The draft comprehensive plan for the village of Saranac Lake and town of Harrietstown has turned into a hot-button issue in the current village election campaign.
The Democratic candidates have voiced general support for the plan, although mayoral candidate Clyde Rabideau said at the March 2 election forum that the draft isn't perfect and "needs to be tweaked a little bit here and there."
Meanwhile, the Republican and independent candidates have raised concerns about some of plan's recommendations, and have completely rejected its proposed retail size cap.
This rendering of what a redeveloped and revitalized Dorsey Street area could look like was part of the village of Saranac Lake’s “Vision Concepts” project, which is named as one of several initiatives that helped to shape the comprehensive plan. “It illustrates the kinds of uses the plan would lay the groundwork for,” said Comprehensive Planning Committee member Leslie Karasin.
(Draft Saranac Lake Vision Concepts plan, December 2007)
"In some ways it's more restrictive than the APA," Republican mayoral candidate Jeff Branch said at the forum. "We do not need to be further restricted by this comprehensive plan."
While most of the candidates have read the nearly 50-page draft, it's probably fair to say that most of the voters haven't. What follows is a primer on the key components of the plan and how it came to be.
In the fall of 2006, the village and town boards appointed a committee - made up of local elected officials, planning board members and community volunteers - to develop a joint comprehensive plan for the town and the village. At the time, the town's master plan hadn't been updated in nearly 40 years, while the village's master plan hadn't been updated since 1988.
The goal of the comprehensive plan, according to the introduction to the current draft, is to "provide a framework for the future of the community" by outlining community goals and setting long-range strategy. The plan also serves as the basis for planning, zoning and development regulations.
"It's a combination of what your hopes and goals are for the community, along with what the objective criteria limitations of the community are," said committee member Jim Hotaling, an architect and planner. "It's a combination of what you want and what's achievable."
The committee's recommendations are based on public input. That process began with a community-wide survey, where town and village residents were asked to identify key issues for the future. More than 750 surveys were returned.
The committee also held nine public meetings, attended by about 200 people, between June 2007 and January 2008. Committee members convened stakeholder meetings with representatives of local institutions, town and village staff, state agencies and local businesses. As the plan was being drafted, a series of meetings was held to update the town and village boards on the progress of the effort.
A preliminary draft was presented to the public in May of last year.
During the process of gathering public input, the committee identified four "core values" shared by town and village residents. The first theme listed in the plan is economic stability and reads, "Community residents should have access to a variety of job opportunities, shopping options and reasonably priced housing."
Environmentally sustainable planning is also identified as a priority. The plan says the community wants to pursue energy efficiency and alternative energy sources, protection of natural resources, efficient land-use patterns and mixed-use development (retail downstairs and residential upstairs, for example), diverse transportation options, local options for fulfilling key needs and green building techniques.
The third theme is community health and wellness. Land-use planning and public spaces should reinforce the benefits and opportunities associated with access to a variety of recreational opportunities and healthy lifestyle choices, the plan reads.
Sense of community is the fourth core value of the comprehensive plan. The draft says it is "imperative to preserve the elements of the community that define its character and make the town and village home to its residents." Those elements include its historical character, natural beauty and viewsheds.
Leslie Karasin, chair of the village planning board and member of the Comprehensive Planning Committee, said the four themes are the basis for the more-detailed recommendations in the plan.
"Those really were the overarching themes we pulled out of the public input process," she said. "I think they really are the things we tried to interweave in each of the topics, in terms of how we can achieve those four goals."
Committee member Jack Drury said the plan "sets the tone."
"I think this plan does a wonderful job of setting a progressive tone in our community, by being business-friendly while also maintaining the character of our community," he said.
Goals and recommendations
The draft comprehensive plan identifies dozens of community goals and includes recommendations on how to achieve those goals.
In the economic development section, the plan calls for implementing the Saranac Lake Region Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, exploring revolving loan and equity funds for new business ventures, marketing the Saranac Lake area as a center for environmental and biological sciences, creating a local development corporation to acquire and develop property, and attracting "appropriate" retail development.
Creating affordable and energy-efficient housing is also named as a priority in the plan. To achieve that goal, the plan recommends offering low-cost loans to homebuyers, allowing more mixed-use projects and higher-density housing, encouraging green building and clustering of subdivisions, requiring new housing developments to create affordable units and developing a rental inspection program.
Hotaling said it's also important to maintain the current mix of housing that's available in the village and town.
"We want to keep the housing potential there for families as well as single people," he said.
Maintaining the urban and historic character of the village's downtown, while also integrating new development, is another key part of the plan, Hotaling said. But the focus isn't just on the village. Hotaling said part of the plan will address the potential for development in Lake Clear, specifically at the Adirondack Regional Airport Business Park and the former Lake Clear Elementary School.
While the complete list of recommendations is too long to be named in this story, other goals identified in the plan include combining the town and village planning and zoning boards, improving sidewalks and roads, encouraging more shared services between the village and the towns, creating a community recycling program, expanding public transportation, developing a recreation plan and protecting water quality, open space, natural resources, viewsheds and "community character."
