Much Thanks

I want to thank all of you who have supported my blog by visiting it or by establishing yourselves as “followers” so that you automatically receive my posts via email.

The good news is that it has become a huge success.  Yesterday I had over 500 people visit my blog and they had 831 views which means in blog parlance that they looked at 831 posts.  In addition to this I have over sixty followers so about 560 people read posts on that day.  In a city of 28,000 that is a very impressive number and the kind of people who visit my site are the kinds of people who engage others in conversation about our city.

I hope the blog will become an increasingly positive force for both informing our community and for holding our elected officials accountable.

Tomorrow I will be leaving for my annual fly fishing trip to the Canadian Rockies.  Jane and our dogs will still be here in Saratoga to monitor the goings on.  In addition, I will receive the usual helpful emails from people assisting me in learning what is going on.  I plan to find time in the evenings to continue my posts but there may not be as many.

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A lot of clothes and fishing equipment ready to go west.

Luggage

Transparency? How much windex is there in the world?

A little over a week ago I sent the following email to all the candidates running for  the Saratoga Springs City Council this year.  Here was the email:

The Planning Board has sent to the City Council their recommendations for amending both the city’s zoning laws and the Comprehensive Plan in order to allow a resort in the city’s RR1 district (the city’s greenbelt).  This is a highly controversial issue and the public is very interested in knowing your position on it.  Every candidate agrees with the importance of transparency.  In that spirit I am asking all the candidates running for City Council positions the following question:

If you had to vote on the amendments to the city’s zoning law and Comprehensive Plan as recommended by the Planning Board, would you vote yes or no and why?

The first responses I received and published were from Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen and Mayoral candidate John Safford.  The posts were on August 30 and August 31 respectively if you want to go back and read their full statements.  I must say that in each case they were quite clear in answering the question.  Mathiesen said he was opposed to allowing a resort and Safford said he was in support.

I subsequently received responses from Joanne Yepsen who is running again for Mayor and Ken Ivins who is running for Commissioner of Finance.  I have enough respect for the people who read this blog to decide for themselves whether they think their answers properly respond to the question asked.  In the case of Ken Ivins he sent me a link to his website and I copied the text as printed below.

This is Joanne Yepsen’s statement:

“The process we are currently engaged in with Saratoga National proposal is playing out as it should. Our land use boards are in place for a reason we need to respect the  process as it is being carried out. I have certain concerns with how much land will be conserved and how that forever greenspace will be managed and accessed by the public. Furthermore, I am concerned with how this project comports with our Comprehensive Plan.  Our City spent nearly two years on our comprehensive plan and I look forward to continuing its implementation as designed. I will continue to evaluate the proposal with these main issues as my paramount focus. Before I make a decision, I need to be satisfied the plan will be good for our city and residents.”

This is Ken Ivins statement:

Where does Ken stand on Saratoga National Golf Course

The Saratoga National Golf Course proposed expansion has many people in the community taking some very strong stances and people are asking me where I stand on this project. I have been out talking to many voters in these past couple of months and the general feeling is that people feel extremely positive about this project. I, likewise, am in general agreement that it has the potential to be a constructive project for our city. But, as we all know the “devil is in the details.” There are a number of questions that I need answered before I would cast a positive vote.

I will elaborate my concerns a little later but let me first mention something that I find very disturbing. On March 10, 2015 our current Commissioner of Finance deposited a campaign contribution of $250 from a lobbying firm named Northeast Government Consulting (www.ngclobby.com/). On their website they describe themselves as:

“Northeast Government Consulting, LLC (NGC) is a full service lobbying and consulting firm with solid government experience to deliver bottom line results for clients in the Northeast United States.”

They list a number of clients one of which is named Laker Development Group, L.L.C. which has a Saratoga Springs address. I have heard but have not been able to verify their relation with Saratoga National.

I believe that a local official receiving campaign funds from any lobbying group should raise eyebrows at the very least and it questions their objectivity. If it is true that this is tied to the Saratoga National project then even more questions should be raised.

Returning to the original topic, as I mentioned this project has many upsides, including adding much needed revenues to our city coffers (something to look at seriously with the probable loss of VLT funds down the line). I believe this fiscal sustainability is why a large number of residents would like to see this project proceed.

The key I believe is that we should not just open the door and let Saratoga National have a free hand. We still need to maintain the unique characteristics of the city we love. There have been issues raised regarding promises made and maybe not kept. I also hear that the easement may still have some legal questions to answer.

There is an old saying “trust but verify.” I would want a system also put in place that would verify that any promises made are kept.

The planning board recommendation calls for additional public hearings. Unlike one of our currently elected officials I believe this should be done. I never took a vote on a matter of this importance without hearing from as many sides as possible and weighing all the pluses and minuses. To do otherwise, I believe, is completely irresponsible and no way to conduct open and transparent government business.

