital Receives High Rating

The New York Public Interest Research Group has published a paper documenting the apparent problems in our state’s hospitals. The piece draws heavily from a rating done by the U.S. Department of Human Services. Here is an excerpt from the paper:

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services publishes an annual Medicare.gov/Hospital Compare which reports the quality of the nation’s hospitals to the public. It gives each hospital one, two, three, four, or five quality stars, with one star-hospitals being the worst and five stars-hospitals the best. In 2019 New York hospitals reported together having only 2.18 quality stars out of the maximum 5.0 quality stars. New York overall had lower quality stars than all of the 49 other states.

It should be noted that measuring things like patient care are often as much art as science. Still it is reasonable to assume that broadly speaking these numbers tell us something about our state’s hospitals.

For us the most interesting results are that our own Saratoga Hospital was one of only twelve hospitals in upstate New York receiving a four star rating, No upstate hospitals received a five star rating and only one hospital in all of New York received a five start rating.

Albany Medical Center in Albany County received a one star rating.

Albany Adirondack Medical Center [JK: Corrected from original posting] in Essex County received a four star rating.

Has The UDO Been Highjacked?

In past posts I have discussed the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO). This ambitious project was partially funded by the New York State Energy Redevelopment Authority. It was meant to incorporate both our zoning regulations and our design issues into one inclusive document with an emphasis on improved energy and environmental elements.

Recently, the consultants produced a new zoning map for the city which was meant to implement the city’s Comprehensive Plan. This was the source of considerable controversy because it included the rezoning sought by Saratoga Hospital and rezoning in the area by Railroad Run.

For some reason the consultants who have been crafting the UDO proposed a change in the zoning for the area by Railroad Run from what was in effect a residential area to one that would include significant commercial development.

The UDO’s zoning map was supposed to be simply following the city’s Comprehensive Plan. The neighbors of Railroad Run strenuously objected to the change in zoning pointing out that the change was not supported by the Comprehensive Plan. The city’s Planning Board agreed with the neighbors and the controversial zoning proposed by the consultants was reversed.

Some of us found it hard to understand how the consultants could have made such an error. It is important to note that the consultants are working closely with the city’s Planning Department. Regrettably that office, headed by Bradley Birge, has had a history of being a handmaiden of the real estate industry.

Now it appears that the consultants and the Planning Department are again proposing changes which seem to be inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan. This approach would involve changing the definitions of zoning areas.

Based on an analysis done by the Dublin Square Homeowners it seems they are taking an even more ambitious approach to expand development.

  • They would alter the UR-3 zoning district which would impact potentially some three thousand homes in the city.
  • Single-Family lot size would be reduced from 6,600 sq.ft. to 5,000 sq.ft., a25% reduction in required building lot size, therefore a significant density increase.
  • Two family lot size would be reduced from a minimum of 8,000 square feet to 6,600 square feet, a 17% reduction.
  • They would permit “Cottage Court” or “Pocket Neighborhoods.” These would be similar to the “Downton Walk” development imposed upon the neighbors on Jumel Place. Over the strenuous objections of the neighbors the Zoning Board of Appeals granted the developer numerous variances resulting in what looks rather like a giant space ship has landed in the neighborhood. The Zoning Board of Appeals fortunately has new members who would probably now oppose such a project but it is unclear what if any variances would be required to build a similar project should the UDO be adopted as currently proposed.
  • Nonresidential buildings with a minimum lot size of 10,000 square feet would be permitted despite the fact that the Comprehensive Plan states only existing (emphasis added) commercial businesses are allowed in the UR-3 zone.

Here is the complete text of the email that was sent to the City Council by the Dublin Square Homeowners:

January 14, 2020

TO: City Council Members

FR: Dublin Square Homeowners

RE: Proposed January 7, 2020 Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) Draft is not “in accordance with a comprehensive plan” (Comp. Plan p.64)

CC: City Deputies, Residential Homeowners

We are writing you now so you are aware of our grave concerns with the January 7, 2020 UDO draft. We need your help because this UDO draft does not reflect what was discussed and agreed to in the 2015 Comprehensive Plan.

