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


News April 2015


Ripe for development?

In golf club’s plans, some see threat to Saratoga’s greenbelt


Contributing writer



The landscape around Exit 14 of the Northway, on the east side of Saratoga Springs, remains largely wooded as a result of open-space protections the city adopted more than 20 years ago. Critics fear that could change if the city alters its planning rules to allow development of a golf resort nearby. Joan K. Lentini photo

For more than two decades, Saratoga Springs has defined itself as a “city in the country,” with planning rules that steered new development toward its urban center while protecting green space around its outer edges.

Back in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, open-space advocates pushed the city to adopt a comprehensive plan and zoning laws that barred many types of development in the city’s outer district, effectively creating a rural greenbelt area that remains largely wooded and features several parks and recreational trails.

The city-in-the-country concept has frequently been cited as a major factor behind the development boom in the city’s downtown over the past 15 years. And it helps to explain why the area around Exit 14 of the Northway, which falls within the greenbelt zone, remains largely undeveloped, while the area around Exit 15 – just outside the city limit in the town of Wilton – has grown in the past two decades into a sprawling maze of big-box retail outlets interspersed with acres of parking.

But in recent months some local business leaders have begun to argue that the development rules in the city’s greenbelt area are too restrictive, especially now that nearly every formerly vacant lot in the city’s core has been developed.

At the same time, anti-sprawl advocates have been sounding the alarm that the “city-in-the-country” concept is under attack as the city attempts to rewrite its comprehensive plan for the first time in more than a decade.

The new controversy is being driven by the efforts of Saratoga National Golf Club, a golf course near Exit 14, to expand into a year-round resort complex – and to convince the city to rewrite its zoning to allow the expansion. Last month, the golf club formally unveiled its proposal to create a “destination resort” complete with a hotel, condominiums and a health-and-fitness center, if the city will allow it.

Opponents, however, say much more than the golf club’s plans could be at stake.


Drafting new planning guidelines
The controversy over how much development to allow in the city’s greenbelt emerged last fall as a city committee was attempting to update the city’s comprehensive plan – a project set in motion in 2013 under the former Republican mayor, Scott Johnson, and continued under his Democratic successor, Joanne Yepsen.

Although the updating process opens the door to changes, Yepsen suggested a revised comprehensive plan could protect what works in the city’s current approach – including the rural character of the city’s outer district, known formally as the Conservation Development District.
“We are working with a 2001 comp plan,” Yepsen said. “This city deserves better than that.”
The city needs an updated plan, she added, “to protect our city in the country, to protect our vibrant downtown and our core density. This comprehensive plan will discuss our vision.”
Reaching consensus on such an important document would be a challenge regardless of the circumstances, and previous attempts over the past decade have been unsuccessful.

But the golf club’s ambitions – and the efforts of its allies in the local business community – have added to the controversy and the sense of intrigue.

When the committee charged with updating the document concluded its 18 months of study in December, it voted for changes that would specifically apply to proposed expansion plans by Saratoga National Golf Club – changes opponents say would risk the city-in-the-country concept and set a dangerous precedent.

Golf club’s grand plans
Saratoga National Golf Club owns 405 acres of land just east of Exit 14 of the Northway, and it has a long-term lease on another 150 acres owned by the Yaddo arts colony. The property already is home to a golf course and restaurant, and its owners hope to expand into a year-round, “world-class destination resort” by adding 96 condominiums, a 100-room boutique hotel and a 10,000-square-foot spa and fitness center. The club currently operates on 10 acres and, with the expansion, its developed area would total 27 acres.

In exchange for the right to expand, the club says it would give up development rights on its remaining 378 acres, which would be designated as green space. The club would continue to pay taxes on the entire property.

Michael Toohey, a lawyer for Saratoga National, said the new development would create 260 new jobs as well as provide about $2.5 million in annual tax revenue.

Under current regulations protecting the city’s Conservation Development District, however, a development of the size being proposed by the golf club is prohibited.

The club’s proposal has the backing of both the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce and the county Convention and Tourism Bureau. Officials from the Professional Golfers’ Association of America, a national sports organization based in Florida, also expressed their support for the project in late March when golf-course owner Tom Newkirk hand-delivered dozens of other letters of support to the City Council.

