Deirdre O’Dwyer-Ladd appointed Deputy Commissioner of Finance for the City of Saratoga Springs

[JK: I received this press release from the city Department of Finance]

Saratoga Springs, NY — Commissioner of Finance, Michele Madigan, is pleased to announce the appointment of Deirdre O’Dwyer-Ladd as the Deputy Commissioner of Finance effective January 1, 2020.  Deirdre’s academic background touts a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Vermont and an MBA from the University of Colorado.

Her 25-year career has spanned a variety of industries including banking, corporate retail, academia, sales, and advertising.  For years, Deirdre has also worked with non-profit organizations to help their strategic planning, marketing and mission alignment. Yet, many of you know Deirdre as an active community volunteer, mother of three, with a strong passion for our City.

Since moving to Saratoga Springs with her husband, Michael in 1998, Deirdre has sat on numerous volunteer boards, city and school committees, and grassroots organizations, earning respect amongst her colleagues and peers.  Deirdre is also mom to sons Jack, Declan, and Patrick.

In 2007, Deirdre was recognized by the Mayor of Saratoga Springs for her local leadership and fundraising initiatives.  In 2011, she was elected to the Saratoga Democratic Committee and, in 2015, she was honored by the Prevention Council of Saratoga County for her years of dedicated service and commitment. 

“Positive economic development often stems from fiscally sound, strategic and collaborative, community development stated Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan, I am confident that Deirdre’s proven thought-leadership will be a true asset to our city and will help promote the Finance Department’s many transformational projects”.

“Politics runs in Deirdre’s family and seems to be in her heart and soul” stated Madigan.  Deputy O’Dwyer-Ladd is the granddaughter of Paul O’Dwyer who was civil liberties lawyer and heavily involved in NYC politics for much of his life serving as New York City Council President and was the NYC representative to the United Nations.  His brother was Mayor of NYC, William O’Dwyer, and Paul’s youngest son (Deputy O’Dwyer-Ladd’s uncle) Brian O’Dwyer also a civil liberties lawyer in NYC was appointed the Commissioner of the United States National Commission of UNESCO by Unites States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  Commissioner Madigan further stated “Deputy O’Dwyer-Ladd will work hard for the City of Saratoga Springs and further propel its prosperous future”  

Hospital Rezoning: The Strange World Of SEQR And The Inevitable Litigation That Will Follow

Before the City Council could act at its December 23 meeting on the proposed rezoning called for by the Comprehensive Plan (which included the controversial Hospital parcel) the Council had to complete the State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) process. The process involves answering a series of questions that are meant to determine whether or not a proposal will require a more extensive environmental study before approval.

The SEQR process is really designed to address actual building proposals. The requirement that zoning changes had to go through the SEQR process created the classic situation of trying to fit a round peg in a square hole.

The SEQR form is structured as a series of questions with boxes to check for the answers yes or no. Here is an example (the last question on the form):

† A. This project [JK: Emphasis added] will result in no significant adverse impacts on the environment, and, therefore, an environmental impact statement need not be prepared. Accordingly, this negative declaration is issued.

Part III Item A

Both Commissioners Peter Martin (who is an attorney) and John Franck commented on the repeated use of the word “project” in the questions on the form. There is no specific “project” under consideration by the Council. City Attorney, Vince DeLeonardis, explained to the Council that for purposes of dealing with the zoning changes before them, the word “project” should be understood to mean the zoning changes on the map they were to vote on.

Poorly crafted legislation results in situations like this.

After considering each SEQR question separately the Council unanimously agreed that the zoning changes called for by the Comprehensive Plan would have no negative environmental impact ( a double negative known as “neg dec”) .

A confused public might rightly ask, how is this possible since the rezoning will allow the Hospital’s project to move forward. On its face it seems axiomatic that a project of this magnitude would seem to inevitably impact the environment.

The answer is that the Council was not considering an actual project that would involve architectural plans, and specifics about lighting, drainage, etc. Zoning simply determines what kinds of uses will be allowed on particular parcels of land and this was the only issue under consideration at the Council meeting. The specifics of what any project proposed for that parcel may actually look like are unknown so any discussion of details of what might be constructed would be entirely speculative.