For the first time since 2013, we are being presented radical proposals for the UDO, basically a rewrite of the 2015 Comprehensive Plan by the city’s Planning Department and their consultants.

As most of you know, we have fought hard and endlessly to maintain the current densities in our neighborhoods, and we believe the intent and language of the Comprehensive Plan assures us of this protection. However, the January 7, 2020 UDOdraft does the complete opposite. It short:➢

If the proposed January 7, 2020 UDO is approved, the following would be allowed in the UR-3 District which includes more than 3,000 homes:

• Single-Family lot size would be reduced from 6,600 sq.ft. to 5,000 sq.ft., a25% reduction in required building lot size, therefore a significant density increase.

• Two-Family lot size would be reduced from 8,000 sq.ft. to 6,600 sq.ft., a 17.5% reduction in required lot size, creating more density increase.

• “Cottage Court” or “Pocket Neighborhoods” are proposed throughout the city’s UR-3 district, similar to what is being built on Jumel Place, despite strong opposition by UR-3 residential homeowners.

• Nonresidential buildings with a minimum lot size of 10,000 sq.ft, are proposed despite the fact the Comprehensive Plan states only EXISTING commercial businesses are permitted in UR-3 neighborhoods: “Although the Core Neighborhood is primarily residential in character, existing neighborhood-scale commercial uses may currently exist to complement residential uses.” (Comp. Plan, p.58)

What the draft UDO does is moves our current UR-3 neighborhoods toward a T-4 commercial district. This will result in high-density residential and commercial development with all the associated water, sanitary, traffic and congestion issues that accompany this type of development and a major change in neighborhood character.

We are aware that Planning staff and their consultants will present the draft UDO to the pubic on January 22 and 23. We will be there. And, we want to call this to your attention now, as it is such a radical departure from what was agreed to in the Comprehensive Plan. 

The discussions and vote by the Comprehensive Plan Committee Members called for maintaining residential densities at their current levels. This was the vision and the intent of the 2015 Comprehensive plan and this needs to be carried over into the new UDO.

On June 14, 2016, residential homeowners met with Planning Department Director Bradley Birge and his staff. At that meeting, we were told by Mr. Birge that the Planning Department had no intentions or plans to increase density in any residential neighborhoods in the new UDO. 

So why is a 25% increase in density now being proposed in the UR-3 District. Why arePocket Neighborhoods being proposed now, which were never part of the discussion orincluded in the Comprehensive Plan? Why are new commercial businesses being proposed in residential neighborhoods when the Comprehensive Plan clearly states that only existing businesses are permitted?

The hard work by residential homeowners over the past seven years has allowed the city of Saratoga Springs to maintain the traditional residential character of its neighborhoods. It has been a battle for us to keep “Saratoga’s quintessential residential character and charm,” (Comp. Plan p.57) beginning with the Comprehensive Plan meetings in 2013 and continuing through multiple drafts of the UDO since 2015.

We need your help. Please strongly object with us to the changes being proposed in the draft UDO that do not align with the 2015 Comprehensive Plan that the City Council Members approved.

Thank you,

Dublin Square Homeowners

Frank Capone, President

A draft of the UDO is available on the city website. Public comments on the draft can be submitted through February 7. Camiros, the city consultant, will present and discuss the draft at the City Council meeting on January 21 at 7PM. There will be three public workshops with Camiros and the city Planning Staff on the proposed UDO. They will be held:

January 22 at 2:30PM, Empire State College, 2 Union Avenue, Room 126

January 22 at 6PM, Empire State College, 2 Union Avenue, Room 126

January 23 at 9AM, Recreation Center, 15 Vanderbilt Avenue

Saratoga Springs Launches Ambitious Campaign To Deal With Homelessness

On Thursday, January 9, a coalition was formed to attempt to address the homelessness issues in Saratoga Springs. Called the Saratoga Collaborative To End Homelessness, it will be facilitated by Erin Healy who is a native of Saratoga Springs and works out of Brooklyn as a consultant focusing on homeless issues.

