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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 31, 2009

2009 in review: New Scotland
Divisive election centers on commercial zoning, ends in landslide for size cap

By Saranac Hale Spencer

NEW SCOTLAND —A steadily boiling controversy over the future of development in town dominated this year’s elections, which brought a slate of three candidates who campaigned on a platform of moderate development to the five-member town board.

This was the second year consumed largely by debate over how the town’s commercially zoned district should be developed after Cazenovia-based Sphere Development in late 2007 pitched plans to build a Target-anchored shopping center at the corner of routes 85 and 85A.

The first organized group of residents who were not opposed to the development emerged at the beginning of this year.  The PRIDE of New Scotland, as the group called itself, was short-lived, advocating for property rights and later reconfiguring into a committee supportive of a largely Republican ticket that called itself New Scotland FIRST.

“Our platform is to bring attention to Local Law I,” said Annie Brill, who was part of PRIDE, explaining that its members had coalesced around that still contentious issue.

The bill that prompted the group to form was proposed in December of 2008 by Elizabeth Kormos and Michael Naughton, the two remaining members of the Citizens’ Zoning Advisory Committee, a group appointed by the town board after Sphere’s plans were made public.  Each town board member chose a committee member; the board charged the group with recommending ways to align the town’s zoning with its 1994 comprehensive land-use plan.

The formerly five-member group had been divided over the issue of a cap on the allowable square footage for retail buildings in the commercial zone and three members of the committee resigned, claiming Kormos, president of Kormos and Company, had conflicts of interest since her development company had approached landowners in the commercial zone in the last few years.  Among those who resigned was the committee’s chairwoman, Roselyn Robinson, a real-estate lawyer, who is Brill’s sister.

Kormos and Naughton then submitted a bill to the town board that included a 50,000-square-foot size cap on single retail stores and a 100,000-square-foot cap on shopping centers.

“I don’t think square footage is the key,” Brill said, adding of the figures, “It’s an arbitrary number.”

Kormos defended the bill, saying, “That part of the law was derived from the data analysis we conducted.”  The research she did showed that retail developments over 100,000 square feet would require a regional draw because there wouldn’t be enough people in the New Scotland area to support it, she said.

Local Law I went through several machinations after getting an adverse review from the majority of the planning board, which suggested significantly higher figures for the allowable square footage.  Five of the planning board’s seven members supported the New Scotland FIRST ticket in the fall election.

An amended version of the planning board’s interpretation of Local Law I, drafted by Councilman Richard Reilly, met with disapproval from Albany County’s planning board in May.

“The ACPB has serious concerns that Local Law B establishes significant square footage size caps for retail businesses and is silent on regulation of development density within the Commercial Zone,” the board’s response says. “The consequences of multiple shopping centers with retail businesses occupying 85,000 square feet, each with a significant regional draw, at or near the proposed development caps, is unacceptable in terms of cumulative impacts to state and county highways, local law enforcement and other public health, safety and emergency response considerations, community character and regional and countywide impacts,” it says.

Variations of the bill are still being discussed and will likely be voted on early in the new year, since the moratorium on large-scale commercial construction, which has been in place since May of 2008 and extended twice, will expire on Feb. 1.

Election turned  on land-use plans

The three-member majority of the New Scotland Town Board — including Democrats Reilly and councilwomen Deborah Baron and Margaret Neri — was supportive of larger retail development than the minority duo — Democratic Supervisor Thomas Dolin and Republican Councilman Douglas LaGrange.  Dolin, a retired lawyer and former judge, and LaGrange, a farmer, won their bids for re-election this year on a ticket with Democrat Daniel Mackay, a founding member of the group called New Scotlanders 4 Sound Economic Development, which formed in opposition to Sphere’s proposal.

Neri, who was also up for re-election this year, chose not to run, citing a lack of support from the Democratic Party and from Dolin.

All three winners said that the first order of business for the new town board will be addressing the zoning issue before the town’s moratorium expires.  The town board needs to “draft an ordinance that reflects these election results,” said Mackay on election night.

“It was a mandate,” LaGrange said of the results, meaning that voters want a limit on the size of retail development.  The zoning issue is an umbrella that encompasses many of the other obstacles facing the town, like a lack of available water and rising taxes, he said.

The opposing ticket was made up of long-time Republicans Roselyn Robinson and Timothy Stanton, a farmer, for town board, and Michael Fields, a retired manager, who changed his party affiliation to Republican after getting the party’s support.  Its initial candidate for supervisor, Karen Moreau, a lawyer and Stanton’s sister-in-law, dropped out of the race in July.

The early summer was a clear and open horizon for all those with political aspirations — by the end of June, which brought the Democratic caucus, the speckled frontier had been decidedly narrowed down.

The ensuing campaigns rendered traditional parties meaningless, pitting Team New Scotland and New Scotland FIRST against each other.  Stanton and Robinson, who were galvanized to run for town board when it became apparent to them this summer that all of the candidates who would appear on major party lines had similar views of development, forced a primary for the Republican line.

In May, the Republican Committee nominated LaGrange and planning board member Charles Voss for the two town board seats.  The primary challenge ended with a split ticket, with LaGrange maintaining his spot and Robinson pushing out Voss.  The New Scotland FIRST ticket also faced uncertainty from a court challenge to its nominating petitions, which left Stanton unsure of whether he would appear on the ballot at all until less than a month before the election.

Dolin, LaGrange, and Mackay won in a clear victory in November.

Mercury leaks  raise concerns

Mercury found in pockets around the Bethlehem water plant, located in New Scotland, caused concern and cleanup in 2009.

When a flow meter containing mercury broke in January 2008, workers at the plant were exposed to the heavy metal for a month before Department of Environmental Conservation involvement led to a thorough cleaning of the facility.

Initially, Bethlehem was fined $77,500 for seven violations related to the spill — including failure to clean up promptly and illegal disposal.  The DEC later lowered the fine to $15,000 in exchange for remediation meant to address worker and plant safety.  The town was required to replace all the flow meters containing mercury by June 2009.

This May, though, workers at the plant discovered more mercury, pooled at the bottom of a manhole.

The county’s Department of Health closed the plant, which supplies the town of Bethlehem and some residents of New Scotland with water, for two days until tests confirmed that the plant’s drinking water wasn’t affected by the mercury.

“The problem is there is no source.  We removed the last flow meter that contained mercury last week,” said Bethlehem’s superintendent of public works, John Cansler, after the discovery.

Cansler said that the manhole is used in a filtering process called backwashing whereby water is pushed back through a filter and eventually into the backwash lagoon.  The mercury never made it to the lagoon because it had settled at the bottom of the manhole, he said.

The fate of the aging water plant is also being discussed, according to Cansler.  “We’re looking to replace the plant in the next couple of years, which would entail remodeling the current plant or building a new plant nearby, using the same reservoir and the same lines we have in place already.  It was built in the 1950s and a lot of the equipment is old.  It’s more expensive to maintain the old one than build a new one and there’s better technology to make the plant more efficient.  We could cut back on electricity, possibly manpower,” said Cansler.  “We don’t know yet.”

Philippa Stasiuk contributed the reporting on mercury at the Bethlehem water plant.

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