CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. — A recent candidates’ forum for the only contested electoral race in Clifton Park and Halfmoon made clear that development in town remains a hot button issue.
The Oct. 2 Meet the Candidates Forum held at the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Library was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Saratoga County. In an election year that is far short of fireworks and histrionics, the forum brought out the three Clifton Park residents who are vying to fill two seats on the Town Board.
Incumbent board members Amy Standaert and James Whalen, both Republicans, are being challenged by Kerensa Rybak, a Democrat. Attendance for the forum was on the low side drawing approximately 65 people, many of whom have close ties to the two major political parties. The questions for the candidates came from the audience.
The evening was a particularly cordial one; the candidates as well as many of the audience members knowing one another. The candidates’ opening statements revealed they all have children, hold the local school district in high regard, and want the best for the town they live in. The differences centered on its ongoing development and the Republicans’ solid hold on every seat on the Town Board.
In his opening statement, Whalen noted that his eight-year record as a councilman is one of proven service. He also made a case for returning to a board that he believes “provides effective, efficient town government."
“When you talk about leadership,, you talk about results and this Town Board has produced results,” he said. “We’ve maintained a policy of no town property tax and preserved open space and established trails. We’ve added nearly two dozen homes to the town’s historic register, established the Town Center zoning plan which has fostered and encouraged redevelopment at the Exit 9 area, and been proactive working with Shen to preserve 37 acres of land in the Town Center.”
Standaert, in her opening statement, added to Whalen’s remarks describing the town as an engaged community, a special place, one that got that way by working for it rather than wishing for it.
“Since my parents moved here 45 years ago, Clifton Park continues to attract people making it a thriving community with so much to offer,” she said. “The vibrancy of our community, our economic strength, our preservation of natural resources and our extensive resident services are a direct result of hard work, careful decisions, smart investments, and community participation. Serving on the Town Board may be a part-time position but it’s my full-time passion.”
Rybak is making her first run for a seat on the Town Board. She saw things a bit differently than the two incumbents.
“I’ve fallen in love with this community, however, I believe the poor planning and over-development of our land is causing undue stress on our schools, our infrastructure and the aesthetics of our town,” she said. “I’m running because we need a new perspective. We need officials to work with the taxpayers and be conscientious with their money. We need someone on the Town Board willing to forgo the rubber stamp and instead ask questions and to push back on behalf of their constituents. I’ll ask the tough questions. We need checks and balances in town hall. We cannot continue to have a one-party government in a town with such a diverse population.”
In her remarks, Rybak went on to take issue with the supervisor’s salary and what she believed to be the Town Board’s rezoning of the 37-acre Shen site. Both assumptions drew responses from audience members who corrected her statement on the supervisor’s salary and the time frame for when the land was rezoned.
However, the issue of development and developers’ interests in the wider community remained a topic with questioners who continued to bring it up throughout the 90-minute event.
One questioner asked the incumbents about taking funds for their campaigns (indirectly) from local developers. The question was a tricky one for those not privy to the ways of campaign financing. Developers, as with any individual, can make contributions to a local party or a county committee. That money might eventually make its way to help local candidates’ campaigns without their knowledge.
Whalen and Standaert both said they had not taken contributions from developers for their campaigns and assured the public that any such indirect contributions do not affect Town Board decisions.
“We work with developers, but we’ve stood our ground,” Whalen said. “We don’t just accede to developers.”
Rybak said she had not taken campaign contributions from developers or their companies, only individuals.
That initial question led another to ask what message the candidates would have for landowners seeking to develop their property.
Rybak said she was not against development, but the town needs to stick to its green space protocols and environmental studies. She added that there seemed to be too much of, “just this one time” taking place with requests to develop.
Whalen countered that what Rybak was referring to were PDDs, (Planned District Developments) that come with their own legislation and zoning. The majority of these requests, or applications, he said, have not received approval from the Town Board.
Standaert echoed Whalen.
“There’s been dozens of proposals,” she said, “but only one, the condo subdivision behind Ravenswood, is the only one we’ve approved and the neighbors wanted residential there.”
A final questioner asked Rybak directly if development was paused or reduced how she would make up the county property taxes and sales tax that was lost.
Rybak answered that the town could function well by working to increase its tourism draw and with the businesses it already has. She pointed to Saratoga Springs and Albany as two cities that have shunned intense development and are surviving well.
Whalen noted the town’s fiscal conservative approach and its ability to maintain a strong fund balance.
Standaert stood by the town’s approach to development.
“Our schools are successful because of that tax base,” she said. “Without a healthy, strong, tax base Shen would be struggling. Our tax base protects people’s home values.”
Other questions focused on roundabouts, the candidates’ tools for office, high-speed internet, and whether either of the incumbents had ever voted in opposition to a Town Board resolution.
Early voting begins Oct. 26. Election Day is Nov. 5.