The coalition brings together players from government and the private sector. It will involve Shelters of Saratoga along with the police, hospitals, mental health workers, and representatives of our city and our county government.

In late February there will be a two day event to develop plans followed by what they call a sprint to experiment with solutions.

An excellent story from the Gazette Newspaper notes:

The coalition will consist of two key teams: a leadership team of government officials and agency leaders tasked with “clearing the path” of financial, regulatory and other hurdles; and a design team of mental health, substance abuse and homelessness workers charged with planning and implementing the group’s on-the-ground strategies.

As someone who enthusiastically supports this effort and who was the executive director of the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council for sixteen years, I have to express some reservations about how much one community can do to solve this problem. The roots of homelessness lie in the lack of affordable housing and without a massive federal effort such as we saw in the years when Jefferson Terrace and Stonequist Apartments were built, addressing this fundamental issue on a local level will be profoundly limited. Still I wish this new group success.

I will be especially interested in seeing what role the county plays in this.

Apparently The Outgoing Republican Administration In Milton Wiped The Town’s computers including even the software like Microsoft Word

Great story by Wendy Liberatore for the Times Union on possible sabotage by the outgoing Supervisor of the town of Milton (our neighbor to the Southwest).

A slate of reformers led by Republican Benny Zlotnick who ran on the Democratic line defeated the endorsed Republicans who ran the town in an extraordinary election.

Now, as it turns out, someone from that administration wiped out the town’s computers before the turnover to the challengers. This included not only all the documents but even the software like Microsoft Word. It is unclear whether there are backups that can be restored.

The New York State Archive laws require municipalities to maintain key public documents. It is unclear what criminal laws may have been violated including the destruction of town property.

This has to be filed under bizarre. It is really hard to believe that someone would do something like this intentionally. Efforts by the Times Union to reach Ostrander were unsuccessful.

Gazette: Update To City Open Space Plan and Study of Saratoga Lake

Stephen Williams has covered Saratoga Springs for the Gazette Newspaper for decades.  His long experience and his fairness make him an outstanding reporter.   Given the continual retrenchment in newspapers we are very lucky to have him as a resource.

He has written two recent stories with environmental dimensions.

City To Update Its Open Space Plan

His stories in the Gazette are behind a paywall.  I urge the readers of this blog to subscribe to the digital version of the Gazette so they can read Mr. Williams’ full stories.  Here are some highlights from the story on the update to the city’s open space plan that appeared on January 1.

It has been fifteen years since the city updated it open space plan.  In 2002 city voters approved a bond issue allowing the city to borrow $5,000,000.00 which was used for a number of projects including the development of the city’s waterfront park on Saratoga Lake and the purchase of an easement for the Pitney Farms project.  This money has now been exhausted.

The city has now contracted with the firm M. J. Engineering and Surveying of Clifton Park for $44,600.00 to update the open space plan. 

The story reported that:

“The update will establish criteria for the spending of funds, inventory available open space and discuss opportunities for land preservation, parks, and lands for both active and passive recreation, according to the request for proposals.”

The updated plan will be important in seeking moneys for additional projects such as the development of the Greenbelt Trail around the city.

Saratoga Lake Study

Here is a link to the full story.

The Regional Economic Council has awarded two grants to the town of Stillwater to study Saratoga Lake. 

$45,000.00 has been made available by the Department of State to identify where excess nutrients and sediment are coming from.  They pose a threat to the health of the lake.

$30,000.00 coming from the Department of Environmental Conservation will be used to reduce and treat stormwater runoff. 

In Williams’ article he quotes the Supervisor for Stillwater:

“We’ve been applying for anything and everything that could help us deal with water quality issues in the lake,” said Stillwater Town Supervisor Ed Kinoski. “We’re looking for the best possible means to catch whatever we can coming into the lake, whether it is soil or nutrients.”

There is a lot more in the article and it is well worth reading the entire story.