COLONIE — Development has been a hot topic on both sides of the coin — developers and new residents are drawn by the relatively low tax rate, the centralized location, the solid school districts and the five-star amenities while longtime residents are concerned too much growth will increase traffic, further tax infrastructure and otherwise decrease quality of life.
As such, development is certain to play a role in the November election when the supervisor and three Town Board seats are up for grabs.
George Scaringe, the Republican challenger to incumbent Supervisor Paula Mahan released his vision for how to balance the two sides of the coin that often have different interests. Mahan wasted no time in firing back saying his Republican Party nearly drove the town to bankruptcy and that she and the Democrats spent years cleaning up the fiscal mess left behind and abolishing the “corrupt” planning practices of the past.
Scaringe’s Neighborhoods First initiative would “radically change the way we look at all development project in the Town of Colonie,” he said.
“Overdevelopment is the root cause of traffic congestion, rapidly deteriorating roads and infrastructure and is severely eroding our quality of life in Colonie,” said Scaringe. “Any new development project must meet an important smart development criterion: is it good for local residents and will it strengthen the surrounding neighborhoods. Under my administration, these are the new benchmarks that all developers and contractors must meet before any new project can move forward.”
Mahan strongly rebutted that claim, and blasted back at Scaringe, who was the town and county Republican chairman for decades before making his first run at public office.
“In his rant, Mr. Scaringe conveniently overlooks the outstanding progress we have made over the past 11 years, including eliminating the $21 million deficit we inherited from his people, while delivering honest, transparent and timely budgets and financial reporting,” she said. “We have invested $25 million in our annual Paving and Stormwater Improvement Program to date, and by the end of 2019, $33 million in improvements to our Water and Sanitary Sewer Systems.”
She added that the above occurred while she was able to keep taxes in check and the financial books in line. The town’s current bond rating is an A+ with a positive outlook.
Mahan and her administration has been criticized by some for allowing too much development in town without any check or balance. She has implemented a number of initiatives of her own since taking office in 2008 including using a Town Designated Engineer to act as a liaison between developers and the Planning Board, and the town is currently undergoing a thorough review of the 2005 comprehensive plan that will set the stage for changes to zoning and land use laws. The review is three years in the works and there has been a handful of public hearings since the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee handed it off to the Town Board. It is unclear when the Town Board will adopt the plan.
The friction between neighborhoods and development is most acute when there is a patch of land between two distinct demographics like residential on one side and industrial and/or commercial on the other. Zoning restrictions for the land between the two often allow commercial or office use or apartment complexes and people in the existing neighborhoods, understandably, do not want to see the noise and traffic associated with that type of development encroach on their homes.
But, the developer, in many cases, is well within his or her legal right to build and that further adds to the friction and one reason the comprehensive plan, and subsequent zoning law changes, is underway.
Scaringe’s plan would allow only “low density transitional projects next to residential zones unless the developer can show clear benefits to adjoining neighborhoods and the town.”
Overall, his downzoning proposal would “lessen zoning density to encourage the building of single-family homes over large apartment complexes and other higher density forms of housing,” he said. Allowable density for senior housing would remain but limited to affordable senor housing and not extended to luxury senior housing.”
“By downzoning, creating greater buffers between neighborhoods and commercial projects, encouraging real senior housing and virtually eliminating special use permits, my proposal will enhance the town’s ability to protect the character of our neighborhoods while curtailing the high-density development that has led to traffic congestion, crumbling roads and a reduction in our quality of life,” he said.
Other aspects of his plan include:
• Protecting open and green space: His plan would create a real time open space log and an open space acquisition plan to utilize public, private and not-for-profit partners to acquire land and development rights. It would also bifurcate Engineering and Planning departments.
“We have invested substantial tax dollars in our parks and open space throughout the town at the Colonie Mohawk River Park, our 12 pocket parks, and the Golf Course,” Mahan said. “In addition, we built a new passive park, the Mohawk Riverside Landing Park, which connects to the Mohawk-Hudson Bike Hike Path.”
• Create Corridors of Colonie: Two examples of corridors are the West Albany development plan, where there is an ambitious plan to re-develop Tobin’s First Prize, and Central Avenue, where it will help fill vacant store fronts and improve streetscape and lighting.
“Each part of the Town faces different challenges and opportunity for growth,” he said. “By creating corridors of development, we can protect the character of neighborhoods while better addressing local development needs.”
• Increase transparency and Accountability: The plan would require all Planning, Zoning, Sign Review and Significant Environmental Appeal boards to more expansively advertise and post meeting schedules to encourage great public participation; record all meetings of the Planning and Zoning boards and make them available on the town website and increase notification for residents who abut proposed developments.
It would restrict the TDE from having projects before the town and reduce IDA incentives and tax abatements for projects that increase traffic and congestion.
“The town needs to rethink how it incentivizes projects — incentives have to be good for residents not just developers,” he said. “Town Hall’s current development strategy is unsustainable as illustrated by the inability to perform basic maintenance of Colonie’s infrastructure and the upkeep and repaving of the Town’s roads.”
“Mr. Scaringe obviously doesn’t understand how town government works because contrary to his assertion, our Planning and Engineering departments have been bifurcated for many years,” Mahan fired back. “Also, Special Use Permits are specifically provided for by state law and allow for greater neighborhood involvement. The IDA has provided pilots for two senior housing projects, a recreation project, and the Starlight project. Over the last 10 years the IDA has not provided incentives that resulted in significantly taxing our infrastructure.”
“Don’t kid yourself. Mr. Scaringe wants to put the Republican old boy network back in control of Planning,” Mahan added in a statement. “As a long-term political leader in the Town of Colonie and working alongside the previous administration for many years, did he look the other way when the planning process was controlled by his political party, had preferred vendors, steered projects, and neighborhood concerns were dismissed?”