In stating his opposition to the zoning changes before the Council John Franck claimed the Hospital had a “plan” calling for constructing a building larger than the White House on the parcels under consideration for a zoning change.

It is important to understand, however, that while the proposed zoning change that was before the Council allowed for a medical office building, it did not speak to the issue of what kind of building will actually be built.

Theoretically the building could be some small office that would have a tiny footprint with negligible impact on anything. Of course this is not what the Hospital has in mind but the central issue here is that whatever facility the Hospital would like to construct will have to go before the city’s Planning Board for what is called site plan review which will include another SEQR process.

It will be in the “site plan review” process by the Planning Board that all facets of the actual Hospital project will be presented and scrutinized. The Hospital will have to convince the Planning Board that it can build its idea of a medical office building while mitigating the many potential negative impacts such a structure might have on the areas around it,.

As someone who has endured too many Planning Board meetings, there actually has been on the rare occasion a case of the Planning Board telling a developer that their proposal was too big to be accommodated by the plot on which it would sit.

So the motion crafted by the City Attorney and adopted by the Council on December 23 took great pains to state that the Council had no actual proposal for any site before them. The motion noted that any actual development on any of the parcels that were to be rezoned (there were eighteen total with new zoning) would be subject to a further SEQR process when and if landowners pursued development.

John Franck: “I missed it.”

Commissioner of Accounts John Franck, in his remarks explaining why he would vote no on the rezoning proposals before the Council, went on at some length that the battles over Saratoga National Golf Course’s desire to be allowed to build a hotel in the greenbelt and other major development proposals back in 2015 had resulted in the Comprehensive Plan Committee being blind to the impact of the zoning sought by the Hospital.

John mentioned several times his regret that he had missed the controversial nature of the Hospital issue himself and claimed other Council members had missed this as well when they adopted the Comprehensive Plan in 2015.

While it is undoubtedly true that people who would subsequently oppose the rezoning originally missed it, the issue has been front and center now since 2015 when the hospital applied for a Planned Unit Development to the Council as a means to allow for their expansion. The PUD died because Joanne Yepsen, Mayor at the time, and John recused themselves.

Interestingly a Planned Unit Development in a way combines both the zoning and the actual project in one package for consideration by the Council. In the case of a PUD, a developer proposes that a parcel be used for a particular purpose and presents the actual plans for the structures that will be built on that land. This provides the City Council wide latitude and control over a project. It is a two edged sword as this degree of flexibility in terms of what can be done is also potentially subject to abuse.

In fact, this has been the vehicle for previous expansions by Saratoga Hospital and it had attempted to go this route for developing its proposed medical offices back in 2105.

A subsequent effort by Chris Mathiesen, Public Safety Commissioner at the time, to block the Hospital’s plans by changing the part of the Comprehensive Plan that would allow for the Hospital’s expansion died . At the time, John offered no support to Chris and recused himself from the discussion and voting. John has not until recently raised concerns about the Hospital’s plans and has not pressed for a reconsideration of the Comprehensive Plan.

It seems to me pretty obvious that since the Comprehensive Plan that included the rezoning of property for the Hospital’s expansion was adopted in 2015, the Council has become acutely aware of the Hospital expansion issue. The fact that he and others may have originally missed it has been most clearly corrected. One would have had to be living under the proverbial rock to be unaware of the issues today. The members of the city council are fully aware that they have the authority to change the comprehensive plan and they have chosen not to.

The Hospital has successfully made their case as evidenced by the four to one vote approving the zoning change.

The attorney for the neighbors has told area newspapers that she believes there were legal flaws in the process so it is reasonable to expect that the neighbors will challenge the city’s interpretation of the SEQR along with other as yet unknown issues in court.