Notably absent among the letters of support was any statement from Yaddo, the neighboring landowner from whom the golf club leases 150 acres.

Toohey, when asked why the arts colony was not offering any statement, said, “I wouldn’t expect them to one way or another.”

Officials at Yaddo did not respond to requests for comment.


Single vote shifts course
The city’s Comprehensive Plan Committee began work on updating the document in early 2013. Over the course of its deliberations in the next year and a half, it held three separate votes to potentially allow planned unit developments, or PUDs, in the greenbelt area, a move that appeared to be designed to address Saratoga National’s proposed expansion. Each of these votes failed.

Planned unit developments, which allow a variety of land uses in a single, often dense development, have been prohibited in the city’s Conservation Development District for more than a decade.

But in a fourth vote on allowing PUDs, in November, the committee approved the idea, 7-6, after member Jamin Totino reversed his earlier vote against the proposal. In a letter to the editor later published in The Saratogian, the local daily newspaper, Totino said he had changed his opinion because prohibiting PUDs at the committee level would restrict the options of the City Council, which must make the ultimate decision on the golf resort plan. Keeping planned unit developments out of the plan, he said, “denies them a full set of tools for considering projects that may be beneficial to the city.”

The committee’s decision to allow planned unit developments prompted an outcry from open-space advocates, however, and in December, the City Council unanimously adopted a resolution restating its intent to continue to prohibit PUDs in the city’s outer district.

The council members, each of whom also serve as commissioners overseeing parts of the city government’s operations, made it clear they were responding to public sentiment.

“The public has been consistent,” Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan, a Democrat, said at the December meeting at which the council adopted its resolution. “They showed up at Comprehensive Plan Committee meetings. They have voiced their opinion loudly. They have demanded that we maintain no PUDs in the greenbelt.”

Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco, a Republican, said he believes the preservation of green space outside the downtown core is what makes Saratoga Springs unique -- and that continuing to do so is one of the most important things the council can accomplish to protect the city for its future residents.
Yepsen, the mayor, applauded the council’s “recommitment to our status quo.”
“The greenbelt has been protected,” she proclaimed.

Trying a new tack
But at a final meeting of the Comprehensive Plan Committee two weeks later, committee member Todd Shimkus, who is also president of the county Chamber of Commerce, proposed an amendment to the plan to create a new “resort overlay zone” in the greenbelt area where Saratoga National Golf Club is located.
Rather than deliberate and potentially agree to a plan that night, the committee voted instead to suspend its operations and forward all its materials from its November meeting, along with additional suggestions, to the City Council, effectively giving the council its in-process documents as a final work product.
Opponents to major development in the greenbelt cried foul, calling the proposed resort overlay zone a PUD by another name.
Committee member Theresa Capozzola said the notion of a resort overlay zone had first come up in the summer of 2013 but hadn’t gained much traction among committee members at the time.
“Once the developers recognized they couldn’t get what they wanted with the PUDs, they took the same concept as a resort overlay and submitted that,” Capozzola said last month. “They are one in the same -- and a disingenuous attempt to get to the same outcome.”

Shimkus strongly disagreed.
“This is so different from a PUD because of what the Saratoga National Golf Club has committed to: 93 percent of their property will be maintained as open space,” Shimkus said. “And not just maintained by them. The city would have oversight, as would some other type of land trust.”
The land trust that would oversee this conservation effort has not yet been chosen.
“PUDs would have provided flexibility,” Shimkus said. “This actually provides no flexibility.”
Toohey, the lawyer for Saratoga National, echoed the point.

“That’s 378 acres of land that will never be built upon,” he said. “It will be used for open, permeable recreation and green purposes.”

Placing a conservation easement on the 378 acres in care of the city as well as an environmental group means both would have to agree in the future to change the use of the land to anything other than green space, he added.

“And that will never happen,” Toohey said. “This is the moral equivalent of saying: This land will remain green for all time.”

Setting a precedent?

Sustainable Saratoga, a nonprofit group opposed to large-scale development in the greenbelt, has spoken out strongly against both the PUD and the resort overlay zone.

