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


News October 2015



Ballston gives green light to Wal-Mart


It took more than a decade, but Wal-Mart finally prevailed in its effort to win approval for a new store just outside the village of Ballston Spa.

The Ballston town Planning Board voted unanimously Sept. 3 to approve a site plan for the new 137,000-square-foot store along Route 50 near the junction of Route 67, just south of the village.
The Saratogian reported that the retailer, in a concession to opponents of the project, agreed to pay for sidewalks extending along both sides of Route 50 from junction of Route 67 to the village – and to enforce a ban on overnight parking in the Wal-Mart lot.

But the chain rejected a series of other requests from the local citizens group Smart Growth Ballston, including proposals for a dramatically smaller store, a less-than-24-hour operation and a ban on Wal-Mart trucks traveling through the village center.

Wal-Mart first proposed a 180,000-square-foot superstore at the same site in 2004, but opponents pushed the town of Ballston to adopt new, tougher development rules – including a cap on retail store sizes that effectively blocked Wal-Mart’s plans. Under a comprehensive plan the town adopted in 2006, the property was rezoned from commercial to mixed-use development, and Wal-Mart’s opponents figured they had won.

But in 2010, the owner of the property where Wal-Mart wanted to build, Frank Rossi, applied to create a “planned-unit” development on the parcel. This designation, which the town approved in 2011, allowed for up to 137,000 square feet of retail space on the site. Town officials at the time said they supported this designation because they hoped the property could attract a full-service supermarket, which the area currently lacks.

Instead, Rossi again offered the site to developers for Wal-Mart. The new store will include a grocery department, deli and bakery.

Members of Smart Growth Ballston have argued that a department store of that size will create a new web of traffic and sprawl while dealing a blow to the revitalization of downtown Ballston Spa. Opponents also argued that the store was unnecessary given that Wal-Mart already has at least 14 other stores within a 35-mile radius, including one 10 miles up the Northway in Wilton.

But town officials felt they lacked the power to block the development based on those concerns.
The Saratogian reported that town Planning Board Chairman Richard Doyle said the store’s plans complied with the town’s current development rules.

“We have spent the past 16 months looking at this application,” Doyle said. “We’re satisfied that all the criteria have been met.”

Ben Baskin, a spokesman for Smart Growth Ballston, told the paper the Planning Board’s approval likely was inevitable under current rules.

“A lot of people are very disappointed,” he said. “This changes the trajectory of the town’s growth. I think it’s short-sighted and antithetical to the comprehensive plan, where we encourage mixed-use, small-scale local ownership.”

In other news from around the region in September:


New questions as Hudson cleanup nears end
The seven-year-long Superfund dredging of the upper Hudson River is expected to wind up this month, but a controversy remains about what to do with a 110-acre complex where millions of cubic yards of PCB-laden sediments were processed.

The $1 billion environmental cleanup covered a 40-mile stretch of the river from Fort Edward to the south and was carried out by General Electric Co., which dumped PCBs into the river from its Hudson Falls and Fort Edward plants from the 1940s until the chemicals were banned in the 1970s.

As part of the cleanup, GE built a “dewatering” plant in Fort Edward where PCB-contaminated sediments were processed and dried before being shipped out of the area for disposal.

The Post-Star of Glens Falls reported that local government officials are hoping to turn the plant complex into an industrial park. The complex is owned by a partnership that includes Washington County and the towns of Fort Edward and Kingsbury.

GE, which has been leasing the property, supports that idea and is willing to leave behind valuable infrastructure including roads, rail lines and stormwater pipes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has overseen the PCB cleanup, supports this idea but wants the county and towns to sign agreements taking responsibility for maintaining the infrastructure.

At the same time, however, some environmental and community groups have been calling for the dewatering complex to remain intact in case additional PCB cleanups are needed.

Although the EPA is satisfied that the bulk of the PCB contamination has been removed from the river itself, officials are still assessing the extent of contamination in floodplain soils along the shore of the river, and there is no plan yet for how to deal with this contamination. In addition, a portion of the Champlain Canal is heavily contaminated with PCBs where it meets the Hudson River at Fort Edward.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded in a report earlier this year that “additional removal of PCB-contaminated sediment” along the upper Hudson will still be needed even after the Superfund cleanup ends.

But The Post-Star quoted EPA officials as saying that any future dredging could be done without a dewatering facility of the size and scope now in place in Fort Edward, as the quantities of sediment involved would likely be much smaller.

GE spokesman Mark Behan told the paper that leaving the facility intact for future dredging “serves no purpose” and will deprive “the local community of future economic development opportunities.”


Wharton home now free of debt
The Mount, the 46-acre Berkshires estate of the writer Edith Wharton, has raised enough money to pay off all it debts – just seven years after the landmark property suffered a financial meltdown that put it on the brink of foreclosure.

At the depth of its crisis in early 2008, The Mount reported that it had run out of operating funds and was in debt to the tune of $8.7 million. Worse, it was in default on $4.3 million in loans from Berkshire Bank and another $2.5 million note from a London rare books dealer from whom the organization had purchased Wharton’s private library in 2005.

But The Berkshire Eagle reported that Edith Wharton Restoration Inc., the nonprofit that runs the property as a museum and cultural center, has completely paid off the last $3.3 million of its debt through its most recent yearlong fund-raising campaign. About 30 donors, including current and former board members, contributed amounts ranging from $1,000 to more than $1 million.

-- Compiled by Fred Daley