Robin Dalton, Incoming Public Safety Commissioner, Appoints Eileen Finneran As Her Deputy

[I received this press release]

Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner-Elect Robin Dalton Appoints Eileen J. Finneran as Deputy Commissioner

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NEW YORK (December 23, 2019) – Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner-Elect Robin Dalton announced today that Eileen J. Finneran has been named Deputy Commissioner of Public Safety for the next Saratoga Springs City Council term – which will begin on New Year’s Day, January 1, 2020.

“I proudly ran, and won election, as a person who was an early adopter of the concept of ‘One Saratoga.’ This appointment applies that concept,” Commissioner- Elect Dalton stated. “Eileen brings something unique to the table: Not just a wealth of experience, but specific experience with the position she will be assuming.”

Ms. Finneran has served as Deputy Commissioner under two previous Commissioners of Public Safety (Chris Mathiesen and Ron Kim,) as well as Deputy to Mayor Valerie Keehn. Her background also includes significant experience with the Saratoga Springs’ Zoning Board of Appeals, the New York State Legislature, local educational institutions, in addition to extensive volunteer work.

“We have an ambitious agenda in Public Safety, and in the City,” Commissioner- Elect Dalton continued, “and I want the best people on my team who will help to get us there. I’m delighted to appoint Eileen.”

“By accepting this appointment, Eileen Finneran is reaching across party lines today as much as I am. We both do so in the belief that the City will be better as a result. That, to me, is “One Saratoga.” Commissioner-Elect Dalton concluded. “Thank you, Eileen, for agreeing to continue to serve our City.”

Rezoning Map Including Hospital Parcels Expected To Pass

Commissioner of Public Safety Peter Martin has told the Times Union that he will be voting to approve the proposed rezoning map that will come before the City Council Monday evening. He cited the requirement that the city’s zoning should adhere to the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

Mayor Kelly and Commissioners Scirocco and Madigan have already announced their support.

It is expected that the neighbors of the Hospital’s parcel up for rezoning will challenge the changes. Zoning law provides that if a certain percentage of the property owners abutting a property challenge a zoning change to it, it requires a super majority to pass. In the case of Saratoga Springs this would require four Council votes, and it is clear that the votes are there.

Commissioner of Accounts John Franck told the Times Union that he will oppose the change. He cited the impact a project of the scale the Hospital is expected to build would have on the neighborhood. He also asserted that there are other options which would allow the Hospital to meet its goals.

I contacted John Franck and we discussed his concerns. He was especially worried about the geography of Myrtle Street. He argued that the street is narrow to begin with and that existing utility poles will make addressing this problem particularly difficult.

As adhering to the Comprehensive Plan was a compelling argument for Commissioner Martin, I asked John why he did not support Chris Mathiesen’s effort to amend the Plan back in 2016. He cited what he believed was his need to recuse himself because he provides services to two of the neighborhood associations impacted by the change.

I asked him why he had not more recently brought the issue of amending the Plan to the Council. He felt that any effort to do this would not have gotten a second. He also asserted that he was in a catch 22 situation because if the Council separated the vote for rezoning the Hospital parcels from the other zoning changes he would have to recuse himself.

The Comprehensive Plan Is Owned By The City Council

I think it is important to revisit the process of how the Comprehensive Plan is created. The Comprehensive Plan draft is developed by a committee appointed by the Mayor. Traditionally, the bulk of appointments are made by the city’s Mayor who usually allows members of the Council to make some additional appointments.

Writing a draft of such a document is a major undertaking. In the case of the last plan it was a particularly long and contentious process. Many of the members were appointed by Mayor Scott Johnson. These represented the traditional business and real estate interests. Todd Shimkus, the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, and developer Sonny Bonacio were representative of those he chose. Michele Madigan used her two appointments to place representatives from Sustainable Saratoga on the committee and Chris Mathiesen made similar appointments.

It was no surprise that the committee was riven by conflict and its deliberations dragged on for months. In fact it continued into Mayor Joanne Yepsen’s tenure. She replaced Johnson’s chair with Geoff Bornemann who had been the city’s planner and who was active in Sustainable Saratoga.

