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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 11, 2008

New Scotland not on target

By Melissa Hale-Spencer and Saranac Hale Spencer

NEW SCOTLAND — Still in disarray, the town board here is drafting a second extension for a commercial building moratorium.

Members of a committee that were supposed to advise the board on new zoning have submitted different reports after three of the committee’s members resigned. In fact, town board members indicated last night during a heated three-hour meeting in a packed hall, that they will accept reports from anyone.

A fortnight after the majority of the committee resigned, the remaining two members drafted a law and submitted it to the town board on Monday.

“Mike Naughton and I finished the committee’s work,” said Elizabeth Kormos, who co-chaired the Commercial Zoning Advisory Committee.

The pair submitted a lengthy report recapping the committee’s work as well as the draft of a law that would limit the size of a shopping center to 100,000 square feet.

A mall more than seven times that size was proposed in the spring, leading to widespread public outcry.  In May, the town board adopted a six-month moratorium on commercial building — which was then extended to March 1 — and appointed a committee to recommend ways to realign zoning with the 1994 comprehensive land-use plan.  The board is now drafting a six-month extension to the moratorium.

The zoning came to public attention when Sphere Development Group of central New York began considering the former Bender melon farm at routes 85 and 85A for a large-scale retail center with Target as an anchor store. Each member of the town board selected one person for the zoning committee. Kormos was chosen by Councilman Douglas LaGrange and Naughton was chosen by Supervisor Thomas Dolin.

Kormos, a real-estate broker, was a partner with a team that proposed a smaller-scale retail development on the Bender melon farm property in 2006; that offer was rejected. When CZAC Chairwoman Roselyn Robinson charged Kormos with a conflict of interest, the charge was to be brought before the town’s board of ethics, which was found to be non-existent.

In the aftermath, Robinson resigned, saying the process had been “tainted.” The process, she wrote in her letter of resignation, “has taken on a political aspect that defeats the purpose of having an independent advisory board.”

Robinson had been appointed by Councilwoman Deborah Baron.

Cynthia Elliott, appointed by Councilman Richard Reilly, and John Biscone, appointed by Councilwoman Margaret Neri, also resigned.

Robinson and Elliott each submitted their own reports to the board this week.  Reilly said at last night’s town board meeting that he’d like to hear from all five of the members, or former members, on the committee.

“I am going to take everyone’s report under serious consideration,” he said.  Edie Abrams, a member of New Scotlanders 4 Sound Economic Development — a group of citizens that formed in opposition to the Sphere development — pointed out that Reilly had said earlier that he would discount any information from Kormos due to the alleged conflict of interest. 

Reilly responded, “To be frank, I will.”

“I had done a lot of analysis,” Kormos told The Enterprise, when asked why she and Naughton proceeded on their own. “I felt it was important the town board see it and consider it.”

She conceded, “This is not a report from CZAC. It’s a report from Mike Naughton and Liz Kormos…We took the work we contributed to the committee and put it together. We don’t have CZAC status,” she said, concluding, “It was an advisory committee.”

“Nobody has disbanded CZAC,” Abrams said last night.

According to the document that created the committee, “The membership is limited to five (5) members.”  That means that there could be fewer than five, Abrams said.

“The CZAC committee was not disbanded,” Joseph Pofit said last night and suggested that the board appoint replacement members.  Pofit offered his name for consideration.

“I think you’re on very thin ice,” he told Reilly regarding the submission of reports from people who have resigned from CZAC.  “You still have a legal committee,” he said.

“So call it feedback,” Reilly responded.  “Don’t call it a report.”

“I’m satisfied with the existing report and the existing proposed law,” Dolin said of the work submitted by Kormos and Naughton.

LaGrange agreed that from what he had seen of the report and draft law, it looked good.  The committee is still viable, he said, and replacement members should be appointed.  But, LaGrange said, if CZAC remains a committee of two, it still constitutes a committee.

