COLONIE — A revision of the document that will guide development and outline other objectives for one of the largest suburbs in the state is nearing completion.
The main topics of discussion at the final Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee meeting on Thursday, Dec. 13, came as no surprise and included traffic, development, open space, what the town should expect from developers and infrastructure.
An update to the 2005 Comprehensive Plan has been in the works for more than two years. The process has not only incorporated input from residents, but reams of demographic data about the nearly 58-square-mile town in the heart of the Capital District as well.
That location, and a relatively low tax rate, make Colonie attractive to developers. The objective of the update has not been to totally revamp the existing plan, but to instead tweak it to make the planning process — the arbiter between the desires of existing homeowners and neighborhoods and the legal rights of landowners to develop — better for everyone.
That same location is one reason traffic is so bad on busier thoroughfares at certain times of day.
Gary Rinaldi, a committee member who is also on the town Industrial Development Agency, said he would like to see a town-wide traffic study rather than the individual studies often done at specific intersections by developers wanting to build nearby. He took it a step further, adding that the study should include other areas outside of Colonie.
“I think we should put some teeth into something that says we have this study and this study shows there will be some detrimental things that are going to occur and it needs to be comprehensive enough so people aren’t, after the fact, saying there is too much traffic going through their streets now,” he said. “Maybe the first salvo is a traffic study that is done for the town by the town and then hold the developer’s feet to the fire when they come in with these studies and we later find out traffic or other issues have become a real problem.”
One issue is people do use Colonie as a cut through between Albany and Saratoga counties and another is many of the busier roads, like Route 7, Route 2, the Northway and I-90 are all state owned. Others, like Albany Shaker Road, are owned by the county.
The idea of a mobility liaison to work with the other entities was discussed, and the director of the town’s Planning and Economic Development Department, Joe LaCivita, floated the idea of the IDA commissioning a town-wide traffic study.
Also, Peter Stuto, a committee member and chair of the town’s Planning Board, reminded people that some 42 percent of the town falls under the auspices of a GEIS — Boght Road, Lisha Kill and the Albany International Airport — which govern development and have mechanisms in place to mitigate traffic.
There were only a handful of people from the public at the meeting and two were from the grassroots group Save Colonie, A Partnership for Planning. A member of that group, Susan Weber, said one extensive study of the Albany Shaker Road corridor showed 40 percent of the traffic is cutting through the town while the rest is local.
“Every time we approve a high density development you increase the trouble we all have with our traffic,” she said.
Logically, when development is growing on the one hand, open space is shrinking on the other. LaCivita said town officials have been working out the details of a plan to charge developers a fee that will be earmarked for open space.
It would work similar to mitigation fees in any of the three GEIS areas where developers are charged fees, based on the size and scope of the project, for everything from recreation to traffic to public safety.
For example, he said, the town could charge $250 per lot in a standard residential subdivision, or $250 per acre for commercial development.
“It would be earmarked exclusively for open space and it can’t be used for anything else,” said town attorney Michael Magguilli. “It would give the town the ability to improve existing open space and make it more accessible for all the residents of the town.”
All tracks of open space are being inventoried and mapped by town officials as part of the Comprehensive Plan.
Jessica Mahar, a committee member, said any open space plan must include the public.
“You are identifying funding sources but all this needs to be a transparent process that is inclusive of the public and the community because ‘A’ you want them to buy in how you are using development dollars and town funds for things like this; and ‘B’ you want to make sure as you are investing in this you continue to capture the hopes and dreams of the people who want live there and what is going to bring a new quality of life to different neighborhoods,” she said.
Big box stores
Magguilli said he would like to see something incorporated into the Comprehensive Plan to deal with big box stores who go under like Kmart and Toys-R-Us.
“We have to put something in that gives the town some type of recourse when these big box stores close because you can’t re-purpose them,” he said. “A part of the approval process could be requiring the developer to fund an account either for the demolition or the repurposing or the redesigning of the space for another purpose.”
While many agreed to the idea on paper, the thought of putting it into practice was not warmly embraced.
“Conceptually, I’m adamantly opposed to the idea. The market will take care of these old buildings. It always has. They will get re-purposed,” said committee member and member of the Planning Board Craig Shamlian. “But if this moves forward, where is the line. What constitutes a big box store? What is the trigger to start the escrow…what is the square-footage?”
Chuck Voss, an engineer with Barton and Loguidice who is a consultant in the formulation of the Comprehensive Plan, said it could work the same way as decommissioning a solar field where the developer does put money aside but said the idea needs more research.
“The concept is generally sound and it’s a good way to incentivize people to not abandon sites and it’s a good way to make sure the town is covered if the town has to go in and clean up a site that has been abandoned,” he said. “But we need to be careful on how we approach it.”
Other items of discussion:
• Shamlian asked if there was something the town could do to better plan for when it requires a developer to build sidewalks.
For example, he said, the sidewalks along Route 155 essentially go “nowhere.”
“A better plan to me, if they are required to put in 150 feet of sidewalk, is to put in 150 feet of sidewalk somewhere where it makes sense,” he said.
LaCavita said the town is currently formalizing a sidewalk plan and it will focus on where the gaps are and then focus on how to make connections.
• Stuto asked if the town could get something more from developers when it issues permission for a Planned Development District, or a permit to build in greater density than current zoning allows.
Right now, the town requires the developer provide a public benefit when it does build a PDD. But while that benefit must be for the good of the entire town and not just the project, it is restricted to the general area of construction.
Some wanted more flexibility to, for example, connect the sidewalk on Route 155 to something even if the PDD is located on the other side of town.
The 14-member Comprehensive Plan Review Committee will finalize a draft of the plan in January and that will be subject to a public comment period. Shortly after that, the plan will get presented to the Town Board to formally adopt.
Even in its completed form, though, the plan is not legally binding unless the ideas brought forth in the Comprehensive Plan are formally incorporated into the town’s land use and/or zoning laws.