The Text Amendment Sought By Saratoga National That Went To The Planning Board: Hard To Believe How Bad It Is

I have a copy of the memorandum from Michael Toohey, the attorney for Saratoga National Golf Course, to the city with three different drafts of the proposed text amendment to the city zoning law.  The memorandum is a narrative explaining what SNGC is seeking and why what they want is a benefit to the city.

For those of you who want to go through the documents yourselves you can link to it here.  SNGC Clubhouse Proposal

The cover memorandum makes a variety of claims which I will not go into because they are pretty much “spin” and do not merit space on this blog. 

So here is the proposed definition for a “Clubhouse-Golf” that Mayor Yepsen, Commissioner Franck, and Commissioner Madigan voted to send to the Planning Board for an advisory opinion with my explanatory analysis:

Most of us think of a clubhouse as a single building with maybe a luncheonette, bar, and locker rooms.  Not so here.  The proposed amendment describes it as “A structure or clustered group of structures…(my emphasis)”  This structure or, more accurately, these structures “…may include locker rooms, spa, health and fitness retail, restaurant, and banquet facilities, business center, lodging for up to 100 rooms, and up to 6 free-standing golf lodges, containing common space and up to 8 guest rooms…”  

In order to address any suspicions that these “golf lodges” may be condos in disguise the zoning ordinance requires that these (remember this is a clubhouse) may not have kitchen facilities and they may not be privately owned.

This (these) clubhouse(s) must be 3000 feet from the clubhouse’s “primary, public road entrance with no building being higher than 50 feet.”  Here is a standard dripping in irony: “Only one clubhouse can be constructed in relation to the golf course.”

The final sentence reads (yes, this is a very brief definition): “Retention of permeable land and public access shall be a criterion considered (my emphasis) by the Planning Board in granting of a Special Use Permit and/or Site Plan Review.”

Permeable land is important in development projects because such land helps protect water quality in the watershed.

Now one might ask “What is public access”?  Is it the ability of people to come on the property and play golf?  Is it the right of people to walk through wetlands and trails not part of the golf course or to paddle on any bodies of water on the land?  Is it a permanent and legally binding agreement that gives the public use of the property?

Apparently we must wait to find this out because there is no further discussion of this in the amendment.  Once this zoning change is made and Saratoga Golf National Golf Course applies to the Planning Board for a special use permit and/or approval of their site plan, we will find out.

Some may ask, what happened to the easement that its attorney, Michael Toohey, has been dangling before the public?  In his covering memo we are told that “This is an opportunity (my emphasis) for a portion of the land…to remain permeable with a mandate (my emphasis), that through the special Use Permit and Site Plan approval process that components of public, year-round, access become conditions to the granting of the required permits.”  Has the word “mandate” ever been more abused?  The mandate is that the planning board must consider it.  Note that there is absolutely nothing about how much land will actually be set aside nor what the terms of this access will be.  We will have to wait until, with this ill defined concept, SNGC goes before the Planning Board for its approvals.  Finally, with not a hint of irony, Toohey declaims: “A plan such a this is the only way the ‘Greenbelt’ is guaranteed to remain green.”

Folks, I am not making this stuff up.  Just click on the link to the document and read it yourself. 

If you want to be inspired, watch Commissioner Mathiesen and Commissioner Scirocco statements opposing sending on the text amendment to the Planning Board.  Statements BY Mathiesen and Scirocco Got to 25:18 minutes for the statements.


County Responds To FOIL For Office Of Mental Hygiene Report On Saratoga County With Blacked Out Document

Several months ago, following articles in the Times Union about the problems at the Saratoga County Mental Health Center, the New York State Office of Mental Health did a surprise monitoring visit to our local clinic.  Some weeks ago, I FOILed the county for a copy of the report.

I received their response.  Redacted County FOIL Re OMH

If you look at the documents you will see they have blacked out virtually all of the monitoring report.  I contacted the New York State Office on Open Government and spoke to Robert Freeman, its executive director.  I described what I had received.  He offered that while they have considerable latitude to keep confidential opinions and recommendations, they cannot redact any facts in the document. I know that the document included at least one fact.

The local county is required by their contract with the state, to provide a certain level of staffing.  Due to the rash of resignations at the clinic they were out of compliance.  According to Freeman, such a statement should not have been redacted.  I expect there other observations of fact that were damning as well.

This is just another example of not only the opaqueness of our county government but a commentary on our two supervisors.  Matt Vietch has strenuously defended the county in the matter of the clinic.  Peter Martin has been silent.  I would point out that Martin is a Democrat.  It speaks volumes that he can behave disgracefully at the expense of the many people in desperate need of services and not fear that Charlie Brown, the chair of the city Democratic Committee will speak out on the issue.

To Candidates For Public Safety: Will Yor Feed From Saratoga PAC’s Money Trough

I attempted to contact all three candidates for Public Safety regarding whether they would solicit or accept an endorsement from the Saratoga PAC. In an earlier post I have discussed this PAC in detail. Suffice it to say that their membership is mostly the traditional funders of the Republican Party business leadership. Among their board members are Gary Dake (Stewarts), Sonny Bonnacio (construction), and Bob Manz (Construction).