In the end, the bitterness of the divisions was so deep that there was never a vote on the final document and a group of the committee, including Mr. Shimkus, disavowed the entire plan.

Two of the major controversies were over expansions sought by Saratoga National Golf Course and development plans put forward for property on the eastern plateau owned by Bobby D’Andrea who had been a member of the New York Assembly for many years.

While there had been consensus on many of the elements of the Comprehensive Plan, there were a host of items such as the ones associated with Saratoga National and D’Andrea that were unresolved. This whole messy package was dumped on the City Council. In the end the City Council basically adopted the items that had been agreed on by the group and dismissed the controversial ones.

This debacle in its own way, highlighted the fact that in the end the Comprehensive Plan is a child of the City Council. While the Council depends heavily on the work of the Comprehensive Plan Committee, the Council remains the essential player. The Mayor enjoys much more power over the committee appointments, but whatever a committee dominated by the Mayor may produce, it is the Council that finally votes on the plan.

It Has Always Come Down To The Council

It is unclear to me why the critics of the Hospital never pressed the Council to revise the Comprehensive Plan to address their concerns. The law seems fairly clear that the city zoning should adhere to the Comprehensive Plan. Therefore defeating the zoning change would seem to necessitate changing the part of the Comprehensive Plan calling for the change.

In the end, for those of us who have observed this long process, the critics have never been able to muster the support of a majority of the Council. Their failure is perhaps reflective of the situation that most of the voters in the city are either ignorant of what is transpiring, don’t care about the issue, or support the Hospital. The critics would like to believe that somehow the Hospital has bought the Council by making campaign donations. Wendy Liberatore, the reporter for the Times Union, has done her best to promote this narrative. Pretty much every story on the Hospital issue she writes includes the fact that the Hospital’s attorney, Matt Jones, contributed to their campaigns. The fact is that he gave money to John Franck as well as everyone else on the Council and has been an active contributor to City Council candidates for years including former Mayor Joanne Yepsen.

It is my own belief that the four members of the Council who I anticipate will be voting for the zoning changes Monday night will be doing so not only because they believe they are required to because of the provisions in the Comprehensive Plan, but also because they believe the changes are in the best interest of the city as a whole. In the end, though, that is simply my opinion.

Monday night, the Council can be expected to approve the zoning change that will affect the Hospital. The neighbors, I expect, will resort to the courts. It will drag on and sometime in the future we will all find out if the Hospital will actually be able to build its medical office building.

City To Vote At Special Meeting On Zoning Map That Would Allow For Saratoga Hospital's Medical Office

The City Council is convening a special meeting for Monday, December 23, 2019, at 6PM at the city Rec Center on Vanderbilt Ave. to vote on the proposed zoning map that will be part of the Unified Development Ordinance. The map includes the controversial rezoning of land on which Saratoga Hospital hopes to construct a medical office building.

As people who follow this blog know, I support the zoning change that will allow for the Hospital’s epansion.

This has not been a happy process. The neighbors of the parcels whose zoning would be changed have for years enjoyed the undeveloped land that has served as a kind of passive, bucolic preserve. They understandably are upset about the loss of this resource. They also fear the potential impact this project may have on their neighborhood.

It is important to note that these parcels were already zoned for residential development so it was only a matter of time before this land would be built on.

It is hard to say what the final impact will be if the office building is built. It is reasonable to assume that there will be more traffic than the residential use would have generated. There is also concern about the impact of runoff from the project. The neighbors currently are plagued by flooding during some storms. There will also be the potential problem of the lighting that the extensive parking lot will require. The neighbors fear the project will adversely affect their property values. There is no question that the loss of the charming greenspace will likely have an impact. How much more an office building will affect this than a housing development is less clear.

The reality, though, is that the Hospital plays a critical role in the city. There is overwhelming support to enable the Hospital’s continued development of high quality health care into the future by situating in-patient services in a contiguous area.

The Role Of The Planning Board In Protecting The Neighbors

If the Hospital is successful in gaining the zoning change, it still will need to undergo site plan review by the Planning Board before it can put a shovel in the ground. It will be the Planning Board’s responsibility to address the many potential problems such a large project would entail.

