Planning Board Meeting On Text Amendment For Saratoga National Golf Course

Tomorrow night (Wednesday) at 7:00 pm the planning board will be meeting to finalize their “advise” to the city council on the text amendment of the city zoning ordinance for the conservation district (greenbelt).  The revised text eliminates all specificity for set back, size of the “hotel/clubhouse,” height, etc.  This raises the question as to whether such a facility can actually go into the conservation district.  The issues are many and the clarity is non-existent.  It will be interesting to see what the planning board which is completely dominated by the friends of developers will do.

There will be an opportunity for public comment.

Sarah Burger’s Speaking Out Piece In The Saratogian: A Reality Check

In her speaking out piece of August 9, Ms. Burger asserted that “…the commissioner (Mathiesen) has only ever promoted the single use parking garage without considering any alternatives.”

Contrast her statement with this quote from the June 18 Gazette Newspaper by Steve Williams. His story is on the council meeting that agreed to issue the RFP:

“Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen said he supports issuing the RFP, even though he also supports the City Center’s plans.  ‘The idea is that if there are other approaches to this that can accommodate all the uses that are necessary here, including the City Center’s needs, better to hear them as soon as possible than not,’ Mathiesen said.”

It is true that the council has decided to let the city center proceed with its application for a parking lot.  It is not just Commissioner Mathiesen who believes both should go forward.  It was discussed at the council meeting and no one suggested otherwise.  Williams’ story goes on to say:

“Accounts Commissioner John Franck said he had doubts any developer will respond to the RFP, which would leave the City Center proposal as the only one for the land, which now has surface parking.  ‘I don’t see where they’ll respond, but I don’t think there’s anything to lose,’ Franck said.”

Any objective review of the meeting (there is a video available at the city’s web site), indicates that everyone on the council supported both the RFP and the importance of allowing the City Center’s proposal to proceed.

Greek Crisis

I know that this is a little far afield but since I know that they people who read my blog are like to dig down on issues, I thought that these two links on Greece are particularly interesting,

Richard Wolf is a left professor of economics.  His career was primarily at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.  Since retiring from there he has been a visiting professor at a number of important universities. This is an interview with him

This is a link to a profile of Yanis Varoufakis who was the finance minister for Greece. He represented his country in negotiations over the Greek debt.  This is from the New Yorker Magazine

Planning Board Work Shop On Text Amendment To Conservation District AKA Saratoga National Golf Course (The Long Version)

Planning Board Chairman Mark Torpey noted that the meeting between the attorneys Schachner and Toohey had been cancelled due to concerns about its appropriateness.

He expressed reservations regarding the excessive specificity of the text amendment noting that zoning law is normally very general in nature.  Mr. Torpey found this language problematic in light of the legal liabilities and also because it encroached on the prerogatives of the Planning Board to address the specifics of a project like this when it would come before the board for site review and special use permitting.

Van Wagner did not see the need for such specific language since all of the specifics referred to already existed as part of the golf course.  He noted that there was already a locker room, some retail, a restaurant, and a business center.  He thought that this was being unduly drawn out.

Torpey then reminded him that the text amendment included a 100 room hotel and six cottages among other things that did not currently exist on the SNGC property.

Schackner then spoke.  He shared Torpey’s reservations about the “unusual degree of specificity.”  He expressed concern about defending this in court and referenced “spot zoning.”  He also noted that it would be hard to explain to a judge how a hundred room hotel, six cottages, etc. constituted a clubhouse.

Kevin Bette, one of the principals of Saratoga National Golf Course, then raised his hand and asked to address the Planning Board.  Chairman Torpey then recognized him and referred to him as the “applicant.”

Bette then spoke at length about the value of the SNGC plans if the amendment they were seeking were approved.

He said 80% of the people who come to their facilities are from outside Saratoga Springs.  He compared it to St. Andrews (the home of golf in Scotland and the site of the British Open) and Pebble Beach as  tourist destinations.  He also compared it to the thoroughbred race track.  He talked about the need to make his facility a four season operation which explains the health spa.  He explained that they had come up with a specific number of rooms (100) to try to address people’s fears about how big their plans were.

Schachner then noted that a Planned Unit Development is how something like this is normally handled.  He noted that the city, having voted to ban PUD’s could turn around and vote to change the zoning in the conservation district (greenbelt) to allow them.

Michael Toohey then got up and argued that the text amendment was not really apropos just for Saratoga National Golf Course.  He offered that it was possible for someone to buy up enough land in the district to put in another golf course with the same restrictions so the text amendment was not really just about Saratoga National.  Torpey pointed out that in his narrative to the Planning Board, Toohey argued that the SNGC project was not a bad precedent since it was not possible to have another golf course in the conservation district.  Mr. Toohey, having been nailed on this, launched into how Pebble Beach has more than one destination golf course.  He also argued that there was very specific language in the zoning code for horse facilities.