Ideologically I understand critics, reminding us the golf course knew full well when they first built on that land, and given their special permit, there would always be constraints, and there should be. But, the large question that looms over all these back and forth arguments is what’s best for Saratoga Springs as a whole, both short term and long term? Can we add another attraction for our city, helping to offset a future possible loss of VLT funds, while at the same time minimizing the impact of our greenbelt? I believe in theory we can reach that goal. But, important concerns need to first be satisfied and the process needs to happen transparently and inclusively.

So if I was on the council now would I vote for this project? Probably, but only after more information is gathered, a system to verify promises made, and most importantly, the public is heard and their thoughts taken into consideration.

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As for Michele Madigan, Sarah Burger, Bill McTygue, Skip Scirocco, John Franck, and Rick Wirth, I heard nothing.

Saratoga PAC Goes Into Action

In this week’s Saratoga Today, Bob Manz who heads the Saratoga PAC wrote a letter in which he praised Rick Wirth and Sarah Burger for meeting with them seeking their endorsement for Public Safety Commissioner.  He castigated Chris Mathiesen for declining to meet with them.

Some of you will remember that in an earlier blog I asked all three  Public Safety Commissioner candidates if they would seek the endorsement and support of the PAC.  As thoroughly documented in my blogs, the PAC is comprised primarily of companies related to construction and real estate and was formed  in opposition to provisions in the city’s new Comprehensive Plan that continues to protect the greenbelt from development such as proposed by Saratoga National Golf Course.  Mr. Manz heads D.A. Collins which is probably the largest construction company in the area.

When I asked Sarah Burger and Rick Wirth whether they would seek or accept an endorsement and money from the PAC they offered “transparently evasive (hard to put those two words together)” answers.  This is covered in my July 27 post titled “To Candidates For Public Safety: Will You Feed From Saratoga PAC’s Money Trough.”  In contrast, Chris Mathiesen made clear that he was not interested in legitimizing them by seeking their support.

Saratoga National Thinks Big

For some of you with good memories you will remember that last year Saratoga National Golf Course (SNGC)began its latest campaign to expand their operation with a dog and pony show at the Hall of Springs in the state park. At their presentation this was one of their handouts.

Saratoga National Handout

SNGC was thinking BIG so the document was titled “Estimates of Economic Impact of Proposed Resort Zone.” Take careful note here. It is referred to as a resort zone. This is because the idea was to open the greenbelt up to not only their resort but to other resorts as well. Here is where the columns that reference “Other” come in. As I understand it, these other resorts in this zone would potentially include the Andersons property.

The story of the Andersons and their campaign to develop a huge plot of land east of the Northway that runs from Route 29 (Lake Avenue) to Route 9P (Union Avenue) is a long and bloody one. The City Council rejected their huge plan to develop that property by one vote many years ago. They proceeded to sue the city on the ludicrous basis that the city was using zoning to keep minorities and low income housing out. I do not have time to go into the full story here.

So the vision SNGC put forward in this document was to bring a total of 420,000 guests a year to the conservation district and  have  900 employees regularly commuting to jobs there. Remember our conservation district is supposed to be a low intensity use area.

The  document also states that Saratoga National Golf Course alone hopes just their own project will increase from the current189,744 per year (my, that is a precise number) to 300,000 guests a year. They also expect to increase their staff from 451 to 650.

I am always skeptical of numbers put out in these campaigns but for better or worse, this was their public statement a year ago.

I think it is particularly interesting that the revision the City Council is now considering changes the Comprehensive Plan to allow for a new category of development labeled “resorts.”  Of course this was precisely the vision SNGC offered in the first place.

New Life For The Pink Palace On Union Avenue?

Sonny Bonnacio organized a neighborhood informational meeting to present a proposal to rehab the “Pink Palace” on Union Avenue.

BonnacioAndIngersoll

Sonny Bonnacio is on the left and Mike Ingersoll of the LA Group is talking on the right.  The gentleman in the middle is Sonny Bonnacio’s colleague.

Pink Palace

This is the old Skidmore dorm, Moore Hall. Back in 2006, North Star Development bought the property with plans to tear the palace down and replace it with several large buildings that would incorporate upscale condos. Unfortunately, 2008 sunk the project.

As explained by the principal of North Star, he and Bonnacio have a tentative agreement to develop the property. It was apparent that for purposes of expediting and simplifying the approval process they want to make minimal changes to the property.

Apparently the building was built like a bunker which meant that even after sitting idly a decade it is structurally sound. Concurrently, it would be hugely expensive to take the building down. Complicating things is the fact that the ceilings are only seven feet six inches high and while the corridors are unusually wide, the rooms are quite narrow. So the plan is to build 54 micro, one bedroom apartments. The apartments will be 550 to 700 square feet and rent for $1,200 to $1,400 dollars.

The developers think there is a market for these apartments to serve young executives working downtown at the three advertising firms and other local businesses.

