A Breach In The City’s Greenbelt

This spring Michele Madigan joined with John Franck and Joanne Yepsen to vote to send a “text amendment” to the Planning Board for an advisory opinion (Analsys Of Full Text Amendment). The text amendment was drafted by the Saratoga National Golf Course in a third attempt to move their plans for an expanded golf resort forward this time by getting a change in the text of the zoning law to re-define “clubhouse” to encompass their expanded plans for development on their property.

Commissioner Michelle Madigan, by her own public statements, characterized the text amendment that she voted to send to the City Planning Board as flawed.  She has told the public that she would send her comments regarding said flaws to the Planning Board, presumably informed by her own constructive criticism and questions. Unfortunately, this never happened.  But why, one might ask, would an elected official send something that she deemed to be flawed to the Planning Board for advisement in the first place?  Logic would suggest that one would either (a) draft the text so as to accurately reflect what was wanted before it went to the Planning Board, or (b) at least send a separate statement to the Planning Board, making clear what the perceived difficulties in such a document are. Commissioner Madigan did neither, leaving the Planning Board to either divine her reservations about the proposal, or simply proceed without critical comment of an official whose vote will help determine the future of our greenbelt.

Commissioner Madigan appeared to believe that the problems posed by the ludicrous proposed re-definition of a “clubhouse” (a one hundred room hotel, a retail building, and a set of “guest lodges’) would be balanced by a large donation of land by the developer.  While many of my friends saw even this as unacceptable, I remained open to it.

Unfortunately, as the process unfolded there appeared to be no legal way to ensure that the land donation could be realized.  Making approval of the “clubhouse” text amendment contingent upon the granting of an easement appears to risk violation of something know as “contract zoning”. The courts have historically frowned upon such a quid pro quo arrangement between a developer and a municipality. If an easement citing  specific acreage on the SNGC property were included in the text amendment it could be seen as spot zoning (changing  the zoning for a specific property Resource To Understand Spot Zoning) which would make it subject to legal challenge.  Thus the plan to get SNGC to agree to “save the greenbelt” by designating specific easements for perpetuity has become snagged  in a legal briar patch .

I have always liked and respected Commissioner Madigan.  Based on my experiences with her, I suppressed my growing unease with this development proposal in light of her continual assurances that I would be fully satisfied with the outcome.

Tom Newkirk and Kevin Bette  are the principals in the company that owns Saratoga National Golf Course.  At the last Planning Board meeting on July 22 I engaged them in conversation about what their plans were for achieving an easement.  It became apparent that at this late date, they had no plan.  When I asked about the golf course being included in the easement, Mr. Newkirk told me that he doubted his investors would be happy with that.

I followed up with an email exchange with Kevin Bette.  Note the date, July 24.  Here is his email in its entirety.

From:    Bette, Kevin [KBette@firstcolumbia.com]

Sent:     Friday, July 24, 2015 9:59 AM

To:          John Kaufmann

Cc:          Thomas Newkirk; Toohey Michael

Subject:               Re: Easement

John, It was a pleasure to meet you the other night at the City Planning Board meeting. I thank you for your interest in our property and for your passion in seeing the Community developed in a sustainable manner.  We very much share your passion for Saratoga and would be delighted to meet with you and some of the other concerned citizens in an effort to explore the best possible way to utilize our property for the long term benefit of the City.

As I mentioned, we are in the very early planning stages, therefore, we don’t have any formal legal work completed for you review. What we are trying to do is listen to the various government boards and interested groups and formulate a solid long term plan for the large tract that we purchased and operate our highly regarded business from.

It would be helpful if you, and other concerned Citizens, could share with us your vision for our vast property so that we can incorporate any of your suggestions that have great value. Also, if you play Golf it would be very helpful to get your insight on how we can make the golfing experience better and reflect the incredible recreation heritage of our great City.

Thank you,


Reading that, I became alarmed.   I asked to meet with Commissioner Madigan.  At our meeting she assured me that she was unwavering in her commitment to the issue of easements that would protect the public’s interests in preservation of the greenbelt.  I asked her if she would submit a statement to my blog so that everyone would know where she stood.  In light of all the work being devoted both by those who support the project and those who oppose it, her position might potentially prove to be key.  Since Commissioners Scirocco and Mathiesen opposed the project, if Saratoga National could not meet her requirements, the project would be dead.

When I received her statement I was stunned (Madigan Statement on SNGC).  Rather than the very strong language she had been using with me for months, it contained virtually no substance.

The current text being proposed by Saratoga National Golf Course would in effect, grant them their “clubhouse” while deferring the question of public access/easement until the site plan special permit review.  There is absolutely nothing that provides any guidance about how much land would be involved in any easement proposal, nor what the terms would be.

A memo from Attorney Toohey to the Planning Board  reveals how important it is to clarify any easement questions before SNGC gets its desired zoning change. In the memo, and I paraphrase here, Toohey notes on behalf of his client that any easement protections would end if his client no longer had a golf course.  So as far as SNGC is concerned, they seemingly have already decided that, whatever they may end up putting into the easement proposal (after they get their “clubhouse.”), they have no interest in assuring its permanence.

This city has a long history of entertaining dubious assurances offered by developers.  The idea that the city should, in effect, grant Saratoga National Golf Course their “clubhouse” and hope that, when the site plan comes, the plan will be generous to the city and to its public begs credibility and, at a minimum, calls for skepticism.

Here is the current Kafka-like wording from the text amendment:

“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.”

To appreciate this sentence, the readers should know that the original wording for this had the word “may” and attorney Toohey changed the word to “shall” as a result of his conversations with the city Planning Office.  This “concession” by Toohey in light of the fact that any easement will only be “considered” gives one some feeling for the Alice in Wonderland world in which this is all taking place.

