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


News & Issues October 2015


In court case, it’s sunlight vs. parking

Protecting solar-energy installation becomes issue for garage


Contributing writer



Solar collectors atop the Mouzon House restaurant would be overshadowed by a proposed five-story parking garage in downtown Saratoga Springs; the restaurant’s owners have sued to block the project. Thomas Dimopoulos photo

A dispute over access to sunlight has become the latest obstacle to a controversial proposal for a new five-story parking garage in downtown Saratoga Springs.

City planning officials halted their review of the parking garage proposal last month after the owners of a downtown restaurant went to court, claiming the City Council had abruptly rewritten a 25-year-old solar-power law to benefit the project.

The Mouzon House restaurant, which has solar collectors on its roof, would literally find itself in the shadow of the parking garage being proposed by the Saratoga Springs City Center, the local trade-show and convention hall, on what is now a surface parking lot between Maple and High Rock avenues, a block east of Broadway.

At issue in the case are recent changes to the city’s zoning laws regarding solar-energy installations. The solar provisions, as enacted in 1990 and amended in 2012, require that properties with solar installations have unimpeded access to sunlight during daytime hours from September to March -- and prohibit development from encroaching upon airspace needed for solar collection. Until this year, these protections for solar power applied throughout the city.
But in July, the City Council passed a zoning amendment that exempts the city’s T-6 zone – the downtown urban core where both the City Center and Mouzon House are located – from the solar-access protections.

The City Center Authority, a local-government entity that runs the convention hall but is technically independent of the city government, began putting together its parking garage proposal about three years ago. The authority has proposed leasing 2.62 acres of the city-owned lot just south of the Mouzon House property and putting up a garage with space for nearly 500 vehicles.

The project was initially embraced by local business and political leaders who said it would alleviate a shortage of downtown parking. But it has drawn opposition from critics who say it would occupy prime real estate that might be better saved for other purposes – and that it would create a visual dead zone that would invite crime.


Changing the rules
The owners of Mouzon House, David and Dianne Pedinotti, first inquired about installing solar collectors atop their restaurant in late 2011. They bought the collectors, which heat hot water, two years later and installed them in the summer of 2014.

The collectors were installed, however, without required approval from the city’s Design Review Commission. That was eventually granted in October 2014. The City Center Authority protested at the time, arguing that the restaurant owners’ request for permission to add solar panels came several months after the authority had filed its parking garage proposal.

In March, the City Center applied for a variance from the solar protections to allow its parking garage development to go forward. But the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals denied the variance in a 4-3 vote, saying the height and design of the parking garage would result in too much of a shadow across the solar collectors on the Mouzon House building.

Within days of that ruling, city Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan proposed an amendment to the city’s zoning law to exclude the downtown T-6 zone from the solar protections.
Supporters of Madigan’s amendment said it wasn’t aimed specifically at helping the City Center project, but rather that they had realized how future development proposals could be denied in the downtown area -- where the city wants development to take place -- because of the protections for solar power.

Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen, who supported the change, explained that the city wants to encourage dense development in its downtown core. The city allows downtown buildings to be 70 feet tall, but the solar-power protections could have become an obstacle to construction of new multi-story buildings, he said.

“We’re trying to create this ‘city in the country,’ and that requires we have a density in our city,” Mathiesen said. “We don’t want things to be all spread out. We don’t want our downtown to look like Clifton Park. We want it to look like Saratoga Springs, and that involves tall buildings and minimal setbacks.

“If you have older, short buildings that decide they want to impede having an adjacent lot developed and throwing up a solar panel to try and short-circuit the development process, that wouldn’t be a good thing,” Mathiesen continued. “I’m not accusing the Mouzon House of doing that. But there’s the potential of this happening at any point in time in the future in downtown Saratoga, and that isn’t a good thing.”

The City Council adopted Madigan’s amendment in a 3-2 vote on July 7, exempting the city’s urban core from the solar ordinance.

Despite Madigan’s and Mathiesen’s claims to the contrary, Finance Commissioner John Franck, who voted against the change, suggested the parking garage proposal was on the minds of council members at the time of the vote.

“I think we know what this is being done for,” Franck said. “This is project-specific, in my mind. Bad government is doing an end-around to change the law for one project.”

Coincidentally, the council’s vote came just two days before the city kicked off its Solarize Saratoga campaign, a volunteer-led educational outreach effort to encourage homeowners and businesses to install photovoltaic panels on their properties.

“Solar is important, and a lot of things are happening on the solar landscape,” Madigan explained after the July 7 vote. “This is the right move, to amend the solar ordinance, to allow our downtown to continue developing.”

Blocked in court
With the obstacle of the solar ordinance removed, the City Center Authority moved forward with its plans. It received Planning Board approval for a two-lot subdivision of the parcel where it hopes to build its parking garage, and it sought a site-plan review from the board.

That review was tabled last month, however, when the Pedinottis went to court seeking annulment of both the City Council’s solar access amendment and the Planning Board’s subdivision approval.

The Pedinottis claim that in altering the zoning ordinance, the City Council, violated the city’s comprehensive plan and engaged in illegal “spot zoning.”

They also are seeking the release of unredacted copies of e-mails regarding the solar issue that were exchanged among members of the City Council and officials of the City Center Authority. Copies of some of these messages were released after the Pedinottis filed a Freedom of Information Law request, but the city refused to release other items. The case is expected to be heard in state Supreme Court, New York’s trial-level court, in mid-December at the earliest.
Mark Baker, president of the City Center Authority, suggested in comments to the City Council in late October that he is open to negotiating some sort of settlement with the Pedinottis.

“Lawsuits are not an attempt to resolve issues,” Baker said. “Had the authority wanted, we could have sued our neighbor when they had made additional solar panel improvements without land use board approvals or a building permit. We did not. The authority instead met with our neighbors to try and reach a mutually acceptable solution. … We continue to be open to those discussions.”

Meanwhile, with the City Center’s garage proposal stalled for now, the City Council is considering other options for developing the lot next to the Mouzon House. Responding to critics who said the City Center plan would squander prime downtown real estate for parking, the council moved earlier this year to invite other developers to submit proposals for the site. Two now have done so.
The Paramount Realty Group has submitted a proposal to lease the lot for a 607-space parking garage, 166 housing units and nearly 50,000 square feet of commercial space.

And the Sequence Development group says it would like to buy the property for a mixed-use project with more than 220,000 square feet of retail, office and residential development overall -- as well as a parking facility with 592 spaces.

The city is putting together a technical review team to compare the bids and report to the council. It is also seeking an appraisal of the property. Beyond initial design, the two recent proposals disclose minimal financial information.

Mayor Joanne Yepsen said she expects the city to schedule a public hearing this month that would allow each of the bidders to present their proposals in more detail.