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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, October 29, 2009
By Saranac Hale Spencer
NEW SCOTLAND The major political parties in town have spent nearly nothing in this election while the two committees that have sprung up on either side of the heated race have raised and spent thousands.
Traditional parties have become almost meaningless since this once-rural community has become divided over the future of development in town. Almost two years ago, Cazenovia-based Sphere Development sparked controversy when it proposed building a Target-anchored shopping center on the former Bender melon farm at the intersection of routes 85 and 85A and the debate has become the defining issue in this November’s election for two town board seats and the supervisor’s post.
The New Scotland Committee for Responsible Zoning, which supports Team New Scotland made up of Democrat Daniel Mackay and incumbent Republican Douglas LaGrange for town board and incumbent Democrat Thomas Dolin for supervisor is in favor of a 50,000-square-foot limit on the allowable size of a retail store. It has raised over $10,000 since forming about a month ago, according to the state’s board of elections. Additionally, each individual candidate has raised $2,000 to $3,000 since the summer.
New Scotland FIRST, a party line formed this summer, has three candidates, two of whom are on the Republican line. Roselyn Robinson and Timothy Stanton are running for town board New Scotland FIRST will be the only line on which Stanton, a Republican, will appear. And Michael Fields, who lost the New Scotland FIRST line through a court challenge, is running for supervisor on the Republican line, but campaigning with Robinson and Stanton. New Scotland FIRST is opposed to a cap on the allowable size of retail developments, and Robinson and Fields were endorsed by a managing partner of Sphere Development in a conversation The Altamont Enterprise taped.
After intense backlash from those supportive of the candidates, Sphere has denied that it made the endorsements, but Gregory Widrick’s stated support of Robinson and Fields is unmistakable. During the same conversation, Widrick said, “I absolutely would support ones that don’t oppose our development… [those] who don’t support the size cap is who we would support.”
New Scotland FIRST has raised almost $8,000 since the summer, according to the board of elections.
Each committee’s list of contributors is a conglomeration of long-time Democrats and Republicans.
The citizens’ group New Scotlanders 4 Sound Economic Development paid for about $300 in campaign materials for Mackay in June, according to financial disclosure reports filed with the board of elections. Mackay is a founding member of that organization, which formed in opposition to Sphere’s proposal.
NS4SED has spent roughly $1,500 all together on banners and signs, said NS4SED’s treasurer, Saul Abrams. Many of the signs do not endorse specific candidates, but instead advocate against “big box” development, he added.
“We support the people who support the issues we think are important,” he said, likening NS4SED to environmental organizations that endorse candidates but don’t contribute money to their campaigns. NS4SED endorses Dolin, Mackay, and LaGrange.
If the group, or any other, has spent more than $1,000 on campaign materials for candidates, it is required to register with the state’s board of elections, said John Conklin, a spokesman for the New York State Board of Elections.
Advertising on issues, rather than for candidates, wouldn’t qualify an organization as a Political Action Committee (PAC), but rather as another kind of committee, Conklin said.
Organizations contributing more than $50 to specific campaigns should register with the county’s board of elections, Conklin said. NS4SED has not registered with either the state or county board of elections.
“We don’t really get involved with these things,” said Matthew Clyne, the Democratic commissioner at Albany’s Board of Elections. The county board doesn’t have the mechanism or the resources to monitor organizations for that, he said.
Just because organizations aren’t monitored by the county board of elections doesn’t mean that they’re not obligated to register, Conklin said.
“NS4SED has never registered as a PAC although it has financially supported candidates in violation of the law,” wrote Annie Brill, treasurer of New Scotland FIRST, in a statement this week.
PACs are designed to allow organizations to give money to multiple candidates over several elections, Clyne said. He used unions, which often raise millions of dollars for campaigns, as an example of organizations that register as PACs.
“It’s not like we’re trying to avoid anything,” Abrams said. “If registering were required, we’d certainly do it.”
New Scotland residents have said that New Scotland FIRST candidates, campaigning door-to-door, have claimed that the Hannaford Supermarket in Voorheesville could close, leaving the town without a grocery store if the site at routes 85 and 85A is not zoned to allow such use.
“The current size cap proposal would make it almost impossible for the town of New Scotland to ever have a new supermarket, as most are now being built at about 65,000 sq. ft. (These are not huge supercenters),” says campaign literature from New Scotland FIRST, referring to the much discussed 50,000-square-foot cap. Dolin, Mackay, and LaGrange favor a cap; Fields, Robinson, and Stanton oppose a cap.
The current cap proposal, though, is for 68,500 square feet; in September, the town board sent a bill that included a 68,500-square-foot cap to the planning board for review.
