hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Editorial November 2014



Ballston Spa battles again over Wal-Mart and sprawl


One of the happier changes in Saratoga County over the past 10 or 15 years has been the revitalization of downtown Ballston Spa.

Although it’s often overshadowed by Saratoga Springs, its bigger, better-known neighbor to the north, Ballston Spa has become a destination in its own right. Like Saratoga Springs, it has a pedestrian-friendly downtown with a range of eateries and shops, but its atmosphere is more relaxed and unpretentious.

The village’s successful revitalization is partly a function of its architecture and history. Ballston Spa serves as the county seat, and many of its buildings date from the Victorian or even the Colonial eras. Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, its leaders largely resisted the siren call of urban renewal, and consequently the village’s walkable core has fewer eyesores and dead zones than many downtowns around the region.

At the same time, Ballston Spa so far has been able to avoid the worst of the potential effects of suburban sprawl around its edges. But as our cover story this month details, that might be about to change.

About 10 years ago, the town of Ballston, which encompasses part of the village as well as the two state highways that approach it from the south, blocked a proposal for a supersized Wal-Mart store about a mile south of the village line. Responding to a public outcry, the town revamped its development rules and embraced the approach many citizens said they wanted; its new rules call for smaller-scale commercial development mixed with housing – the sort of development pattern that already exists within the village.

But it seems Ballston’s revamped zoning and planning rules still offered a back-door route to big-box retail development. And now the same developer is proposing another Wal-Mart store, albeit a smaller one, on the same site where the retailer was thwarted a decade ago. The new store would be 137,000 square feet, compared with 203,000 square feet in the earlier scheme.

A spokesman for Wal-Mart says the chain reduced the scale of its earlier proposal in response to public opinion. In reality, the store size now being proposed is the maximum allowable under the town’s current zoning rules. And it’s still way out of scale with the existing development pattern and the mixed-use approach the town claims it wants to foster.

A store that big will inevitably act as a magnet for cars – and for more sprawl, as other developers try to cash in on all that new traffic. And then, as Malta Supervisor Paul Sausville suggests in our story, there’ll be pressure to expand the capacity of the local road network, perhaps by adding lanes to routes 50 or 67. That in turn will beget more development and still more traffic.

In recent decades Saratoga has consistently ranked as one of the fastest-growing counties in New York state, and the pace has picked up in recent years with the arrival and expansion of the GlobalFoundries manufacturing complex in Malta, the next town east of Ballston. The county already has plenty of new housing subdivisions and shopping complexes up and down the Northway.

What’s attracted new residents and entrepreneurs to Ballston Spa is its traditional small-town character – the fact that it doesn’t resemble the development pattern in much of the rest of the county. They deserve the chance to keep it that way.