“What’s on the table is a massive commercial project surrounded by wetlands,” said Harry Moran, the group’s chairman.

The group says only about 150 of Saratoga National’s 406 acres is capable of being developed because of constraints such as wetlands and floodplains. If the city’s development rules remain unchanged, Sustainable Saratoga estimates somewhere between 81 percent and 95 percent of the land in question would have to remain open space anyway.

“We still feel that it’s an inappropriate development in that area,” Moran said. “Our view is that things like a large-scale hotel and a high-end spa would be much better off in the urban core of the city.”

And allowing the golf club to develop a large-scale project in the Conservation Development District, Moran said, would set a precedent for other landowners in the greenbelt to potentially seek to build new hotels. That would undermine the city-in-the-country concept that has been the foundation of the city’s success over the past 20 years, he said.

Under the city’s current rules, limited development is allowed on the golf course property.
“We have three options with our property,” said Newkirk, whose golf club hosted 186,000 visitors in 2014. “We can do nothing and continue to run the golf course and restaurant the way we are today. We can develop a world-class destination resort with all the benefits. Or someone could build 75 single-family homes, which, to my mind, building the homes is not protecting the greenbelt.”

Turning the property into a housing development, while allowed under current rules, would be more destructive, he suggested, than developing a resort. And a resort, he contended, is a better fit with the concept of the greenbelt as a zone for open space and recreation.
“Our goal is to try and create a year-round destination resort,” Newkirk said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”


Housing as Plan B?
Toohey suggested that if the resort plan is blocked, the golf course will need to do something else to generate income from the property.

“If anybody has read the statistics, golf courses are doing all right but they’re not doing great,” he said. “So at some point, we have a right -- and this is not a threat -- to build homes on this property. That is an option that spells disaster for the option of the ‘city in the country.’ That is the sprawl that everybody complains about, and it is the only doable thing that can be done under the present circumstances with that land.”

Saratoga National and its allies contend that if the land is developed for housing, the view shed would be lost, and there would be no likelihood of putting public trails through the land, because those lands would be divided among numerous private owners.

“Nobody at Saratoga National wants that to happen,” Toohey said. “Nobody is threatening to have that happen. That is the reality of the zoning and codes that we have right now.
“The choice is pretty clear: You can build, by right under the current zoning, single family homes. Or, with the resort overlay, you can permanently preserve all those acres of open space in our greenbelt if we allow just 17 more acres of development to take place,” he said.

Exactly how many homes could be built on the property is unclear, however. Toohey estimated about 70 would be allowed under current regulations.

But Bradley Birge, the city’s administrator of planning and economic development, said a conservation analysis would need to be conducted on the land to help determine the exact number of housing units that could be allowed.


In the council’s hands
What happens next will be up to the City Council. As of last month, the council had held three separate workshops on drafting a new comprehensive plan, and Yepsen said she expected another handful of meetings before a draft plan is ready. Once there is a draft plan, the document will be sent to the county for evaluation, then returned to the city for a public hearing and a potential vote.

“Things could happen quickly, but my best guess is that it wouldn’t be until the summer,” Yepsen said.

The five-member City Council will ultimately decide the contents of the plan – including whether it will provide for a resort overlay zone.

Scirocco, the public works commissioner, said he sees little difference between a resort overlay zone and the proposal for planned unit developments that the council rejected in December. He added that he fears allowing a project of such a large scope would “open up the floodgates for that whole area and change everything.”

But Accounts Commissioner John Franck, a Democrat, said the two concepts aren’t the same.
“The PUDs were dead on arrival,” Franck said. “Had we gone the PUDs route, it would have affected hundreds of properties. This is a separate issue.”

Christian Mathieson, the public safety commissioner who drafted the council’s December resolution opposing planned unit developments, said the council will need to proceed carefully.
“This sounds like a very appealing plan, but it’s not as simple as ‘This is a nice plan -- it will do a lot for Saratoga Springs,’” said Mathieson, a Democrat. “We need to remember that we have a very unique situation in this city. We have the city-in-the-country concept, something that is recognized statewide and that’s been very successful. It’s very important to understand what you may be giving up if you change the greenbelt.”


Lecture at Slate Valley Museum