Rick Wirth responded to my first email to him but never answered the question. Instead he asked whether Commissioner Mathiesen had ever taken money from a PAC and whether, if he had, he would return it. I sent him two follow-up emails but never received a response

Rick Wirth Fitst Response

Email Exchange With Rick Wirth

Worse was Sarah Burger. I went to her Facebook page and asked the same questions. She never allowed my question to be posted on her page and she never responded to me. I did a follow-up attempt with the same outcome. To make sure that she received it, I waited to see if other posts would appear. There were two posts subsequent to my attempts so I feel confident she received them. I think her unwillingness to even address the issue does not speak well for her.

I owe Sarah Burger an apology.  I discovered tonight that my questions were posted on her Facebook page.  I try to be rigorous and careful in what I write and I guess I do not understand how layouts work on Facebook because I looked in the wrong place for the posting.  Having said that, she still has not answered the question about whether she will accept PAC support.

Chris Mathiesen responded. He was unequivocal. He will not solicit Saratoga PAC’s support nor accept their money if offered.

Chris Mathiesen On Saratoga PAC


Subsequent to this post I received an email from Rick Wirth saying he has been very busy and will respond in several days.  When I get his email, I will post it.

RIck’s Email Saying He Will Respond

Thinking Outside The Mayor’s Box

Saratoga Springs city government has had a box at the flat track for as long as anyone can remember. It seems that it is called the “Mayor’s Box.”

At the last city council meeting, Commissioner Michelle Madigan raised concerns about Mayor Joanne Yepsen paying $4,000.00 out of her campaign funds (half the $8,000.00 cost) to secure the box for this racing season.

The full discussion can be viewed at Video Of Discussion Of Box

Move the timer to 34:52 for the discussion.

According to the discussion, a few years ago NYRA, which had traditionally provided the box for free to the city, changed its policy and required the city to pay for the box. Apparently both the governor and the senate gave up their respective boxes rather than pay the fee. At the time Scott Johnson indicated that he did not think the tax payers should foot the bill. He asked the other members of the council if they would contribute. During that first year, John Frank and Michelle Madigan contributed to the cost of the box as well as Johnson. Last year, Mayor Yepsen queried the council regarding the bill and only Michelle Madigan contributed in addition to the Mayor who paid the bulk of it.

This year, when Mayor Yepsen received the bill she put the initial payment down using her campaign moneys but did not advise the other members of the council. At the meeting Madigan strenuously complained about not being notified and, after conceding it was legal, argued it was inappropriate to use campaign funds.

The mayor then asserted that she acted to save the box. She noted that no one had contacted her and in turn, Madigan, Mathiesen, and Scirocco replied that she should have advised them.

In the most interesting part of the discussion, Tony Izzo, suggested that the council use public money for the box. He noted that there was already a precedent of non-profit agencies paying the $221.00 daily cost to use for fund raisers. He suggested that the city might recover much of the cost of the box in this way and save the use of it for special days like the Travers Race.

There was a consensus among the council members that it was important for the city not to lose the use of the box. There also seemed to be a consensus not to use public money. In the end, they agreed to try to come up with a plan outside of the council meeting.

Rethinking The Box From The Outside?

First I should note that while the flat track is great for the city, I personally have no interest in racing. Having said that, I believe that it is quite important for the city to keep its box.

Many years ago I ran a non-profit agency here in Saratoga Springs. Every August a variety of agencies that funded my organization would choose that month to visit my agency. Among my visitors was the head of Federal Region II. This gentleman never went North of New York City as far as I could tell so it was quite a coup to be able to spend a day with him. Ray Watkin, who was then mayor, helped me out by making his box available to my agency for the event.

The reality is that getting things you want is often a matter of getting quality time with the people who make the decisions that are important to you and to building relations with them. In that context, the box is an extremely valuable a fossetr our city.

Starting A Dialogue

I would like to start a dialogue with the people who follow this blog about ideas the city might use to handle managing the box.

I believe that the city should, as suggested by Tony Izzo, use public funds to pay NYRA for the box.

The city council could then establish a committee to manage the box made up of appointments by each commissioner and the mayor.

The committee would keep minutes of its meetings which would be posted on the city’s web site.

Records would be kept of who arranged with the committee for use of the box and they would also be expected to provide the committee with a list of who used the box.

In the case of non-profits or other outside organizations, they would be expected to pay the cost of the box for the day.

I think that the members of the city council should not have to pay to use the box. Whatever any of us may think of the individuals who serve on our council, these people put in long hours for a mere $14,000.00 (They do get health insurance which is a valuable benefit and they can receive benefits under the state retirement system). I do not think that it is unreasonable to allow them this perk. They used to get the perk anyway. Now it would cost the city some money to provide it.

I am not concerned about the “political” use of the box as long as it is not excessive. Let’s remember that for decades, the box was used as the mayor and the council saw fit. I am quite confident, seeing fit included inviting key members of their respective parties.

The tricky part of this is who gets the top days like the Travers. I hope that people reading this blog might have suggestions that the council would find helpful.
I think the committee which is expected to manage the box could submit their selection methodology to the council for formal approval.

