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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, January 15, 2009
By Jo E. Prout
NEW SCOTLAND After one defeated vote, personal hesitation, and crowd encouragement, town board member Deborah Baron Wednesday night voted for and helped pass, 3 to 2 a 50,000-square-foot retail size cap, ending months of conflict and deliberation in town.
Citizens rallied last year after Sphere Development proposed a 750,000-square-foot retail mall in the town’s commercial district, spurring a moratorium so new zoning could be put in place.
Last night, as a second vote was tied at 2 to 2, Baron remained silent.
“It’s not a black and white?” she asked.
After another hesitation, Baron said that she had been disappointed with the way information was disseminated. She also said as she surveyed the packed hall that she “appreciates everyone here.” While she waited longer to cast her vote, audience members encouraged her, asking her to vote “yes.”
“In my heart and my throat, I will vote yes,” Baron said. Her vote brought the crowd to its feet with cheers.
Supervisor Thomas Dolin, a Democrat, and board member Douglas LaGrange, a Republican, had proposed a law that incorporated the 50,000-square-foot retail individual building cap and the 100,000-square-foot retail shopping center cap proposed by Commercial Zoning Advisory Committee members Michael Naughton and Elizabeth Kormos.
Naughton and Kormos were the only two members of CZAC left when three other members resigned after charges that Kormos, a real estate broker, had a conflict of interest in the commercial zone.
Baron and board members Margaret Neri and Richard Reilly, all Democrats, said that they had not expected to vote on a cap law at the town board meeting Wednesday. Each expressed surprise that a law, drafted by Naughton, an attorney, was on the agenda.
Until Wednesday’s second vote, Baron had voted as a bloc with Reilly and Neri. The “triumverate” as some members of a grassroots group lobbying for the size cap labeled them, had reappointed the long-time planning board chairman on New Year’ Day, angering many in the crowd.
Neri said Wednesday that she had been prepared only to discuss the law.
“I never dreamed there could be a proposed law on the table,” she said. “I’m not in favor of voting on this law.”
“I did circulate it with the idea of voting on it in January,” Dolin said.
Reilly said that the law lacked nuances other municipalities have in their zoning laws, including room for incentives and community-impact analyses from possible developers.
“I would like to see us get it right,” Reilly said. Reilly, Neri, and Dolin are all lawyers.
“I was a little confused that it was sent as a law,” Baron said. She wanted to have additional free and open discussion, she said.
“It’s a tough issue. I think we’ve come a long way,” Baron said. She said that she could agree to a 50,000-square-foot cap, but that she wanted room in the law for other options.
“I’m trying to move the process along. The process is flexible,” Dolin said. “I’m trying to put this issue to bed.”
The standing-room-only crowd applauded Dolin.
“This is stitching a wound, not a Band-aid, Rich,” LaGrange said to Reilly. “We’re barely sustaining a Hannaford now in the Nichols’ Market. To say we have to have it all incorporated in a perfect law…I think is short-sighted, in a way.”
LaGrange said that the proposed law would go to the zoning and planning boards, and to the public.
“I thought the law was a bit skeletal,” Baron said about the lack of incentives in Naughton’s draft.
“I wouldn’t want to go up to the big-box level of 80,000 square feet just because they give us a park,” LaGrange, a farmer, said to applause and laughter, referring to Sphere’s proposal. “That wasn’t meant as a joke. We need to have the cap a hard cap.”
Neri and Reilly cited the small amount of commercially-zoned land in town at less than 2 percent, and partially refuted suggestions for mixed residential and commercial uses in the commercial district, as in Malta or the Glass Works Village in Guilderland, for which the town board recently passed a zone change.
“With so little commercial land in New Scotland, I’m cautious of mixed use,” Neri said, adding that a “pure commercial zone” should be reserved. “I’m a little nervous about that,” she said.
Both Reilly and Baron said that the town was close to settling on a zoning law. Reilly noted that a vote on a six-month extension to the current commercial building moratorium would be taken next month.
“Use 60 days to get the law right,” he said.