I then asked for a point of clarification.  Mr. Torpey recognized me.  I asked why the Planning Board was referring to the representatives of Saratoga National Golf Course as the “applicant.”  I noted that this was a Planning Board workshop on a text amendment to the zoning code.  In this context there is no applicant.  I also could not understand the standard being used for who could speak.  Since this was about a change in the zoning law, I could not understand why Saratoga National could address the board and argue the case for the text amendment while other interested parties from the community who did not necessarily agree with them did not enjoy the same privilege.  I expressed sympathy for the problem they were having because of the problematic nature of trying to address what Saratoga National was trying to do in light of the existing zoning requirements.

Chairman Torpey agreed that the term “applicant” was problematic.  He did however offer that the city council had accepted the language for the text amendment from Saratoga National and in asking the Planning Board for their advice, it seemed appropriate to have their participation.  He did, however, admit that it was not a great situation.

Cliff Van Wagner then went on again how he did not see a problem with accommodating the needs of Saratoga National.  He said the kind of thing they want to do is pretty standard with golf courses these days.  He also offered some tortured logic about how Saratoga National was an applicant even though there is no application before the Board.

Howard Pinsley concurred with Van Wagoner.

Tom Denny was then recognized by Chairman Torpey.  Denny noted that the other places cited such as Pebble Beach were not putting their resorts in a conservancy district.  This insight was completely lost on Van Wagner.

Chairman Torpey said he would like to see a conservation analysis done on the property.  This apparently is defined under the subdivision regulations.  I am not familiar with this.

Ms. Casey then asked how that would be put into the definition of a golf course.  This was never resolved.

Schachner then came up with the idea of defining golf course in the supplemental regulations which is under something called article 6.  Definitions like adult book stores are apparently defined there.

In the end, Van Wagner recommended they simply take all the specifics out of the text amendment.  They did this by taking the first half of the first paragraph and dropping everything in the text amendment beyond the word lodging.

It now reads:

A structure or clustered group of structures associated with a full size 18 hole golf course, that may include locker rooms, spa, health and fitness center, golf and fitness related retail, restaurant and banquet facilities, business center, lodging.

This wording will be considered for action at the August 12 Planning Board meeting where they will presumably vote on it after a public hearing.

If you have ever been to one of these meetings you know that out of exhaustion and desperation  actions are sometimes taken  without having the time to figure out what they really mean.  I think that was the case here.  The supporters of Saratoga National just wanted to get something that would support SNGC passed.  There was really no time to ask about the compatibility of any such project in the conservancy or who and how the questions of the size of any future lodging or retail space would be resolved.  Where any new buildings would be located, etc.

Also, given the fact that SNGC has five out of the seven members of the Planning Board on their side, it is very possible that something entirely new may pop up at the August 12 meeting once their attorney, Michael Toohey decides where to go with all of this..

I would just finish by saying that Michael Toohey did not have a good night.  All his work in crafting the text amendment was exposed as being legally unsupportable.  How Toohey, who has specialized in real estate development could come up with such transparently, failing language (see my previous post about the text amendment) says how much politics and power have defined land use law in this town rather than sound planning and legal work.  This is not to say that Saratoga National may get an even better deal in the end.

Planning Board Work Shop On Text Amendment To Conservation District AKA Saratoga National Golf Course (The Short Version)

First, let me set the stage. This was supposed to be a “workshop” of the Planning Board about a text amendment to the city zoning ordinance for the conservation district sent by the city council for “advise.” It was not suppose to be about a specific project (har, har, har!)

As those of you who have been following this will know, there was supposed to have been a meeting between Mark Schachner who represents the city in land use questions and Michael Toohey who represents Saratoga National Golf Course to try to work out language. According to Mark Torpey, chair of the Planning Board this meeting never took place. He and Kate Maynard, the city planner, indicated it had been canceled due to concerns raised about the appropriateness of such a meeting. Thank Theresa Capazzola whose letter pointing out the problems of such a meeting apparently was effective. I posted her letter in an earlier blog.

I will give the short version of what happened and then go into more details for those of you who are interested in the blow by blow.

Torpey raised two questions about the specificity of the language in light of the fact that zoning changes are suppose to be broad and generic. Schachner concurred and said he had grave doubts about such an amendment holding up in court. He noted that it was quite clear that it addressed a very specific property which could be challenged as spot zoning.

