Hot Times For The City Solar Amendment

I am in favor of the solar amendment passed by the City Council on Tuesday night.

For those of you not familiar with the original ordinance:

6.4.8 SOLAR ACCESS

Except as otherwise provided by this Chapter, no property owner may erect a structure or allow a tree or other flora to cast a shadow upon a solar collector greater than the shadow cast by a hypothetical wall six feet high located along the property line between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time from September 21 to March 21.

This seems rather complicated because the shadow is literally a moving virtual shadow depending upon what date and what time you choose.  There is, however, software designed to figure this out. (Shadow Calculator) This is a link to a pretty neat web site that lets you hone in on your actual property using Google Maps and create a virtual structure on your property and then check out its shadow on different days and times.

Basically the ordinance cited above is meant to insure that nothing, including trees, on one property  adversely affects solar panels on any neighboring property.

The amendment to the ordinance which was adopted excluded the downtown from this requirement.

In brief, given the wide variety in heights of downtown buildings along with the goal as set out in our Comprehensive Plan to concentrate growth in the core, the original language creates significant potential conflicts between property owners.  Had the Cantina on Broadway, for instance, erected a solar panel on its roof, the building housing Northshire Books could not have been built under this ordinance. The scope of these problems is clearly very different from areas outside the core where building height and the close proximity of other structures are very different.

Northampton, Massachusetts is a city similar to ours in many ways and has won an award for being a highly rated sustainable community (Northhampton Link).  It considered adopting a solar panel ordinance  a number of years ago but determined that in light of their goal of concentrating development downtown such an ordinance would be a significant hindrance.

I think it is also important to keep the scope of what is contemplated here in perspective.  The downtown area affected is quite modest in size.

I share my Sustainable Saratoga friends’ desire to vigorously press  for green energy in light of the grave danger of global warming.  We differ about the significance of the impact of this ordinance change, however.  How seriously does excluding the downtown threaten our commitment as a community to reducing greenhouse gases?  To what extent does insisting that the city core must have an ordinance on solar panels make sense?  Is this an issue of symbolism or an issue of critical substance deserving the heat that this debate has generated?  Are there existing and emerging sustainable technologies that will better suit the downtown now and in the future?

A major concern is that for many of the players in this conflict, the question of solar panels is a stalking horse for opposition to the proposed City Center Garage.  While changing the ordinance removes an obstacle for the City Center to build its garage, mixing the two issues does a disservice to both.

What remains to be examined and what may have a broader impact is the potential conflict between solar panels and not only buildings but trees in the remaining areas of the city still covered by this solar ordinance. Sustainable Saratoga has launched an important tree planting initiative along with their support for solarizing Saratoga, and the danger is that these two worthy goals may come into conflict with one another as solar panels are installed throughout the city and trees are planted and grow.  What happens, for instance, if a panel placed on a house is shaded by a neighbor’s tree? Under the ordinance as written the tree must come down. Clearly the way ahead for a sustainable Saratoga must involve a holistic look at all aspects of what makes for a sustainable city. For an interesting discussion of this and the issue of solar panels and historic preservation as well I refer you to the article cited in an earlier post.

Which brings us to the question of why not wait and review the ordinance as a whole as it affects the entire city.  To my mind, the process for developing an ordinance for the entire city is going to be arduous.  Aside from the problem of the ordinance itself, the city would be imposing new standards for all its property owners.  This is the kind of process that will require patience, diplomacy, and commitment.  Anyone who has watched our City Council will know just how monumental a task this could end up being.  I know that many of the readers of this blog will differ with me, but waving the solar ordinance requirement for downtown, as argued earlier, was both simple and needed.

A Timetable For The Mixed Use “Garage?”

On June 14th, a group named “Citizens For High Rock” held a forum on the proposed City Center Garage.  At the meeting the group was highly critical of the City Center’s plan and argued that a mixed use facility should be built instead.  The group talked about incorporating retail space and affordable housing units in the facility.  Adding these new uses would require  even more parking in addition to accommodating the needs already identified for the City Center and downtown.  On its face, their suggestions sound like they would involve a very large facility.

I am extremely skeptical that these ideas can attract the kind of private money required for such an ambitious project.  Having said that, I would be among the happiest people should I be proven wrong.

Commissioner John Franck announced at a June City Council meeting that he would be preparing an RFP for mixed use development plan.  I just learned that Mayor Joanne Yepsen has taken over responsibility for drafting this RFP.  I emailed John Franck last night asking why he had passed this on to the Mayor.  When I get a response from Commissioner Franck, I will post it on this site.

Given my skepticism regarding such a project, I am concerned that this is simply going to lead to further delays.  In that spirit, I emailed the following to Mayor Yepsen:

I understand that your office has taken over responsibility from John Franck for drafting the RFP related to the land currently under consideration for the City Center Parking Structure.  I would be grateful if you could answer the following five questions.

  • What comprises the physical footprint of the property that the RFP would address?  I am not quite sure what the geographic scope of the land in question is.
  • In your planning, what is the timeline for issuing a  draft of the RFP?
  • In your planning, when would you anticipate issuing the final RFP to solicit proposals?
  • In your planning, when would you anticipate the date would be for when responses to the RFPs would be due?
  • In your planning, when would you expect to either accept a proposal that met the RFP requirements or, in the event that no such proposal was received, to end the process?

Thank you in advance, for answering my questions.

I was careful to use the phrase “in your planning” because I understand that factors often arise that make rigid commitments problematic.  Still, it seems eminently reasonable that in taking on this responsibility, the Mayor would have some targets as to when all of this would take place.  Mayor Yepsen stressed in her last campaign for Mayor the accessibility of her office and the high standards for transparency her office would maintain.  I would expect to get a response from her office fairly soon and will post it on this site when I receive it.

