Guilderland: Glass Works Village and Traffic

Do people in Guilderland care about traffic on Route 20 (Western Avenue)?

The biggest item on tonight’s Town Board agenda involved Glass Works Village. This proposed development would increase traffic. It seems like a good project. Where’s the balance for the Town? So far I have yet to hear a single resident express concern about this. If the residents stay quiet, the board may have to assume that traffic is not a reason to stop this project.

Some background: A company, Platform Realty Group, proposes to develop a 50+ acre parcel of land near the Guilderland YMCA and Guilderland Elementary School. The proposed development (named Glass Works Village) would add roughly 300 homes and 200,000 square feet of commercial space (offices and retail). The current zoning would allow maybe 50 houses, so this is a far more intense use than the zoning currently allows. The idea behind the development is that the nature of it – a mixed use – will lead to people using their cars less because they will live close enough to certain things that they will be able to walk easily. If your office is in the development, you can walk to work. You can walk to the library, the YMCA, and the school. It’s not a huge walk to 20 Mall (though I suspect not many people will walk that far for groceries).

Tonight we reviewed the “Environmental Impact Statement” (EIS) and made our “Findings” regarding environmental impact. I had a number of concerns with these documents, but the biggest has to do with traffic on Western Avenue (Route 20). Some relevant documents are on the Town website at: Guilderland Planning Department. Regarding traffic, the most important document is the (a large PDF document) Glass Works Village Traffic Study – Appendix C1.

Essentially, this project will increase traffic on Route 20, especially at the intersection with Route 155. I think the most important impact is on eastbound (toward Albany) traffic in the morning rush hour, but there are other big impacts. Platform’s initial proposed findings ignored most traffic issues, including at 155 and 20. I sent a proposed revision and tonight we agreed on a final set of findings that acknowledged the traffic issue.

Right now morning traffic heading toward Albany on Western backs up to Winding Brook Drive (where the YMCA and the school are) on occasion. If this project goes through those backups will be more frequent, and I think it may even push back all the way to Willow Street, and more often. The intersection will also be worse going northbound on Route 155 in the morning. In the afternoon things will get worse westbound on Route 20 and southbound on 155.

Within a month or two, we will be making a decision on whether to approve this project. As I see it this sets a precedent for more projects like it in the future, meaning even more of an impact on traffic. To quote from the “Guilderland Hamlet Neighborhood Plan:”

Proposals … currently under review (Glass Works Village PUD) will alter the existing character of this area …. While the Central Hamlet will become more intensely developed on the south side of Route 20, these projects present an excellent opportunity to tie together the various community amenities and establish a model for “hamlet-style” development for the Guilderland Hamlet Neighborhood and other areas of town.

We are talking about a model for future development. So if Gade Farms decides to turn their 200+ acres into a project like this, it will mean over 1000 new homes and nearly one million square feet of commercial space. And Route 20 will become a parking lot.

In the long term something more drastic needs to be done with Route 20, like roundabouts at 20 and 155, 20 and 146 (by the Stewarts), and maybe elsewhere. The so-called Comprehensive Plan (I say so-called because it’s not comprehensive and not really a plan either) is inadequate because it fails to address the intersection of 155 and 20. The Guilderland Hamlet document talks about a roundabout for 146 and 20 (a good idea) but that hasn’t been implemented yet. Is a roundabout at 155 and 20 an option? The Hamlet study talked about Glass Works Village having 200 or so residences. They’re now talking about 300.

Another concern that really bothers me about this project is the concept of spot zoning. There was a recent case, Baumgarten v. Town of Northampton, 35 A.D.3d 1081, decided by the area’s appellate court in 2007. The critical language from that case (citations omitted) is (geeky lawyer stuff in italics):

Petitioners allege that the Town Board engaged in illegal spot zoning, which is “[d]efined as the process of singling out a small parcel of land for a use classification totally different from that of the surrounding area, for the benefit of the owner of such property and to the detriment of other owners”. While numerous factors are taken into account in evaluating such a claim, the ultimate inquiry is whether the challenged zoning “is other than part of a well-considered and comprehensive plan calculated to serve the general welfare of the community”. Here, as noted, the Town Board engaged in an extensive review of the proposed project. The parameters of the project fell well within the guidelines for a planned unit development district, the parcel is located in an area where there is a mix of residential, commercial and recreational properties and no adverse impact to these surrounding properties was substantiated. Moreover, while there is no doubt that the zoning amendment benefitted the owners of the subject parcel, it also benefitted the general welfare of the community by creating seasonal housing to accommodate tourism in the area. In short, the record discloses that sufficient forethought was given to the challenged determinations, and petitioners failed to overcome the strong presumption of validity that attached to them. Finally, the record before us contains sufficient proof that the Town Board complied with all statutory posting and publication requirements.

Some more key language, from earlier in the decision:

a planned unit development district is permitted under the Town’s zoning ordinance provided numerous criteria are met, including minimum area requirements (i.e., not less than 10 acres), specified use requirements (including seasonal, residential developments), density requirements (not less than one half of an acre per dwelling unit) and coverage and open space requirements (building coverage cannot exceed 20% of the land area)

Notably missing from our zoning code (§280-17) are building coverage and density requirements. We do have open space requirements (at least 25%), minimum area (15 acres) and use requirements (residential and some limited business uses). I also don’t see how this project benefits the general welfare of the community. It benefits the developers and the future residents.

In the above case, the person challenging the proposed development was represented by Peter Barber on the appeal. Barber is the Guilderland zoning chair. Northampton was represented by Michael Poulin, a friend of mine from law school. (Yes, it really is a small world.) Barber argued that the development in that case was “illegal spot zoning.” I’m very concerned that the Town’s role in rezoning for the Glass Works Village project looks a lot like spot zoning too. I don’t think this is resolved by saying nice things about the project in the so-called Comprehensive Plan documents. It’s not comprehensive to say “we like this project.” Our zoning code needs clearer rules about where such developments will be allowed, and what the requirements for them will be. I’m not sure our current zoning code is sufficient to avoid the spot zoning problem.

Frankly, I agree
with Barber on his appeal. This is not what zoning is supposed to be. Doing things this way leads to a “kiss the ring” approach and we see that here. Part of the proposal is that they’ll pay a $1 million in “mitigation fees” to the Town to make up for the impact of the project. If it’s a good project and its benefits outweigh the costs, they shouldn’t have to pay mitigation fees. If the benefits aren’t enough, they shouldn’t be able to buy their way out of that. Maybe that $1 million should go toward fixing Route 20?

With all that said, Glass Works Village really does look like a great project. The people at Platform Realty have done a lot of work and have a vision that seems good. I hope Guilderland residents will take a careful look at it, and at the traffic impact, and let us know what they think.