Theresa Capozzola Letter Raises Key Questions On Planning Board and Saratoga National Golf Course

Theresa Capozzola is a heroine of mine.  No one has been more dedicated to protecting what is left of the green areas of this city than Ms. Capozzola.  She has sat through endless meetings.  She has provided the most thoughtful analysis for many of us about what is going on with development.

She has written an important letter to Mark Torpey that raises some key questions about the Saratoga National Golf Course’s campaign to build in the conservation district.

Capazzola Letter

The Planning Board Provides Saratoga National Golf Course With The City’s Lawyer

I attended the Planning Board Meeting on Wednesday night. On the agenda was the text amendment that was referred to the Planning Board by the City Council for an advisory opinion. The text amendment is being “promoted” by Saratoga National Golf Course in order to accommodate their very ambitious plans.

The discussion was extremely convoluted so some background on the process follows. Please try to bear with it.

Formally, the text amendment is about a change to the overall zoning definitions for the conservation (green) district. It is not suppose to be about any particular project. Of course, this is a kind of kabuki dance because there is only one golf course in the conservation district and the text amendment is related to definitions for permissible structures for golf courses in the district. The most obvious point of contention is defining a golf course club house as containing lodging involving one hundred guest rooms.   Most people would describe such a building as a hotel but hotels are not allowed in the conservation district. There are also some additional, smaller, residential units that are meant to be kind of mini houses to accommodate groups but specifically barring any cooking facilities.

In the meantime, things are even more convoluted due to confusion about what is actually under consideration. Is it the specific text amendment referred to the Planning Board by the City Council or is it one of several versions that have been subsequently amended by Saratoga National Golf Course? The members of the Planning Board were unclear about what they should be dealing with. Making it even more confusing is that the revision and the revision of the revision were not labeled in a clear way to know which the latest iteration is.

If this was not enough, Chairman Mark Torpey noted that the final version of the city’s comprehensive plan had not been posted on the web site. As he pointed out, one of the key elements in determining the appropriateness of the text change was whether it complied with the comp plan. He noted that without access to the final version of the comp plan, the ability for the pubic to evaluate the proposed change was problematic.

In the end, the Planning Board agreed to put off a public hearing and a full discussion of the text until the next meeting. They did, however, agree to allow Michael Toohey, the attorney for SNGC to address the board.

Toohey had nothing substantial to say but it took him at least twenty-five minutes to say it. The most memorable thing he said was that the SNGC was about to donate the most land in the history of the city with the exception of the State Park. This is a claim he has made before but what exactly constitutes this donation is yet to be clarified.

The most disturbing event was the decision to pay for the attorney the city uses on real estate matters to work with Toohey. This recommendation was made by Tom Lewis. Mr. Lewis, who was appointed by Scott Johnson was, for many years, the chairman of the City Rep  ublican Party. He was also employed as an executive at Stewarts for real estate acquisition. Given the economics and politics of this issue, Mr. Lewis is one of several seats at the table representing the interests of SNGC. Tom Lewis recommended that the city’s real estate lawyer (he is on retainer) work with Toohey to insure that the wording is legal. The idea that the city tax payers are footing the bill to assist the developer with the language for something that the city has yet to decide it wants is highly questionable.

In the meantime, for those of you as obsessive as me, here is the set of documents sent by the city to the planning board along with an amusing memo by Toohey as to what constitutes a club house

Text Amendment For Advisor Opinion

Definistion Of Club House.

A Troubling Leaflet Attacking The City Center

A group calling itself Citizens For High Rock distributed a leaflet at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday.  The Leaflet is titled “Saratoga Deserves Better!”  It is a full throated attack on the proposed City Center structure.  While I disagree with many of its arguments, I am always for stimulating community discussion about important issues.  What I find very troubling was the following statement on the pamphlet:

“Doesn’t generate property tax of (sic) sales tax revenue-leased to City Center For $1.

The current proposal from the City Center provides half the parking revenue to the city, the sales tax generated by the parking, and an annual lease payment of $70,000.00.  I find it very disturbing that this group would distribute something with such glaring inaccuracies.

The group has a web site and I have posted on it a request that they correct the leaflet before distributing any more.

RFP On Its Way

There was a discussion on the RFP as part of Commissioner Chris Mathiesen’s agenda at tonight’s meeting.  There were some minor tweaks but the council seemed united in its praise for the RFP.  There was an agreement on the need to move swiftly and it appears that the RFP will be issued tomorrow with bids due in ten weeks (the end of September).  There also appeared to be a consensus that the City Center should move forward through the required land use boards simultaneously.

Shakespeare In The Park Takes On Love’s Labor’s Lost

Our own local Shakespeare company performs Love’s Labor’s Lost in the City Park.  Lary (yup. One R) Opitz directs.  It opens tonight at 6:00.  The company is very good about editing the plays and crafting the performance to make the language accessible.  Many are put off by Shakespeare because of productions where the language is so dense and the delivery so fast that it is incomprehensible.  Not so with our own local production.

For more details regarding the production and its schedule along with other things the company is doing this summer go to their web site: Saratoga Shakespeare In The Park