COLONIE — A none too happy Planning Board opted to not vote on modified site plans for a housing development, thereby allowing a town-imposed stop work order to stay in place until an appropriate course of action is decided.
“We spend a lot of time on plans and we try to get things right and when something like this happens it’s pretty upsetting on our end too,” Planning Board member Craig Shamilan said to a packed house of upset neighbors on Tuesday, March 10. “Having heard everyone, I have no intention on voting on this tonight. The idea of four trees on five lots to remedy this situation is, to use a word from the audience, insulting.
Click here to read the story about the stop work order.
“This is a major deviation from the plans and the idea they didn’t understand what limits of the clearing meant is disingenuous to say the least, especially given the fact it is a conservation subdivision. We need to get this project back to as close as where it should have been. If they have to spend whatever to do whatever that is their problem. I don’t have an issue with that. That is their problem. They should have not done what they did.”
On Feb. 12 the town shut down a 24-unit housing development off Sand Creek Road because the contractor, Cillis Builders, ignored a no-cut/no-grade line established by the Planning Board to protect neighbors of the now extended Donna Drive. In approving the project, the board placed a deed restriction on that buffer, which encircles the entire site, so even the new homeowner technically cannot modify the land in any way even after they purchase it.
Furthermore, on Feb. 20, Magguilli said Cillis violated the stop work order by having National Grid on site installing gas lines.
At Tuesday’s meeting, a company representative presented a modified site plan to the Planning Board in the hopes of getting the OK to start working again. Two homes are in the process of being built and a third lot has been sold. Generally, with such subdivisions, the contractor builds homes as they are sold.
The board, though, rather than voting on the modified site plan, assigned the new director of the Planning and Economic Development Department, Sean Maguire, and the Town Designated Engineer on the project, Joe Grasso, to figure out how to bring the project back in line with what was proposed, and approved, in 2018.
That approval was a conservation subdivision which allows for more density, or smaller lots, than traditional zoning in exchange for keeping more greenspace. Donna Drive is accessed off Nina Drive, which is off of Sand Creek Road, and dead ended in two directions. A road built for the new development connects both dead ends creating a loop around Raffaele Court, a cul-de-sac off Donna Drive.
In 2019, according to Town Attorney Michael Magguilli, Ted Cillis came to the PEDD and asked permission to grade more of the land in order to make the homes more marketable. He was told he would have to go back to the Planning Board and start the process from scratch.
But rather than do that, or abide by the parameters of the conservation subdivision outlined by the Planning Board, Cillis graded right up to property lines along Alfred Drive and Raffaele Court which led to the stop work order.
The Planning Board soundly rejected his amended proposal on Tuesday and, as a whole, were as unhappy as the residents about their directive being ignored.
“I can’t say I am surprised we are here. I think this is everything we all here about businesses coming in and ignoring regulation and ignoring elected and appointed representatives who make decisions to protect the public. As they say ‘it is easier to get forgiven than permission,’” said Mary Ellen Lorini, who lives on Nina Drive. “To come before you with a proposal to make it all better so the work stoppage can be lifted is insulting to you, and us, and the process.”
She said many residents attended numerous meetings with town representatives about the project to cooperate with the building and figure out how to best protect their properties. That work, she said, is all for naught if the board does not take a hardnosed approach to what she categorized as a “blatant disregard” for any and all requirements associated with the board’s approval. If it does not, she said, history will repeat itself, either with Cillis or another developer.
“I would recommend that whatever you decide involves him going back and refiling a plan and starting again and if there are fines to be imposed, great,” she said. “It sets a heck of a precedent for other developers in Colonie. That the planning board is to be disregarded and the conditions imposed on any approvals should be disregarded because you can just come back and get an amendment. I would urge you to be more respectful of the process and the public and the board as a whole in dealing with this blatant disregard of what everyone invested themselves in at the start of this project.”
Cillis was granted a special slot on Tuesday’s Planning Board agenda to present the modified plans, but they really didn’t gain any traction.
The meeting started out with Magguilli outlining what was approved on paper and what was actually graded at the site. His testimony was backed up by TDE Grasso, who presented a number of photos to help show the board where the inappropriate grading occurred. The two took the board through what transpired before nearly a dozen irate neighbors voiced their opinion on the matter.
“In May, 2019, we advised that any changes to the subdivision plan would have to be done by Planning Board approval. The Planning Board is the only authority to change the plan. He would have to start over basically,” Magguilli said. “On Feb. 11 of this year we were advised that he clear cut the entire subdivision and essentially ignored the no grading line and no cut line and cleared land to the lot line to the north and the south and in addition they cut down substantial trees that were to be saved. He essentially did what he wanted to do.”
Luiggi Palleschi, an engineer from ABD who presented the amended plan to the board, said the intention was never to ignore the board’s directive.
“What we are getting confused on is the limits on clearing and grading doesn’t mean we are cutting trees down. It could be little bit of brush or grass,” he said. “If I am going to be buying a $400,000 or $500,000 home, and half my lot is going to be cleared and graded and have beautiful sod, and the back half is going to brush or old grass I’m going to ask the developer to clean that up for me so it all blends together.”
He said one homeowner wanted Cillis to cut some trees down along his property line, and other trees that were cut were cottonwood, diseased or too small to be included in the tree inventory.
“In terms of limited or no clearing and grading lines. That means you are not allowed to do any soil disturbance or cutting past that line and it shouldn’t be manicured so someone can mow it in the future,” Grasso said. “That is not the intent of those lines.”
Part of the new presentation included planting a four additional trees behind certain lots that will help replace the destroyed buffer. But, it did little to satisfy the neighbors or the board.
“We pay taxes and we paid taxes before Cillis started to build and to show such disregard for people on Alfred Drive makes me very angry,” said Elizabeth Martin, who lives on Alfred Drive.
“I am insulted by this whole process,” added Town Board member Susan Milstein. “A lot of work needs to be done to remedy this situation and we need to know what kind of punitive action can be taken. We don’t have that at our disposal right now. If there is something, I would like to know what can be done.”
There were other issues brought up such as the drainage swale created along the Alfred Drive property line, but that was largely outside the scope of grading the deed restricted buffer zone.
Whatever Grasso and Maguire come with to mitigate the damage will need Planning Board approval, and if it varies too much from the original subdivision, Cillis may have to start from the beginning with a sketch plan review, then concept acceptance and final site plan review before construction can start again.
“Since a lot of this stuff has been clear cut or graded that was not supposed to have been touched, it’s documented, there should be enhancements. There is no way for it to go back to the way it was before, or near impossible,” said Planning Board Chairman Peter Stuto. “I am really upset and I hate dragging the neighbors back again and again so I want to put some horsepower behind coming up with a remedial plan so we can see some near immediate results and so the neighbors see some improvement.”