I therefore emailed Commissioner Madigan the following:

Your statement is quite vague about what your expectations are regarding the scope of any easement and how and when instituting any easement would be accomplished.  This is not surprising given that the entire process is so completely unorthodox and any explicit addressing of an easement comes with legal risks. 

In fact, it is quite unlikely that it will be possible to construct  any firm and enforceable language that would define the meaning and the physical scope of the “public access” (whatever that may mean) as part of the text amendment to our zoning law.  The solution proposed by Saratoga National Golf Course is to have the definition they seek for their “clubhouse” approved now and have the Planning Board consider the issue of “public access” later when they get to the site plan/special permit process.  My question to you is this:

“Is it acceptable to you to wait until the site review/special permit process to determine and implement any easements.”

Commissioner Madigan responded in an email that she saw no need to answer my question and that she is comfortable with her original statement (Madigan No More To Say).  As I noted earlier, I have always liked Commissioner Madigan.  I am simply at a loss to understand her apparent faith in Saratoga National Golf Course.  I hate to think that she may become the vote that gives away the city’s greenbelt.

Dr. Frank Archangelo, Community Services Board Chair: So Much For Transparency And Openness

The only information on the Saratoga County Community Services Board is a one line item on the county government website that states when their meetings are held.  There is no list of who is on the board or even where they meet.

According to their website they were to meet today, July 29, 2015.  Last week I sent an email to its chair, Dr. Frank Archangelo, with documents that indicated  the failure of the county to follow the law in hiring the mental health director, the county’s violation of the law in usurping the Community Services Board’s oversight duties, and the obvious and gross flaws in the county’s investigation of mis-management at the clinic.  I asked that the documents be shared with the members of his board.

He emailed me back on Friday indicating he would fully respond to me on the following Monday.  When I had not heard from him on Monday, late that afternoon I followed up asking when I might get his reply.  He then sent me an email in which he stated that the Board does not meet in August so he could follow up with the board in September.  He apparently overlooked the fact that there was a board meeting scheduled for that Wednesday.  When I asked about the Wednesday meeting he told me that they required two days notice to attend the meetings and three days notice to speak. Furthermore, if I were to speak, I would only be allowed five minutes and there would be no discussion.

I responded by asking why it was that they required two days notice to simply attend their meeting.  I also asked for a copy of the bylaws which would presumably set this requirement.  According to my earlier FOIL to the county, there are no bylaws (Why not ask anyway?).  I also asked whether I could expect that the members of the board would receive my original email prior to or at the meeting.

He emailed back stating that two days notice was a “courtesy” but that he would allow me this one time to both attend and address the board.  He did not provide me with a copy of the alleged bylaws.  He did not indicate when he planned to share my email with the board.  He did however state that he would no longer be responding to emails to his personal email account.  He did not provide me with any other email address that I might use to contact him.

The meeting was to be held at 4:00 pm at the Mental Health Center.  When I arrived a few minutes before 4:00 I was told that the meeting had been canceled.  I later learned from a reliable source that the alleged reason that the meeting had been canceled was due to a lack of a quorum.  I found out that Archangelo was in the meeting room.  There are a number of troubling questions about this canceled meeting.  First, since there are no bylaws, what is the basis of a quorum?  It is also passing strange that Archangelo knew there would be no quorum before the meeting was to start.  If the board had been previously polled and he knew that there would be no meeting, why was he there in the meeting room?  There may be some plausible reason for this but since Dr. Archangelo will not respond, I will never know.

So I have no way knowing when the next meeting will be or whether he has provided the board with the documents in my email.

 I attach here the emails and the statement I would have made to the board which I believe are all courteous.

  Emails From Archangelo

Statement I would have made to CSB:

I come before you with an appeal. I am sure that the members of this board who all treat the mentally ill came to their profession out of a deep sense of services and caring.   Who else would better understand the terrible toll that mental illness has on its victims and on the loved ones around them. The fact that you volunteered to be on the community services board speaks to your dedication.

I do not envy you. The document I have circulated among you raises grave concerns about the violation of New York State law as regards the manner in which Dr. Michael Prezioso was hired, the inappropriate interference of our county government in the management of the clinic, and the on-going confusion about the role of your board. It also quotes a psychiatrist who was employed by the clinic that at a minimum should alarm you and motivate you to determine the extent of its truth, especially in light of the obvious flaws in the investigation carried out by the county into this matter.

I can only appeal to you as human beings who know how important the effective running of our clinic is to ask for the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene to meet with you in order to determine what your role should be and to provide you with the training and technical assistance to fulfill your responsibilities.

Thank you for listening to me.

I leave it to my readers to judge Dr. Archangelo’s behavior in this matter.  As for me, I think it  fits right into culture of both the County and the local Mental Health Clinic.

Sarah Burger Petitions For Working Family Party Primary Ruled Invalid

Sarah Burger had submitted a petition to the Saratoga County Board of Elections which would have required a primary for the Working Family Party line.  Previously, Chris Mathiesen had received their endorsement and will appear on their line in November.

In a letter to Eileen Finnera signed by both the Republican and Democratic Board of Elections Commissioners, they ruled that because the petition did not identify the members of the Committee To Fill Vacancies, the petition is invalid.  Since only Mathiesen has submitted valid petitions for this office, there is no one to run against him in a primary so there will be no primary.

Here is a copy of the letter Board of Elections Letter

The purpose of the committee to fill vacancies is to select an alternative candidate if the person on the petition declines to run or becomes incapacitated.  The courts have been fairly lenient about errors on the petitions but leaving these names out is considered to be a “fatal error.”  Here is a further explanation on committees to fill vacancies. Discussion of Committee on Vacancies

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.