Planning Board Considers Request By City Center For A Subdivision

Mattt Jones represented the City Center at the planning board meeting. The purpose of his presentation was to get their approval to subdivide the Highrock lot.

I am not a city planner or attorney and while I think I understood the presentation, I invite any readers out there to correct me should I get any of this wrong.

According to Jones, a structure like the garage under our zoning must be positioned on the most active street that abuts the property. It must be placed fairly close to the street. I was lost by the numbers and do not know what the specific distance must be. Because the garage will be placed on the north side of the lot, it will not abut Lake Avenue which is the most active street and runs along the Southern most line.

In order to meet the zoning requirement the city center requested that the lot be subdivided into two parcels. The first parcel will abut Lake Avenue. The second parcel where the garage will be located will abut the first parcel. This makes mute the problem of the garage not being located on Lake Avenue since the parcel it will be on does not abut Lake Avenue.

The city would lease to the City Center each parcel individually. The length of the two leases will be different in order to allow the city greater latitude as to how to use the front lot in the future.

There followed a discussion about the fact that the City Center is pursuing their applications through the land use boards at the same time that an RFP has been issued that includes the same land.

Chairman Torpey had sent a query to the city council seeking some sort of assurance that it was ok to proceed with the City Center garage application in this light. He said he had no response. It was noted by a number of people at the planning board meeting that the City Council, when they issued the RFP had agreed that the City Center should continue with their land use applications.

An attorney representing the owners of the Mouzon House Restaurant challenged the Planning Board’s decision to entertain the subdivision application. He noted that it was being done for the sole purpose of getting around a zoning provision. He argued that the proper way to proceed was to seek a zoning variance. He asserted that this was a classic example of spot zoning. He also argued that the comprehensive plan called for a full study of the parking needs of the city and the development of a parking plan to address the needs of the city. He asserted that to go forward on this project prior to the completion of that plan was not in keeping with the comprehensive plan so that to grant a subdivision at this point would violate the comprehensive plan and be further proof of spot zoning.

At this point, Jennifer Leidig got up and addressed the Planning Board. She attacked the Planning Board for taking up this issue in August when people were on holiday or otherwise absorbed by other summer activities. To say that she implied that this was being done to force the project through would be something of an understatement. Ms. Leidig does not do nuance or subtlety. This occurred at approximate 10:15 at night after over three hours and with plenty left on the agenda. Board member Janet Casey was not pleased. She agreed with Leidig that it was August and then reminded Ms. Leidig that the members of the planning board were volunteering their time doing some very difficult work. She noted that some of the items before them were time sensitive due to the legal requirements and she made it crystal clear that at this late hour she did not welcome being lectured to.

Members of the Pedinotti family that own the Mouzon House Restaurant spoke to the Planning Board arguing that to go forward on the City Center application would serve to discourage developers who might be considering responding to the RFP for a mixed use project on the same site.

Sarah Burger (who was silent during the discussion on Saratoga National and who sat behind Mr. Newkirk, one of the owners of Saratoga National patting his back) spoke in opposition to the subdivision. She agreed with the Pedinotti attorney and with the statements of the Pedinotti family.

Matt Jones told the Planning Board that the decision to subdivide the lot came out of discussions with Steve Shaw, the city building inspector and that the approach had the building inspector’s support.

Mark Schachner told the board that they were required to entertain the application but that they were not required to make a decision that night.

The board again split. Mark Torpey told the members that he believed that the decision to subdivide should be combined with the site plan review and therefore put off. Janet Casey agreed with him.

It was apparent that the Johnson appointees wanted to approve it that night.

Mark Schachner then advised the committee that if they were going to pass it that night than they had to include in the resolution the criteria as set out in the zoning law as part of the resolution.

Kate Maynard was sent to get the appropriate supporting documents. By the time she returned it was after 11:30. Chairman Torpey recommended that they adjourn and have the staff work on the wording for the next meeting.


Planning Board Sends Advice To City Council: Predictably Bad

[The Planning Board Also Addressed The City Center’s Parking Plan.  I will post what happened with this tomorrow night]

On Wednesday night the Planning Board met and on the agenda was the request of the City Council for advice on a text amendment for the definition of golf clubhouse in the city’s greenbelt.

An entirely new text amendment appeared at the Planning  Board meeting from what the Board discussed at last week’s workshop.  Chairman Mark Torpey presented this new language as having come from Commissioner Michelle Madigan.  Mark Schackner, the attorney who specializes in land use issues for the city, interrupted Torpey saying that it was not from Madigan but that he had drafted it at the request of a council member who wanted language that would withstand a legal challenge.  Of note was that Schachner did not name the council member and the members of the council were courteous enough not to ask.   A good question to have asked is why the city was paying its attorney to work out language which was clearly on behalf of Saratoga National Golf Course.  This is but one of a long string of twisted logic and procedures that have plagued this process as the friends of Saratoga National have stretched every conceivable angle to assist them.

The amendment, a copy of which is linked here, has three parts to it.