It is hard to overestimate the significance of recent changes in the composition of the city’s land use boards. For many decades the Planning Board was comprised of representatives of the real estate industry and members of the business community who put the profits of land development before any consideration of the impact on quality of life in the community. People new to our city will not remember the incredible abuses that past Planning Boards have been responsible for.

To give readers some idea of the more extreme cases, I offer the attempt to put an oil storage facility on the banks of Loughberry Lake, the reservoir that provides drinking water to city residents. A man named Tom Healy was the principle owner of Congress Gas and Oil. I don’t know if the company still owns the Mobil Station at the corner of Route 50 and Route 9 but it did then. Their main storage of fuel oil and gasoline was situated in tanks directly beside Loughberry Lake. In the 1980’s the United States Environmental Protection Agency revamped the standards for oil storage tanks. Congress Gas and Oil had to remove the aging tanks that they had along the lake. They were required to seek approval from the Planning Board to construct new tanks there.

Mr. Healy was on the Planning Board at the time. It tells you a great deal about the culture of the Planning Board then that he would even apply to the Planning Board to construct the tanks. The Planning Board unanimously approved the application. That’s right, unanimously.

Tom McTygue, who was the Public Works Commissioner and as such responsible for protecting the city’s water, challenged the Planning Board. There was an amazing public mobilization against the proposal. The crowd that attended the next Council meeting was the most people I ever recall attending a Council meeting . They literally filled the halls of the first floor of City Hall.

Overwhelmed by the public response, the City Council adopted a resolution calling for the Planning Board to reverse its position. Again, emblematic of the culture of the Planning Board at the time, they refused. Yes, they refused. It was only after the City Council authorized a lawsuit against the Planning Board that they backed down.

The current Planning Board is reflective of the new culture of our city. They are far more sensitive to the public. They also have an outstanding chairman in Mark Torpey. My support for the Hospital has been made easier by the knowledge that he and the members of the current board will take very seriously the concerns that will be raised by the neighbors.

As an aside, at the last hearing for the Hospital rezoning, the vestiges of our unfortunate past were in evidence in the remarks of Cliff VanWagner. Mr. VanWagner served for fourteen years on the Planning Board and was its chairman during part of that tenure.

Mr. VanWagner was emblematic of the worst elements that dominated the Planning Board in the past.

If you are a neighbor of a proposed project, going before the Planning Board to voice concerns can be very stressful. Unfortunately the experience was often made even more stressful by Mr. VanWagner’s attitude. His body language and his stage whispers to his allies on the Board when residents were speaking reflected a not so subtle contempt for them and the issues they were trying to raise.

His comments to the City Council at the last hearing on the Hospital zoning were sadly consistent with this past behavior.

In his remarks he offered that if the neighbors had wanted to keep the land the Hospital had bought undeveloped they should have purchased it. He offered that the final plan put forward by the Hospital would “win the trust and confidence of most of the neighbors.” He told the Council and the public that his long history on the Planning Board had taught him that “…in most cases the fears of neighbors adjacent to a project rarely materialize after the project has been built…” He asserted “it just doesn’t happen.”

He went on to reference “an attorney that had addressed the Council.” The attorney he referred to was Michael Toohey. Mr. Toohey is probably the most successful land use attorney in the city. In all the years I have followed land use issues there has never been any space between Mr. Toohey and Mr. VanWagner. Mr. VanWagner could always be relied on to parrot whatever argument was put forward by Mr. Toohey on behalf of his client.

Mr. VanWagner’s remarks prompted me to reach out to the neighbors of the Beaver Pond Village, a project the Planning Board approved after a long and torturous process that included litigation. It may come as something of a surprise to Mr. VanWagner, but apparently the project has not caused those who opposed it to now embrace Beaver Pond Village.

While I fully support the Hospital, it is insulting to belittle the fears of the people who will be impacted by it.

Fortunately, Mr. VanWagner was not reappointed to the Planning Board when his term expired last year.