“I think this law is attractive and should be adopted,” Dolin said. “We are under a threat, and we are under a moratorium.” He suggested that other board members could propose a different law, but that this law would work.
Since the 1994 comprehensive land-use plan was written, Dolin said, “We’ve been procrastinating in this town.” He said that the plan had left “wide-open zoning.”
“This is one small step to correct this oversight,” he said to more applause.
Altering the law
LaGrange asked town’s attorney, L. Michael Mackey, if changes could be made to the law if it were adopted.
“I wouldn’t be comfortable, after a public hearing, changing from 50,000 to 70,000 square feet,” Mackey said. “You don’t want to adopt something procedurally incorrectly.”
“You’d be starting over,” said Roselyn Robinson, the former chairwoman of CZAC, who resigned from the committee and supported less restrictive zoning in the commercial district.
“The law can see changes over the next 10 years apparently what it takes around here. It’s just more procrastination,” Dolin said.
LaGrange and Dolin voted for the law, but Neri, Reilly, and Baron voted against it.
“The motion is defeated,” Dolin said matter-of-factly.
The crowd erupted and interrupted board members when Neri moved to submit all professional and committee reports to the planning board for its guidance in drafting a law.
Earlier, when she suggested sending the reports, the audience and Dolin said that two members of the seven-member planning board support big-box development, like that suggested by Cazenovia-based Sphere Development. Sphere executives have said they want to build a large-scale retail center with a 130,000-square-foot Target store as an anchor.
Resident Dean Sommer, a member of the grassroots group New Scotlanders 4 Sound Economic Development, asked the board if it could give an idea of when it might be able to decide on a similar law.
“We feel threatened. We’re a target,” he said.
“We’re so close,” Baron said. She wanted more time to adjust the proposed law “so we can all be comfortable,” she said.
“I think we’re close,” Reilly said. He wanted to work on the law until the February town board meeting, he said.
“Why kill it in committee like this?” Naughton asked the board. “Send it out.”
“It’s time for us to get this process taken care of,” agreed NS4SED founder Daniel Mackay. “Put your ideas up against Local Law I.”
One member of the audience pleaded with the board to get “at least three votes” to send it to a public hearing and zoning and planning boards.
Town attorney Mackey started to advise Baron that the board could schedule a public hearing on the law for several months past the time the board adopted it, but audience members interrupted, criticizing Neri for her motion, which did not receive a second.
Neri said that she wanted the commercial zone application process to require developers to provide an “enhanced review” according to specific applicants’ wishes.
NS4SED supporter Christine Galvin said that Neri and other board members were second-guessing paid and volunteer experts.
“I think you got what you asked for,” Galvin said of reports submitted by CZAC members and others.
Dolin again called for a vote on Local Law I, and LaGrange and Dolin voted for it, while Neri and Reilly voted against it.
After Baron cast the deciding vote, Mackey said that at least 60 days are needed before a public hearing is held. Town clerk Diane Deschenes said that the hearing should be held at the high school and that she should check its availability, but Dolin told her to set a date.
The public hearing will be March 25 at 6:30 p.m.
“My concern with this proposed law is that it does not comport with the goals and visions of the comprehensive plan,” Neri told The Enterprise. “It asks us to encourage and facilitate commercial development.”
The law “is reactive, prohibitive, and doesn’t address the question of ‘what do we do?’ ” she said.
Caps between 50,000 and 70,000, or up to 90,000 square feet would necessitate projects to have “enhanced, heightened scrutiny,” she said.
“The town of New Scotland got short-changed here,” Neri said. “If it had gone to the planning board…in the long run” it would have been better, she said.
LaGrange was pleased with the vote.
“It hasn’t been about keeping out Sphere. It’s been about fixing that zoning. Reconciling that zoning, period,” he said.
“This is a tremendous foundation to start addressing a lot of problems in our zoning…to get it into a process and move on in a productive manner,” LaGrange said.
“I think Debbie was the one member who was least open to a cap. She has shown her open-mindedness. I applaud her,” LaGrange said.