  1. The first part is an amendment to the zoning code for the Rural Residential District (greenbelt) which would allow Golf Resorts with special use permits and site plan review.
  2. A new item in section 6 of the zoning regulations.  This section defines certain terms like Mobile Homes and Adult Book Stores.  In this case it takes most of what was in the text amendment that Schachner said were too specific and puts them in a new definition for something called a Golf Resort.  It includes things like “lodging facilities” and among those facilities are a structure with no more than 100 guest rooms and “freestanding structures with up to ten guest rooms and no associated kitchen facilities.”  If all this sounds familiar it is because it was all in the original text amendment.  It also included a requirement to “…dedicate no less than ___% of the ________land for open space purposes.”  The numbers were left blank for the planning board to fill in.
  3. An amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan that would specifically provide for a golf resort in the city’s RR1  district (greenbelt).

Chairman Torpey then opened the floor to the public for comment.  Attorney Michael Toohey then spent well over thirty minutes pitching the importance of his client’s plans. Interestingly he referred to his client as “the applicant” and proceeded to go through the proposal line by line and make comments like “we can agree to this” as though he were reviewing  a private contract between this client and the city.

I would like to whine to the readers of this blog that having to listen to Michael Toohey is the worst thing about doing this blog.  My issue here is not that I disagree with him, which I do, but that he is one of the worst speakers one has to endure at these meetings.  In a voice that is flat and that lacks any kind of interesting inflection, he laboriously and with little coherence rambled on about how great his client is and how everything they want to do adheres to the principles of the comprehensive plan.  No one ever asked him why, if what they want to do is consistent with the comprehensive plan that the same plan needs to be amended to allow the golf resort.  The poverty of his presentation was made particularly evident when the other two lawyers addressed the council later in the meeting regarding the City Center’s application for subdividing the parking lot along Highrock  Avenue.  In contrast to Toohey they were both clear and succinct in terms of the content of their arguments; spoke with clear voices that emphasized their key points, and were brief and to the point!   How Mr. Toohey is able to get all the top briefs on big land development jobs is a mystery to me because it is not based on his ability to make clear arguments.  Given that his original text amendment was discarded, it does not seem that his legal work is that impressive either.  Thank you for reading this rant.

Following his statement, the “friends of Saratoga National” on the Planning Board then made the appropriate sycophantic statements about how great Saratoga National is and why what they want to do is so great for the city.  Eventually Mark Schachner actually interceded to caution them that this is not supposed to be about a particular project or parcel and that they needed to desist in this line of discussion.  The clear import of his remarks was that they were exposing that this was in effect designed for one land owner which would make the changes subject to a suit over spot zoning.

What followed were the friends of Saratoga National in the audience who spoke on how great Saratoga National is.  They were apparently unmoved by Mr. Schachner’s advice.

Toohey then asked that the number of “standing buildings be increased from five to six” and Tom Lewis and Cliff Van Wagner promptly proposed that the document be amended to reflect this.

Mark Torpey then gave a very clear and thoughtful explanation as to why he could not support the changes.  He noted that the existing zoning limited land use to residential housing and inns which were limited to 25 rooms.  He noted that the existing zoning limited height to be 35 feet.  He further noted that the zoning allowed only 2 units per acre and that the acres to be considered for this rate were the ones left after all wetlands and other areas not suitable for building were excluded and that 50% of the land that was left was excluded.   He offered that it seemed quite clear that the proposal was utterly inconsistent with this.

He was supported by Janet Casey, the only other member of the Planning Board not appointed by Scott Johnson.

Cliff Van Wagner at this point felt the need, in light of Schachner’s warning, to make a long and dubious argument about how it was possible that someone might later purchase enough contiguous land from different owners to build a golfing resort in which case they would be bound by these new rules.  (I cannot believe that I sat through all this stuff for this blog).

We then had to listen to three of the four Johnson appointments repeat at length that all of this was consistent with the comprehensive plan.  No one had the bad taste to point out to them that Schachner wanted them to amend the comp plan to make what they want possible.

We also had to listen to Tom Lewis warn us about the sprawl that we could face if Saratoga National were to build McMansions out there.  He offered up the number fifty.  Torpey then noted that the rules (see above about the regulations for RR1 that minimize such development) would not allow such a large project and that such a declaration was a “red herring.”  Tom Lewis then said, “20, whatever!”

They then took up the question about what to put in for the percentage of the land that would have to be set aside for open space.  Toohey told them to put in 50%.  We were again subjected to a rambling discourse on how generous this was.  Torpey noted that it was impossible to make any determination of this given the existing data.  One thing was crystal clear, the promises offered about making everything but the twenty-five acres that the development was to be built on into an easement to perpetually be available to the public were gone.

It was, however, apparent that Saratoga National had the votes.  The vote was taken.

In the affirmative:

Tom Lewis (on the staff of Senator Marchione, past chairman of the Republican Party, and past land manager for Stewarts)

Cliff Van Wagner (past unsuccessful, Republican candidate for Commissioner Finance and past chairman of the planning board under Scott Johnson)

Dan Gaba, Realtor

Howard Pinsely of Espy Industries


Mark Torpey, employed by New York State Energy and Development Authority

Janet Casy, professor at Skidmore College

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.