The area is already zoned for apartments. Their problem is that the zoning law requires them to have 1.5 parking spaces for each apartment and the parking lot behind the building that empties on White Street has only about 50 spaces. Therefore, In order to go forward with this project they will have to get a zoning variance to address the parking.

There was a very good turnout of homeowners from the neighborhood. While the people were sympathetic to the project, there was clearly concern about the lack of parking and about the impact that all the new tenants would have on traffic on White Street and Regent Street.

Sonny Bonnacio promised to have another meeting once their traffic consultants came up with proposals.

Party On At Saratoga National Golf Course (Limits? What Limits?) Corrected Version

(Due to a formatting Problem, the earlier version of this post was truncated.  Here is the corrected version)

In 1998, when the Saratoga National Golf Course was proposed, the developers pitched it sotto voce.  The emphasis was on how it would fit into the bucolic tone of the city’s conservation district (greenbelt).  One of the conditions they accepted was that they would limit their “special events” to no more than three per year.  These events were defined as any gathering that required more than their regular parking.  This requirement was contained in the Special Permit they were issued.  This same permit allowed them two hundred regular parking spaces and another seventy-three for overflow.  Geof Bourneman, who was the City Planner for many years and who was the Planner at the time, believes that the overflow was not to be included when calculating what was a special event.  This would mean that they could only have three events each year that brought more than two hundred cars to their property. 

It may be that at some point in the last seventeen years they were able to amend their Special Permit to allow for more spaces.  I asked at the City Planning Office to review any amendments to the original permit.  Unfortunately, I have had to FOIL for this and the city has about five weeks to provide it to me.  I am sure I will get it but it may happen after the city decides on the SNGC expansion.

I visited the City Planning Offices on Monday at City Hall and spoke to Steve Shaw who is the Building Inspector.  He is also responsible for enforcement of things like the limit on “special events” at Saratoga National Golf Course.  I asked him if he knew what the limit was at SNGC for “special events?”  He did not know.   I asked him about how Saratoga National Golf Course is monitored for compliance.  Steve is a very nice guy.  He told me that the Planning Board passes many, many of these kinds of regulations on to the Planning Department without considering how they will be enforced.  He was candid with me that no one was actually monitoring Saratoga National Golf Course to see that they comply.  Basically he told me that if someone makes a complaint or inquiry that he would have to contact them to find out.  In effect, Saratoga National Golf Course is supposed to police itself. 

So I went to the Saratoga National Golf Course web site to see what kind of capacity they have for events.  I cut this from their site:

Saratoga National Social Event Spaces::

  • Grand Ballroom (75 – 200 guests)
  • Howard Room & Lounge (20 – 50 guests)
  • Crystal Room (20 – 40 guests)
  • Veranda and Patio Terrace (50 – 300+ guests)
  • Blue Stone Patio Tent (50 – 200+ guests)

Just a cursory review of their site turned up large events.  They put on two nights of a special Travers Race party in the Blue Stone Patio Tent that their web site said was sold out.  That venue holds 200+ (how much plus is plus?)  As the list shows, there was plenty of capacity left in other venues on their grounds.  Their restaurant, Prime, alone seats 220.  What are the possibilities that on a Friday and Saturday night on Travers weekend that the restaurant was fully occupied?  Sounds like we are well over four hundred people for that night.

I also noted a full page advertisement for a St. Jude “Gala” fundraiser for September 3rd.  Here is a link to the web site of the sponsor.  http://www.angiodynamicsforhope.com/ What are the chances that this is going to be big?  So in one week, there is the real possibility that they will have filled their quota.

Given the “rigorousness” with which  they have adhered to their agreement to operate a nature trail on the west side of their property, there is every chance that they are taking similar liberties with their “special events.”

Per the Building Inspector’s direction, I have sent an email inquiry regarding a potential violation at SNGC.  Bearing in mind that Mr. Shaw will be asking SNGC to self report on their events, I am a little skeptical about what he will receive.  I feel quite confident that whatever he may receive, it will happen after the city decides on the zoning and Comp Plan changes SNGC is seeking.

Finally, I have spoken to people who live around Lake Lonely.  They tell me that to them it seems that the golf course frequently puts on fireworks events with the accompanying irritating noise.  SNGC also has outdoor music which can be heard from a considerable distance.  Most of us would not consider these activities consistent with the low intensity use of the Conservation District.

Here is a link to  the page on the SNGC web site that promotes their hosting of weddings.  Does that strike you as consistent with rural residential/agricultural environment? http://saratoganationalevents.com/weddings.php

How about corporate events: http://saratoganationalevents.com/corporate.php  They offer the same facilities for these events as they do for the weddings.

The point of our Conservation District is to have an area that has “low intensity” use meant to go with the rural and bucolic character of the country part of our city in the country.  It was with this in mind that SNGC was supposed to limit its “special events.”  Just think what it will be like when it becomes a resort.