Later, seeing that the text amendment was dead, Cliff Van Wagoner, to salvage the text amendment on behalf of the developer (my editorial comment) recommended removing all specificity from the text amendment. Gone were any reference to one hundred rooms for the hotel/clubhouse, the six lodges/cottages, the prohibition for dining facilities in the cottages, the 3000 foot setback of the property from the entrance, access to open space, and the fifty foot height limit.  Instead, the text amendment now has a definition for a clubhouse that is quite vague.

Here is the text that will be presented for a public hearing and vote by the Planning Board on August 12:

A structure or clustered group of structures associated with a full size 18 hole golf course, that may include locker rooms, spa, health and fitness center, golf and fitness related retail, restaurant and banquet facilities, business center, lodging.

How this will be implemented is totally unclear. Is it consistent with the comprehensive plan? Is it consistent with the conservation district and if not, is it a new “thing” that could go into the conservation district?

Will the Planning Board, when it gets to the site review stage have the authority to 1) determine how much lodging, 2) how much commercial development, 3) what a business center is and how large it can be, 3) where will these buildings be located, etc.?

Five of the seven members of the board were appointed by Mayor Johnson and they are clearly allies of Saratoga National Golf Course.   Let’s hope we never get to site review.

Who Is On “Your” Planning Board

Here they are.

Mark Torpey: Mr. Torpey is the planning board chair and was appointed by Mayor Yepsen.  His term expires on December 31, 2020.  He works for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.  He is the director of Clean Energy & Marketing for them.

From the few meetings that I have attended I have been impressed by Mr. Torpey’s fairness and thoughtfulness in both the substance of his remarks and the way he chairs the meetings.

Robert F. Bristol is the vice chair.  His term ends on December 31, 2019.  Mr. Bristol has a degree in landscape architecture and for many years managed a very successful firm here in Saratoga Springs.  I do not think terribly well of Mr. Bristol.  He reminds me of an ambitious, narcissistic, and pompous character out of a Jane Austen novel.  He was appointed by Mayor Johnson.  He is a reliable friend of the development community.

L. Clifford Van Wagner.  His term ends on December 31, 2018.  He was appointed by Mayor Johnson and previous to Mr. Torpey, chaired the Planning Board.  He is the pharmacy director at Wesley Nursing Home.  He was active in the Saratoga Springs Republican Party for many years including the period when his fellow Planning Board member, Tom Lewis, was chairman of the City Republican Party.  Van Wagner’s  family goes back three generations in the city.  He is connected with the good old boy network that ran this city for many years.   He unsuccessfully ran for mayor.  He is a reliable friend of the development community.

Tom L. Lewis.  Tom Lewis, was for many years, the chair of the Saratoga Springs Republican Party.  He was also the real estate manager for Stewarts.  He was appointed by Mayor Johnson and his term ends on December 31, 2016.  Stewarts… what can you say?  The empire of sprawl.  Think of him as a selfsatisfied minor villain out of a Sinclair Lewis novel.  You have to dig deep to find the comic in Mr. Lewis.

Howard Pinsley was appointed by Mayor Johnson and his term expires on December 31, 2017.  Mr. Pinsley was the CEO of Espey Industries and I believe is still on its board.  Espey industries is that industrial building just South of the Price Chopper strip mall on Route 50.  They do a lot of work for the military.  He is a reliable friend of the development community.

Dan Gaba.  Mr. Gaba was appointed by Mayor Johnson and his term expires on December 31, 2015.  He is a licensed real estate broker with Coldwell Banker.  What can you say?  Should a real estate broker be on a planning board?

Janet Casey.  Appointed by Mayor Yepsen with a term to end December 31, 2022.  Dr. Casey is a professor in the English Department at Skidmore.  She has an impressive vita in American literature.  She is quite new to the Planning Board.  Given her professional distance from the real estate industry there is reason to be optimistic about the role she will play.

Planning Board Workshop On Saratoga National Golf Course Text Amendment

The Planning Board will meet on Wednesday at 5:00 to discuss the wording of the text amendment being advocated by Saratoga National Golf Course.  At the previous meeting the board decided to have the attorney that the city uses for land use issues, Mark Schachner, meet with Michael Toohey, SNGC’s attorney to go over the wording of the proposed text amendment.  Having the city pay for its attorney to work with the developer’s attorney is not only very unusual, it boarders on the unsavory.  For an excellent explanation of this here is Capazzola Letter to Chairman Toohey On Lawyer Issue

I do not expect that the public will be allowed to speak at this meeting.  I will be attending and will report on what transpires.  In all likelihood, the Planning Board will be meeting on August 12 to formally decide on the amendment and the public will be given an opportunity to way in at that point.