Mathiesen and Burger Petitions Challenged

Commissioner Chris Mathiesen and Sara Burger have challenged each other’s petitions.  Ms. Burger is vying for the Democratic nomination for public safety commissioner.

The issue is complicated by a strange bit of election law.

The petitions that were circulated by the members of the Democratic committee had all five endorsed candidates on them.  A person signing these petitions could not select a particular candidate from them.  They were signing for all of them.  If Ms. Burger successfully challenged a petition you would think that it would invalidate the petition for all of the Democratic candidates on it.  Not so, should Ms. Burger prove that any particular petition was invalid; it would only affect Mathiesen and not the rest of the slate.

Both Mathiesen and Burger have until next week to specify their objections.

I will follow up next week with this story.

County Responds To Freedom of Information Law Request RE Mental Health

Saratoga County finally responded to my FOIL.  While it was late, it was only marginally late.  I am attaching my original FOIL (Here) and the county’s documents (Here).

This is a summary of what the documents show:

  1. For my request for any documents that describe the procedures mandated for hiring the Mental Health Director: The County could locate no documents “responsive” to this request.
  2. The name of the body/committee that determined who to hire for the position: The County gave me the members of the Community Services Board.
  3. The names of the persons who served on the board/committee that made the decision: The county gave me the names of the Community Services Board
  4. Any documents that were sent from the Community Services Board to the county regarding the candidates: They gave me a long legal statement about privileged information and two emails in which all the text of the email was redacted.
  5. The bylaws of the Community Services Board: The County had none.
  6. Any documents that define the responsibilities of the Community Services Board: The County had none.
  7. Any document that lists the members of the Community Services Board: See item #2 and #3
  8. Minutes from all the Community Services Board meetings from January 1, 2015 to present: The County has none.
  9. Procedure used to hire Dale Angstrum (One of the earlier mental health directors who served for many years and was actually hired by the Community Services Board): The County had none.

Analysis

We continue with the fiction that the Community Services Board hired Dr. Prezioso and the county was not involved.  The county says they were unable to locate any document that explains how the hiring should be done.  Conspicuously absent from the documents are the minutes of the County Personnel meeting at which they selected Prezioso and the minutes of the Board of Supervisors meeting when they actually made the appointment.  I am following up with an “appeal of denial” asking why these documents were not included.   Also missing from the documents is the letter from Dr. Frank Archangelo, the chairman of the Community Services Board, stating that they did not hire Prezioso but merely reviewed a list given them by the County and sent a ranked list of candidates back to the Personnel Committee of the Board of Supervisors to determine who to hire.

Of particular interest here is that the Community Services Board is not a true functioning body.  According to the FOIL the county believes there are no documents laying out what the Community Services Board is suppose to do (In fact, the New York State Hygiene Law includes a section laying this out).  The CSB has no bylaws.  It has taken no minutes of its meetings at least since January of this year.

The record is made all the more appalling for the citizens of Saratoga Springs because our supervisors Matt Veitch and Peter Martin, who refuse to discuss any of this.  The arrogance of this is quite stunning.  One would think that the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene, which funds the Department, would provide some oversight and require adherence to the law.  So far, not so.

A Strange And Unpleasant Chapter In The Debate On The Solar Ordnance

On Tuesday night the city council had to deal with the State Environment Quality Review for the proposed solar amendment.  The SEQR format is a document with a list of yes and no questions.  Commissioner Madigan read each of the questions along with the proposed answers.  None of the members of the council expressed any problems with any of the answers so it was bizarre that at the end, when the council voted, Mayor Yepsen and Commissioner Frank voted against the resolution affirming that there would be no negative impact (neg dec).  When Mayor Yepsen and Commissioner Frank were asked why, in light of the fact that they had no objection to any of the answers on the form, that they opposed the resolution, they declined to answer.  Mayor Yepsen said that her reasoning would become clear later on in the meeting.  Commissioner Frank simply repeated several times “I voted no and No is no” as though that meant something.  Commissioner Matheisen then pointed out that this made no sense.  He noted that the question of whether the change in the ordinance would have an adverse environmental impact was separate from whether one opposed the actual change in the ordinance.  He asked Commissioner Frank and Mayor Yepsen if they could indicate which answers to the questions, if any that they disagreed with.  Neither Commissioner Frank nor Mayor Yepsen would address his question.  Yepsen simply repeated that it would become clearer later in the meeting and Frank repeated that no is no.

If you would like to review the video of what happened you can go to this link:

Video Of Council Meeting

On the right, select “Finance Department (Part 1 of 2) – 4. Discussion and Vote: Determination of SEQR.   The first eleven minutes, Commissioner Madigan goes through all the questions individually with the proposed answers.  At 11 minutes and twenty-four seconds she makes the motion for the negative declaration and the discussion begins.

This indicates how difficult it is in the current political environment to have a reasoned and thoughtful discussion on some very difficult but important issues.

Saratoga County Mental Health: The Smoking Gun Letter

I have managed to get hold of a letter from Dr. Frank Archangelo, chair of the Community Services Board, to Spenser Hellwig, Saratoga County Administrator.  It eliminates any ambiguity about what happened.  It confirms that, contrary to statements by Hellwig and Supervisor Matt Veitch, the Community Services Board did not hire Dr. Prezioso.  It also referenced that the candidates that the CSB sent to the county personnel committee were prioritized.  The only thing missing is the fact that Dr. Prezioso was the fourth choice out of the four that were recommended.

It also exposes the fact that the Community Services Board is not providing governance as required by the statute.

Finally, Dr. Archangelo’s letter implies that he sees no urgency in resolving this issue and, contrary to the statue, he leaves it in the hands of the county as to what role in the future the Community Services Board should have.

Letter From Archangelo To Hellwig