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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, November 20, 2008
By Jo E. Prout
NEW SCOTLAND The Commercial Zoning Advisory Committee is now defunct, after three of its five members resigned this week, leaving it without a quorum, but town board members still hope to revise the town’s commercial zoning.
“I’m committed to revising the zoning code,” said town board member Richard Reilly yesterday. “I don’t think there’s any question that town board members are looking to update our zoning, [even] prior to Sphere being on people’s radar.”
The zoning came to public attention when Sphere Development Group, of Cazenovia (Madison Co.), began considering the former Bender melon farm at routes 85 and 85A for a large-scale retail center with Target as an anchor store. The town board appointed a committee to recommend ways to realign zoning with the 1994 comprehensive land-use plan.
CZAC Chairwoman Roselyn Robinson and committee member Cynthia Elliott sent letters of resignation to the town board this week. CZAC member John Biscone told The Enterprise Wednesday that his resignation would be effective as soon as his secretary sends his letter to the board. He said the town could “do nothing” and let the moratorium phase out, leaving the decision in the hands of the planning and zoning boards.
Gregory Widrick, a managing partner with Sphere Development, commended the three for resigning and said the planning board could now do its job.
CZAC Co-chairwoman Elizabeth Kormos, who last week had said that she would resign from the committee, said this week that she will remain on the committee and can chair it.
Town board members, who each appointed one member of CZAC, could now appoint successors for Robinson, Elliott, and Biscone, or the committee’s work could end.
“If people want to appoint successors…I would have no objection,” said Supervisor Thomas Dolin, a Democrat who has not been supported by the other party members on the board. Democratic town board members Reilly, Margaret Neri, and Deborah Baron appointed Elliott, Biscone, and Robinson, respectively. CZAC members J. Michael Naughton and Kormos remain. Dolin appointed Naughton, and Republican town board member Douglas LaGrange appointed Kormos.
Dolin said Wednesday that he did not yet know what would become of CZAC. He said that he had not had a conversation with other town board members about the committee.
Because Biscone’s letter had not arrived then, Dolin said that CZAC could “carry on with its work and get it done as expeditiously as possible so the town board can do its job. I don’t think these resignations should distract [from the work]. It still, presently, has a quorum. I don’t see why it can’t continue to operate.”
Biscone told The Enterprise Wednesday that his resignation letter “will be forthcoming.” He said, “I will be resigning from the committee. I think it’s defunct. I don’t know how it can keep operating with Liz Kormos as a member.”
Biscone said that he wants the zoning to be decided in the best interest of the town.
“I have no opinion as to what should happen with the zoning,” he said, adding that the decisions should not be “influenced by outside political reasons or a group lobbying for a particular thing.”
Hundreds of citizens joined a grassroots group, New Scotlanders 4 Sound Economic Development, to lobby for a moratorium on commercial building while the committee did its work.
Biscone said that the town has several options as it continues to look at the commercial zoning, including to “do nothing. There’s no absolute need,” he said.
If the town did nothing, he said, it could “let the moratorium phase out and let the planning and zoning boards handle these matters and take it out of politics.”
As the committee stands now, he said, political influence could be exerted. Keeping the decision-making outside of the elected realm, as with appointed planning and zoning boards, “seems to be the best,” Biscone said. “That’s the entire way the system has worked” and one of the most “viable options of any that work,” he said.
“My first step is to reach out to Mike Welti, the independent planner that we brought in,” Reilly said. Welti works with Behan Planning Associates of Saratoga. Reilly said that he wants to know if Welti thinks “we are at the point where we can bring it to the public and go through our standard approval process, [getting] feedback from the public and feedback from the planning board.”
He said that, without speaking to Welti, he thought that the town board could make a decision and revise the zoning before the recently extended moratorium ends on March 1, 2009. Even without the moratorium, he said, the town can update its zoning.
“If you look at New York law, the landowners have no vested rights in zoning without substantial investment and substantial construction,” Reilly said. Substantial construction would need to be a structure built above a foundation, he said.
