CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. — The recent approval by the Zoning Board of Appeals of three area variances for a single project has moved open space advocates to question whether the town stands behind its own studies.
On June 18, the ZBA voted 5-1 to approve a request by Clifton Park developer Ryan Boni to build two duplexes on a 4.57-acre parcel on Route 146A. The parcel, which is owned by Country Club Acres, is on the north side of the road and west of the road’s intersection with Main Street.
Boni wants to subdivide the parcel into two lots. One lot would have one-acre, and the second lot would have 3.57 acres. Because of an amendment put into the town code in December regarding duplexes, each building is to be viewed as two, single family homes and as such must conform to the appropriate zoning rules.
Because the parcel is in the Western Generic Environmental Impact Study (Western GEIS) area, each “home” must conform to the rules of a cluster development and have three acres per home. To meet that regulation Boni asked the board for an area variance that would allow a separate, seven-acre parcel, also owned by Country Club Acres, to count toward the 12 acres required.
Additionally, Boni asked the board for a third area variance from a regulation requiring a 200-foot lot width at the building line.
If the project were to be approved, Boni told the board, he would have the seven-acre parcel permanently protected and offer it as a donation to the Saratoga Land Trust or the Town of Clifton Park as open space.
Support for the variances came in the form of a letter from Town Planning Director John Scavo to Building and Development Director Steve Myers.
In his April 19 letter, Scavo noted the potential donation, the potential that single-family homeowners might expand into the wetlands on the 4.57 parcel, and the nearness of a railroad which, in his experience, makes the land less desirable for single-family housing.
“Residents who occupy duplex structures tend to have less long-term ties to the dwelling unit and are less concerned about the long term implications of an adjacent active rail line,” he wrote.
Opposing the variances was the town’s advisory committee, the Environmental Conservation Committee and several members of the Friends of Clifton Park Open Space and other open space advocates.
In a draft version of its minutes from May 9, the committee wrote that the “proposal is a blatant violation of the spirit, intent and application of the CR (conservation residential) Zoning Law as passed in 2005” and recommended the ZBA deny the requested variances since the Town Code section regarding duplexes was not changed following a legal challenge.
The committee noted also, that the ZBA must consider “five legally-recognized standards of review” one of which asked if the requested area variance was substantial.
“The applicant is requesting a variance of three times the CR Zoning standard,” the minutes stated. “In the first quarter of 2019, the Town Board approved a zoning change [that] required three acres of unconstrained land for each dwelling unit. This project should require twelve acres of unconstrained land based on two duplexes. There are only four acres of unconstrain(ed) land on the entire lot. If the Zoning Board approves this project, it will undermine the decision of the Town Board.”
The committee added that granting a 300 percent variance would undermine the CR Zone and lead to similar requests for variances.
Reading from a prepared text, FOCPOS members Susan Burton, James Ruhl, Ray Seymour, and Margaret Catellier agreed with the committee’s minutes.
In separate remarks, they referenced how the application flies in the face of the public’s interest in open space as evidenced in a 2001 study, the 2005 Western Clifton Park Land Conservation Plan and its guidelines, and the efforts by the town to monitor man-made and natural changes to the environment by establishing an Open Space, Trails, and Riverfront Committee as well as creating the position of Open Space Coordinator.
“The intent of both the citizens of Clifton Park and the Clifton Park Town Board are clear,” Burton said. “Open space protections have been recognized, codified, and clarified for Western Clifton Park. This current area variance works against all that history and law.”
Catellier asked that the requests be denied.
“A decision by the ZBA to grant this variance would ignore the findings of the Western Zone GEIS, countermand the goals and objectives of the Town Comprehensive Plan, contravene the legislative intent of our Town Board, and favor the applicant over the health, safety and general welfare of the Clifton Park community,” she said.
In separate remarks, environmental advocate Bill Koebbeman noted that many town governments give lip service to open space but the WGEIS has balanced it.
“Residents know what to expect,” he said. “It really did reduce development.”
In the remarks from the board, ZBA Chairman Michael Dudick said everyone has a right to request a variance; that the town has laws and the board gives relief because of special circumstances. Noting the proximity of power lines and the railroad line to the parcels, Dudick said it was his belief the parcels were unique and as such would not set a precedent.
The board’s resolution to approve the request included a sunset clause that will nullify the approval if the sale of the properties to Boni is not finalized in two years. The project must now go to the Planning Board for site plan approval and a Special Use Permit for duplexes in a residential zone.
Burton was disappointed by the board’s ruling.
“It does not conform to the spirit of the zoning code and flies in the face of all the work that was done over the course of the last 20 years by hundreds of people who want to keep the community unique,” she said.