“It is no secret that Hannaford is not happy with where they are. They cannot compete. They are looking for a bigger site. If we keep it up, they are going to find a bigger site. It won’t be in this town. They will close that store,” Robert Smith, who sits on the planning board, said at the Aug. 4 meeting before voting with the majority of the board to advise the town board against extending its moratorium on large-scale commercial development while it examines its zoning laws. The town board did vote to extend the moratorium.
“If Hannaford should ever want to move or grow, and I’m not saying that they are looking, but they are talking about renovations and the fact that they need to enlarge to carry a bigger variety,” Robinson said at a candidates’ debate last Thursday during a discussion about limits on the allowable size of retail developments in town.
“The word from Hannaford is ‘no,’” said Michael Norton on behalf of the grocery store chain this week. “We would know if we were doing anything with the property,” he said of the company’s Voorheesville location. There is “no plan to close anything,” he said, nor does Hannaford have plans to change or expand that store.
Bender melon farm
Zoning and development has taken center stage in this election largely because of Sphere’s plans to build a shopping center on the former Bender melon farm, which is in the town’s commercial zone, but has only ever been used for agriculture.
In 1971, MLF Enterprises bought the 179-acre property for about $525,000 and 10 years later, MLF transferred the property to Rebecca Freeman, James Murphy, Thomas Mottolese, and Richard Esmay. MLF dissolved in 1974, according to the Department of State’s Division of Corporations, but it is still listed with the town of New Scotland as the property owner.
Currently, the property is assessed at $734,700, on which the owners have been paying taxes. Its “primary acreage,” which is five acres, is assessed at $153,000, said the town’s assessor, Deborah Corbari this week; also on the primary plot is a barn that is assessed at $9,200. The remaining 174 acres is classified as undeveloped and is assessed at $572,500.
In January of 2008, Sphere signed a contract to buy the land, according to Maura Mottolese, the lawyer who represents the landowners and the daughter of one of the owners. The asking price at the time was $4 million, according to Platform Realty, which was handling the listing. That contract has since been terminated, Mottolese said, but neither she nor Sphere would comment on why or what the terms had been, and neither party would comment on whether they were still considering a transaction.
In May of 2008, on the day the town board adopted a moratorium on commercial development for projects over 30,000 square feet, Town Hall received a letter from Mottolese.
The letter urged the board not to pass the moratorium and promised that the owners of the property would “seek all available legal remedies” if any changes are made to the town’s zoning law limiting the size and type of commercial development, as it would devalue the owners’ investment in the land.
“First and foremost… the consideration has to be given to the owner and what the property was zoned when they bought it,” Robinson said regarding the Bender melon farm during a discussion about property rights at the candidates’ debate. She began by saying that zoning laws are created to maintain residents’ health and safety, but “property rights precedes even our zoning. That’s a right we’ve been given through our form of government.”
According to New York State Town Law, “For the purposes of promoting the health, safety, morals, or the general welfare of the community, the town board is hereby empowered by ordinance to regulate and restrict the height, number of stories and size of buildings and other structures, the percentage of lot that may be occupied, the size of yards, courts, and other open spaces, the density of population, and the location and use of buildings, structures and land for trade, industry, residence or other purposes.”
“There is no guarantee that… zoning is going to stay tomorrow what it is today,” Patricia Salkin, associate dean, professor of law, and director of the Government Law Center of Albany Law School said last week. “Governments can always amend their zoning ordinances.”
Property owners are deemed to have vested rights in the current zoning when they have expended substantial funds and undertaken substantial construction, so a person must demonstrate both of those criteria to successfully challenge a change in zoning, Michael Mackey, New Scotland’s town attorney, said after Mottolese’s letter arrived in 2008.
Citing an opinion from the state’s highest court, Michael Mackey said, “The Court of Appeals has ruled that even a reduction in the property’s value due to a zoning change isn’t reason to overturn the new zoning.
“The owners have to be left a reasonable use of the property; in other words, you can’t say, ‘nothing but a park,’ for example, but the courts give the municipalities a great deal of deference in defining what is deemed ‘reasonable,’” he said
“When assessing vacant land, you are assessing ‘as is,’ not to highest potential. If you have the investment, if you have the land, you are going to sit on it and wait for that ship to come in,” former assessor Julie Nooney said of the property’s value in 2008.
When Sphere was looking for property in 2006, managing partner Kurt Wendler said last year, “We knew there were certain key tenants specifically Target that were looking within that market area and we went on a hunt with our number-one criteria being commercial zoning.”
“We’re not trying to park this thing… in an area that has not been zoned for what it is we’re trying to do,” he said. “With that in mind, our sites became fairly limited as to what we could actually look at. There are very few, limited sites that have that much acreage zoned commercially.”
Asked about the difference between the property’s assessed value and asking price this week, the town’s current assessor, Corbari, said, “I can guarantee you, that, if I raised it, they’d come in saying it’s not worth what they’re asking.”