The developer could apply for a building permit now, but a permit would require planning board approval, he said.
“That process would take well over a year,” he said. The town board could revise the zoning, if it deemed the revision appropriate, he said.
“We are under no threat of Sphere being able to sneak one in,” Reilly said. “The town has enormous flexibility in that regard, and a significant power. That’s why the planning board felt we could vote against the moratorium and still do the zoning we need.”
Reilly also said that the town could have required the developer to do a traffic or a development study, thereby saving the town money.
“That would be a risk Sphere would assume,” he said.
“People can expect the town to continue to take steps to see we’re protected,” Reilly said. “None of us want to be overrun by retail.”
Reilly said that he wants to preserve the rural character of the town, but that the town board has an obligation to ensure that the commercial zone, which covers only 3 percent of the entire town, is used effectively to preserve the town’s commercial tax base.
“It’s a balance,” he said.
Kormos and overlapping interests
Members of New Scotlanders 4 Sound Economic Development, which opposes large-scale commercial development in the town, supported Kormos during a recent battle over a conflict-of-interest charge. The charge was to be brought before the town’s board of ethics, which was found to be non-existent.
Last week, the town board voted to take no further action against Kormos. NS4SED members asked Kormos to stay on the commercial zoning committee.
“I offered to resign basically because of what Rich [Reilly] said,” Kormos told The Enterprise. At last Wednesday’s town board meeting, Reilly had said that he would take the alleged conflict of interest under consideration if the CZAC recommendation on commercial zoning followed Kormos’s views.
“I have put forward industry-standard, factual information” with demographic analysis using national sources, Kormos said. “This is what I do for a living. I work with people to tell them what is feasible, what is viable…The numbers are what they are.”
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.
CZAC Chairwoman Robinson claimed that Kormos had a conflict of interest as a member of the committee because of Kormos’s attempt to develop the property.
After the town board voted last week to extend the moratorium and to take no further action against Kormos, Robinson said that she would still work with her, Kormos said.
Upon hearing that Robinson and Elliott had resigned, Kormos said that she was disappointed.
Kormos said that their behavior was unprofessional and “childlike,” and that they had “picked up their marbles and gone home.”
She said that the resigning CZAC members were not abiding by what the town board decided.
“There are plenty of conflicts of interest to go around,” Kormos said. “My involvement two years ago is, frankly, less of a conflict than the others’.”
A release issued by NS4SED, which was co-founded by Kormos, claims that Elliott, Biscone, and Robinson all have conflicts of interest. The release claims that Elliott, as a surveyor, represented a large-property owner in the commercial district this year. It also claims that Biscone’s son represented a cell tower company that applied for a special use permit in the zone. Finally, the release claims that Robinson, a real estate attorney, represented another property owner who sought a special-use permit in the commercial district. Robinson also communicated with the melon property owners’ attorney while investigating Kormos, the release said.
Kormos told The Enterprise that CZAC’s work could continue.
“We were within a meeting or two of making a decision, at least of the size cap issue,” she said. Kormos and NS4SED support a 50,000-square-foot cap on commercial buildings. “The work on this issue has been 90- to 95- percent completed,” said Kormos.
She also said that, because Robinson stepped down, “I assume, at this point, I am chair of CZAC.”
Robinson: “They’re like children having a tantrum”
Robinson said that she resigned because the advisory process has been “tainted.”
In her resignation letter, Robinson wrote that the matter “has taken on a political aspect that defeats the purpose of having an independent advisory board.” She goes on, “No matter what CZAC decides, there are members of the town government that will make their final decision based upon what they believe to be politically expedient as proven by some of the board members’ obvious reluctance to offend the NS4SED audience by recognizing Liz Kormos’s textbook conflict of interest.”
Robinson disagreed with Dolin’s assertion that trust between board members was not a concern.
“There is a trust issue here,” Robinson said. “I didn’t think I could do a service for the town with someone I didn’t trust.” She told The Enterprise that Kormos had admitted initially that she acted as a one-time consultant, but that Kormos had really acted as a partner on a team seeking to buy the controversial property over a long period of time. Robinson resigned because, she said, she would wonder if Kormos had an ulterior motive in presenting data to the committee.