Reilly disagreed, Baron gave no concrete indication of her position, and Neri gave no direct answer as to her position on the issue of reappointment.  She did, though, defend the document that she drafted to form the committee, saying that it did not allow fewer than five members.

The law, drafted by Naughton, an attorney, imposes “maximum floor area limitations” of 50,000 square feet for individual retail or wholesale uses and a 100,000 square foot cap for grouped retail or wholesale trade, including shopping centers.

“This is as much retail as we can support from a demographic standpoint,” Kormos told The Enterprise. “Analysis shows if you built a regional draw…it would likely fail because we have too much retail in the area.”

Sphere had initially proposed a 700,000-square-foot retail center but managing partner Gregory Widrick told The Enterprise in October that Sphere would be willing to scale back the plan to half that. Sphere maintains that it needs a 137,000-square-foot anchor store to make the development viable, but could scale back the plans for the whole mall. “We could keep it under the 350,000- to 400,000-square-foot range,” Widrick said.

Kormos said that Sphere itself “conducted none of this analysis” but Target did. She went on, “Target is basically trying to put others out of business — Wal-Mart and every local little business. That’s usually what goes out first,” she said, citing stores like Peter Harris in Delmar. “It couldn’t survive.”

Kormos’s report

Kormos said that, in 2006, she had proposed a 25,000-square-foot retail center. “I did not do this analysis two years ago,” she said of the report she submitted to the town board on Monday. “It’s all brand-new analysis with verifiable sources, with published articles and published studies.”

She pointed out on Tuesday that the time frame would be tight if the town board wanted to adopt the law before the moratorium expired on March 1. It has to be reviewed by both the Albany County and town planning boards and put before the public for hearing.

Her report concludes that the town’s comprehensive plan is clear in stating that “large, regionally drawing retail development projects should not be permitted in town.”

It further states, “The CZAC workshop participants expressed a preference for a retail building cap of 50,000 square feet or smaller and a fixed cap for retail development for both individual stores and for the commercial district. Workshop participants’ biggest concern was to preserve the small town character. They want a “main street” feel rather than standard roadside strip center development.”

The report says that retail and wholesale use affect communities more than other commercial use such as offices, generating more traffic and requiring more parking and causing an increase in crime.

“Studies of the total economic impact on cities and towns has shown that retail development costs cities more in public services than it generates in revenue,” the report says. “While retail created a net tax loss, office and industrial development, as well as some types of residential, produced a net benefit.”

The report goes on to cite a 2004 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that showed the minimum population requirement within a five-mile radius for national retailers starts at 100,000. The population in a five-mile radius of the New Scotland commercial zone is only about 55,000 so it would have to nearly double to meet the minimum, the report says.

Part of Kormos’s report includes a market feasibility study that shows current limits on development based on demographics and local shopping patterns. It says that, at most, only 36,000 square feet of a new Target or Wal-Mart type of retail store could be supported in New Scotland based on a community draw area with a 10-minute drive.

“The population in this 10 minute drive area would have to more than double to support a store of 100,000 square feet, which would translate into approximately 18,000 new homes,” the report says. “Such population is not projected within the near future.”

The study also says that a retail store designed to draw from a regional population would not be viable since there are too many other regional drawing stores within a 15-minute driving distance.

The report also includes a study on grocery store use that says the New Scotland commercial zone could support from 16,000 to 46,000 square feet of additional new grocery store space.

For the short term, the report recommends the 50,000-square foot cap for stores and the 100,000-square-foot cap for parcels the report suggests further zoning revisions for the long term. For the long term, it says the community “overwhelmingly supports” mixed-use development in the commercial zone.

Asked if it might now make sense to leave farmland open and revitalize, for example, the village of Voorheesville as a retail center, Kormos replied that the 14-year-old master plan is basically sound. “It needs to be a little bit tweaked,” she said, “but, for 1994, it was really ahead of its time.” She said updated language should be included on sustainability and energy efficiency.

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