Planning board rejects NCCC Welcome Center

SARANAC LAKE – A majority of the village planning board has rejected North Country Community College’s proposed Welcome Center, saying the project has been “shoehorned” into a largely residential neighborhood off of Lake Flower Avenue.

“The project, as proposed, does not fit the site,” planning board member Scott Stoddard said after a motion to approve the project failed at a special board meeting Tuesday night. “We’ve been trying to make it work, but I don’t feel it works.”

The board’s rejection of the plan comes four months after the college and Cedar Ridge Holdings, a development company owned by village Mayor Clyde Rabideau, announced plans for the 4,200-square-foot, two-story office building on a pair of lots Cedar Ridge is under contract to purchase. Designed to serve as a gateway to the college, the Welcome Center would house its registration, financial aid, admissions and bursar’s offices.

After several marathon review sessions over the last three months, the project appeared to be headed toward a conditional approval Tuesday night. Village Community Development Director Jeremy Evans spelled out a list of proposed conditions and said he thought one of the biggest issues surrounding the project could be resolved.

One of the two properties Cedar Ridge is under contract to buy, currently owned by the Duffy family, is zoned “C,” where the primary planning strategy in the village’s recently adopted comprehensive plan is maintaining the residential character of the neighborhood. A nearby property owner – Santanoni Avenue resident Anthony Hayden – has argued that demolishing the house and replacing it with a road would harm the area’s residential character. Rabideau has countered that the Welcome Center would be built on the neighboring lot, which is zoned for commercial use, and that green space on the Duffy lot would serve as a buffer for the neighborhood.

Evans said he believes the project conforms with the village’s comprehensive plan.

“While not perfect, it allows North Country to look to its future,” he said. “You do lose a house in plan area ‘C,’ but the green space that comes as a result is a pretty good buffer between Lake Flower Avenue and the existing neighborhood.”

Three people spoke during a public hearing Tuesday night. Hayden repeated his concerns about the project’s impact on the neighborhood’s residential character. Frannie Preston, who lives next door to the site, said she felt any of her remaining concerns could be resolved with the college. Susan Waters said she supports the project but that it’s been “shoehorned into a weird space” and won’t be very visible from the street.

“My concern, and this is more of a broad comment, is the architectural style for the community,” Waters said. “I’m concerned with some of the development recently looking more like Frontier Town than Saranac Lake. I know that neo-Alpine may be in our code, but I don’t think it fits well with that neighborhood.”

Rabideau and NCCC President Steve Tyrell asked the board for a conditional approval. Tyrell noted that the college’s foundation voted last week to purchase the properties. Rabideau explained that Cedar Ridge would take title to the properties and then transfer them to the foundation, but he noted that his company’s option to buy one of the properties expired Friday.

“We have a week’s grace, but that grace will expire next week and we need an approval with those contingencies if it’s possible,” Rabideau said.

As the planning board’s discussion wrapped up, member Don Carlisto said he was comfortable with a conditional approval. He moved to approve the special-use permit for the Welcome Center, but no one seconded the motion.

“Based on public comments at the last two meetings, I have concerns about approving this project with the findings, and finding it to be in harmony with the land-use code and the comprehensive plan,” said board member Molly Hann.

Stoddard said he “wholeheartedly supports” the college and likes the design of the building but said it “doesn’t work where it is, the way it is.”

Rabideau got up and walked out of the meeting as another planning board member, Patricia Hilling, explained her reasons for not supporting the plan.

“Being that the college is thinking of revising their other buildings, and they want to make them look like this, I don’t think it fits with Hodson Hall, the image the college might want to portray,” Hilling said. “Someone mentioned Adirondack log cabin. That’s how it feels to me. It doesn’t seem to fit in that neighborhood.”

Planning Board Chairwoman Leslie Karasin asked if any changes could be made to move the project forward. She and Carlisto noted that some board members said at their last meeting that they felt the project was approvable.

Stoddard said the board had, from the beginning of the review process, requested Cedar Ridge locate the building in a different spot on the site. He also said the building is too far separated from the campus, in terms of parking and pedestrian flow, “to work properly for the safety of the village and the neighborhood.

“The (concerns) I have go back to the first meeting,” Stoddard said. “They were aired, and nothing changed. Nothing can change on this site with this building this way.”

Karasin suggested the board could continue its review, but Evans doubted whether it would be worth it.

“I don’t think time is going to solve it,” he said. “We’ve spent a lot of time on this project.”

Tyrell said he felt the concerns board members raised Tuesday night had been addressed before.

“I think there’s been some give and take on things we’ve done,” he said as the meeting wrapped up. “I think there’s some things the board, as I understand it now, wants to see something different than what we’re willing to do here.”

Susan Rdzanek of Cedar Ridge argued that the Welcome Center would only slightly increase the number of commercial buildings in the neighborhood and said the building would fit into the area.

“I also think that the decision you make tonight is bigger than a Welcome Center,” Rdzanek added. “The decision you make tonight affects a community college within our village, and I think it’s a very important institution in a number of ways to us, and we want to keep it here.”

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or