Planning for the future
SARANAC LAKE – Concerns about the village’s planned unit development district regulations, many of them tied to the review of a proposed four-story hotel on the Lake Flower shoreline, seemed to dominate a public comment session Tuesday on the village’s draft land-use code.
How the proposed code would deal with home-based businesses, backyard composting and strip clubs were some of the other topics that came up.
The meeting, held in the Saranac Lake Free Library’s Cantwell Community Room, drew an audience of roughly 25 people. It was billed as a public hearing, but village Trustee Paul Van Cott noted that the meeting lacked a quorum of Land Use Code Advisory Committee members. He said the village board will hold its own public hearing before it considers adopting the code.
Before that happens, both Van Cott and the project’s consultant, Jim Martin of the LA Group, said there are a lot of unresolved issues the committee is wrestling with.
“This is still an ongoing process,” Martin said. “We’re nearing the end, but we’re not there yet.”
One issue that appears already settled is the code’s planned unit development district regulations, which were pulled out separately and enacted by the village board. The board added language to the code in 2011 that allows for PUDDs to be designated in any existing village zoning district. Trustees updated those regulations last month.
The village has two pending PUDD applications. One was submitted last year by Chris LaBarge, developer of a proposed 90-room hotel on Lake Flower. The village board approved his PUDD sketch plan in December; LaBarge has yet to submit a final plan. The other application was recently submitted by the American Management Association. The company has said it plans to sell off and redevelop some of the unused buildings on its 63-acre property, which was annexed into the village last year.
Steve Sonnenberg questioned why the PUDD regulations were pushed through independently of the rest of the code.
“There was practical awareness that there was a pending PUDD coming from AMA, by virtue of what was happening with the annexation,” Martin responded. “Why not give our community, the planning board, this better tool to work with, knowing this is somewhat imminent? That was the thought process behind it.”
Van Cott said the recent changes to the PUDD law won’t apply to LaBarge’s application, but the review of that project is what sparked the revision.
“I think we struggled a lot with the first phase of the process with the Lake Flower hotel,” Van Cott said. “Looking at the code, it needed some improvement, so we tightened it up some and we made the process a little more efficient because we knew the AMA project would be coming in at some point in the near future. There’s not really any substantive difference in terms of the standards. It’s just more efficient and better organized.”
But Rosalie Fontana called the PUDD law “a giant loophole in the zoning law, one that is big enough to drive the proverbial Mack truck through.” She noted that once land is rezoned to a PUDD by a majority vote of the village board, zoning regulations no longer apply on that land.
“What is the point about careful deliberation about what uses are permitted, what size buildings are allowed, what setbacks required, etc., if these provisions can be arbitrarily overridden by three individuals?” Fontana said, reading from a prepared statement.
Fontana noted that the PUDD statute only applies to parcels of 3 acres or more. She said that essentially means small property owners have to adhere to the village’s zoning regulations, “but the rules can be bent for big developers.”
If a PUDD is granted for the Lake Flower hotel project, the developer won’t need to seek variances for the building’s height, lake setbacks and parking, Fontana said.
“In other words, a PUDD can be used merely to facilitate bypassing zoning restrictions,” she said.
Kathleen Bullard said she shares the same concerns.
“(The hotel project) is a project that has such a huge impact, and we in the public, if you’re not attending meetings regularly, didn’t really know a lot about that project until it sounds like it had been pushed through quite far in the process,” Bullard said. “My biggest concern is, why can projects like this just waive past these variances that everybody else needs to adhere to?”
In response, Martin said the PUDD law was meant to “walk the fine line” between regulating and encouraging development.
Advisory committee member Jim Hotaling said a PUDD is designed to encourage good development when the traditional zoning rules don’t fit a site.
“The idea is that the incentive for doing better development, the private gain, is supposed to be at least matched by the public gain, whether it’s through access to shorelines or parks or some other public benefit,” Hotaling said. “That’s very tricky. It’s a negotiated process.”
An audience member asked how the village’s PUDD law compares to that of other communities. Ellen George, a former state Adirondack Park Agency attorney, said some other towns’ PUDD laws apply just to residential development, not commercial properties, and are typically designed for larger, undeveloped areas.
George noted that there’s nothing in the draft code about how it would be enforced; committee members said they’re still working on that.
George also said the allowable uses in the zoning districts along Lake Flower seem to be inconsistent with the village’s 2002 Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan. The code is supposed be based on the waterfront plan as well as the comprehensive plan the village adopted last year.
Martin said the committee heard a lot of concerns about the waterfront plan from property owners along Lake Flower.
“They don’t hold that LWRP in very high regard at all,” he said. “It is a document that is woefully out of step with the people in those waterfront areas.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but that is the law of the village of Saranac Lake,” George responded.
Trustee Allie Pelletieri said he wants to scrap parts of the waterfront plan, particularly a section that calls for a shoreline trail to be constructed through privately owned land along Lake Flower Avenue.
“It’s my number-one thing,” Pelletieri said. “We’ll change it so it suits the community that it’s in.”
Steve Erman, a retired APA economic development official, said the code should be revised so it encourages more home-based businesses. The committee is considering language that would allow accessory structures and up to four off-street parking spaces for home-based occupations. Language in the draft code that would not allow customer traffic at home-based businesses will be removed, Hotaling said.
The code’s composting regulations also came up. Erman noted that the proposal would prohibit the composting of meat scraps from kitchen waste but would allow livestock carcasses to be composted.
“I would say nowhere in the village should we actually be composting cows,” Erman said.
Earlier, Martin outlined some of the highlights of the new code. He said it keeps many of the same zoning districts from the village’s comprehensive plan, reworks and simplifies the village’s subdivision regulations, incorporates storm water control regulations and has more robust zoning definitions. It also has overlay districts designed to protect certain areas of the village, like its downtown and main road corridors, “because they were identified as crucial areas in this community where we really want to make sure development is occurring in a way people want to see it,” Martin said.
The code has supplementary regulations that address things like docks and moorings, agricultural uses, wireless telecommunication facilities, wind-powered systems, solar panels and electrical vehicle charging stations.
Martin said the committee is also working on a section of the code that will deal with “adult uses” like strip clubs and adult bookstores. He said case law in New York essentially requires these kinds of uses to be addressed.
“You can have exposure to those uses coming into your community if you don’t deal with it proactively in your code,” he said.
Copies of the draft code are available for public review at the library and in the village offices. A link to the 303-page document is also posted on the home page of the village’s website, www.saranaclakeny.gov.