The goals and recommendations section of the plan is followed by several pages of guidelines for development of zoning, subdivision and other regulations, since the comprehensive plan will form the legal basis for creation of a new land-use code.
Size guidelines for retail stores in the town and village are included in the land-use section of the comprehensive plan, which acknowledges that the issue of a large store has "created significant debate and controversy that has divided the community."
The committee says it looked at the full spectrum of retail uses, from "mom and pop" small businesses to big-box stores. The plan recommends four different categories of retail:
-Small retail projects, meaning any structure less than 5,000 square feet, would get an expedited site-plan review.
-Medium retail, defined as anything between 5,000 and 10,000 square feet, would get a full review.
-Large retail projects, between 10,000 and 30,000 square feet, would go through a full site-plan review and also require a special-use permit.
-Mega-retail projects, anything larger than 30,000 square feet would need a full review, a special permit and would only be allowed in the downtown core area or a planned unit development, a pre-designated area that would carry certain restrictions and standards.
A single store could have a maximum footprint of 30,000 square feet and could be no larger than 60,000 square feet in size, including multiple stories. Shopping plazas would be capped at a maximum footprint of 60,000 square feet and could be no larger than 120,000 square feet in size.
The plan says the footprint thresholds can be exceeded if the project is part of a mixed-use or multi-story development. The size thresholds can be exceeded if the project includes substantial public benefits such as affordable housing, green infrastructure, underground parking, or bicycle, pedestrian or public transportation facilities.
Village Community Development Director Jeremy Evans said the retail size recommendations were based on guidelines in place in Madison, Wis. He admits they are complicated but stressed that the guidelines are "not a hard and fast cap."
"I get a little frustrated when I keep hearing the word cap," Evans said. "There's no upper limit proposed. It's more a threshold."
While some members of the town and village boards have raised concerns about including any restrictions on the size of retail stores in the plan, Drury said they left the recommendations in because the majority of the people who responded to the survey said some type of a cap is "reasonable."
"We've gone out of our way to make sure this is driven by data, and not opinions," Drury said. "It's fully understandable they may have some things they disagree with, but we believe the forum for that discussion is at the town and village level, not at the committee level."
"What's in the plan is just a recommendation and is just a starting point for more discussion," Karasin added. "It represents the synthesis of the public input we collected. The comprehensive plan is not a document with the force of law."
Karasin noted that the retail guidelines in the draft comprehensive plan are different from the current interim retail size cap in the village, which is set at 60,000 square feet for a single store and 90,000 square feet for a shopping center. The town does not have an interim retail size cap.
Until it closed in 2003, Ames was the largest single retail store in the village at roughly 40,000 square feet. Currently, the Grand Union supermarket on Lake Flower Ave. and the Aldi grocery store across the street are the village's largest retail stores, both at around 15,000 square feet.
The Republican candidates - Branch and trustee candidates Allie Pelletieri and Diana Howard - issued a news release last week that said the plan, if approved, "would set into motion a new era of over-regulation of private lands locally, and further depress our economic growth potential."
"In addition to APA rules, regulations, enforcement actions and mandated site reviews, the hamlet area of Saranac Lake (and the town of Harrietstown) would have, in many situations, an even more restrictive land use code," the release says. "Even the charming, historic preservation and community recreation ideas in this draft plan cannot hide or minimize the negative impact on property owners and economic development in our community."
Some of the specific proposals the Republicans list as "obvious concerns" include the retail store guidelines, encouraging cluster development, making the plan compatible with state Forest Preserve units, a recommendation to limit the size of watercraft in small water bodies and several provisions that involve protecting open space, viewsheds and scenic values.
The Republicans also said the number of people who responded to the survey and attended the public meetings only represents about 10 percent of the total population in the town and village.
Rabideau said he supports the concept of the plan, but added that it is not complete and needs some tweaking.
"I think it's important to better define the retail size issue," he said. "The idea of bonus sizes needs to be more definitive for potential developers."
Rabideau, who supports the limits in the temporary retail size cap (60,000 square feet for a single store and 90,000 square feet for a shopping center), said the plan would allow for an "Ames-size store plus." He also said he's been contacting retail companies and plans to make a pitch to them, if elected.
"I also reject the notion that (the plan) will stifle economic opportunity, which is not based on getting a Walmart here," he said. "It's about getting jobs here."
To have nearly 1,000 people involved in the process of drafting the plan is "incredible," Rabideau added.
"Anybody who says that is not a significant number doesn't have any experience trying to do these things," he said.
It's been more than three years since the process of drafting a comprehensive plan got under way. Committee members are currently working to add descriptions of different planning areas in the town and village to the plan, before they deliver it to the town and village boards.
Evans said the town and village will have to reach consensus on any changes to the plan. Each board will then have to hold a public hearing before it considers adopting the plan.
"I think everyone agrees that 90 to 95 percent of it is something both boards like," Evans said. "It's that last 5 to 10 percent we'll have to work on."
The draft comprehensive plan can be viewed online at http://www.saranaclakeny.gov/ under the "Special Projects" tab.
Contact Chris Knight at (518) 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.