Robinson also said that town leadership allowed the public hearing on the moratorium to become a “bully pulpit” for many who opposed a large-scale development, including members of NS4SED.
“The supervisor allowed the meeting to turn into a farce. What was the point of the committee I was put on?” she asked.
“This whole project is about killing the Sphere proposal and the Target,” Robinson said. “That wasn’t the charge of the committee I was on. They’re like children having a tantrum and stamping their feet. The end does not justify the means. There was a fear, if you didn’t do what they want, you would be berated.”
She said that there was also fear of retribution from NS4SED members for supporters of larger retail caps in the commercial zone. She said that NS4SED is a “self-proclaimed majority” in town.
“Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. That wasn’t our job,” Robinson said. “It derailed the whole process.”
Robinson said that she is sad, but relieved, to be off the committee.
“I’m very sad. I put my heart into it,” she said.
Elliott: “Trust does matter”
“I thought I was placed on the committee to bring data,” Elliott told The Enterprise. Instead, she said, the issues surrounding the committee became “win-at-any-cost.”
“The trust was an issue for me,” Elliott said. “Trust does matter.” She said that committee members need to be able to look at each other and know that they are telling each other the truth.
“I’ve been lied to in executive session. I just couldn’t do it anymore,” Elliott said.
In her letter of resignation, Elliott underscored her comments.
“Although I relish the debate and honestly believe the best answers are found within the discussion, nothing of value can be accomplished without a level of trust amongst the committee members. I cannot envision success on this level when the climate at large has become forever tainted,” she wrote.
“For me to continue on a committee where trust, truth, and integrity are replaced by personal financial interests, political posturing, and cunning deception is not a possibility that I can accept,” she wrote.
Elliott said that, because of the nature of her job, she did not have a conflict of interest. She is a boundary-line surveyor who surveys and determines closed property entities for a certain fee. Commercial sites require teams of engineers, surveyors, and architects, she said.
“I don’t do that. I’m a sole proprietorship,” Elliott said. “They’re not going to be calling me.”
She said that the town can see what the planner has produced and gather more data, and that her only role would be to forward the data she already gathered to the town.
“At some point, you have to stand for something,” she said.
Sphere weighs in
“I’m just shocked about quotes from the supervisor that you don’t have to trust each other,” said Widrick. He told The Enterprise this week that Dolin had pulled out a very broad distinction in the attorney general’s discussion of financial interests regarding wind power.
“I commend the three for resigning. I think it’s the right move, and glad to see someone stand up to the bullying of NS4SED,” he said. Widrick said that local residents told him that one person spoke in favor of business owners and was booed by NS4SED members.
Widrick said that those targeting Neri, Reilly, and Baron as partners with Sphere are “ridiculous.”
“They have never, ever endorsed our project,” Widrick said. “If they had, you’d hear me touting it. Ditto for the three members who resigned. To this date, I’ve never even spoken to John Biscone. Those town board members were ostracized and attacked. It’s absolutely ridiculous.
“NS4 should be embarrassed with their actions,” he continued. “This is just not healthy for the community. I can only imagine living there. It’s not fair to the town, members of the town board, or the CZAC committee.”
Widrick said that Biscone’s idea was right.
“Let the planning board do its job,” Widrick said.
He said that the 50,000-square-foot cap restriction came from Kormos’s proposal to the property owners.
“This is not being handled properly,” he said. “Our offer beat that offer out because our offer was more money. We beat hers out.” Widrick speculated that Kormos joined CZAC to restrict what the owners could do with the property.
“If you can’t see the simple logic in that, I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes,” he said. “You could write a book. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Widrick said that only about 15 people write letters to The Enterprise supporting a size cap. Local residents tell him to keep working on the larger project, but “they don’t go to the meetings and don’t want to be bullied,” he said. “There’s a silent majority out there.”
He concluded, “We’re here to the end. We’re not going away.”