After nearly three decades, the view west from Northway Exit 12 across a vast horse farm has become iconic.
That scene is likely to change, though, with a large medical complex and perhaps a Roman Catholic church in the offing.
Saratoga Hospital and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany have each bought parts of the 240-acre property and have big plans — though they have yet to gain approval from town officials.
Today, the land where horseman Jack Lake cleared fields and built a picturesque standardbred breeding farm in the early 1980s is becoming overgrown. Harness horses no longer trot around the oval. But the majestic view across meadows toward the Adirondack foothills is still seen, not only by local people but by thousands who commute past it daily on Route 67 and hundreds of thousands who travel the Northway each year.
Town officials acknowledge that it’s a gateway to the community, but any prospect of keeping the property more or less the same died when town voters defeated a 2004 proposal to buy most of the land for $6.5 million.
Saratoga Hospital wants to build a $350 million multi-use medical campus on the part of the farm closest to the Northway. The plans would culminate, if all goes as expected over the next couple of decades, in a new five-story, 200-bed full-service hospital. The first phase of the project, an urgent care center, could be in place within three or four years.
Saratoga Hospital is committed enough to have paid $8.5 million last summer to buy the land outright, taking the last of the farm off the market. The hospital land had earlier been eyed for corporate offices and for a Cabela’s outdoor sports destination store, though town officials didn’t support those ideas.
Town Supervisor Paul J. Sausville said there’s a lot of support for the hospital plans from both town officials and the public.
“My personal view is it will be a very positive use of the property,” Sausville said.
The hospital’s plans, revealed with great fanfare more than a year ago, are about to step back into the public eye. Public review is starting on an environmental impact statement looking at the effects on everything from local traffic to wildlife habitat.
Hospital consultants have spent nearly a year studying those issues and recently submitted reams of new environmental data to the town. The Malta Town Board is scheduled to vote Monday night on declaring the hospital’s proposed environmental impact statement complete, launching the formal public review period.
A public hearing is set for Monday, July 28, at the town hall, and written public comment will be accepted through Aug. 21. A final decision on the project is likely to take several months beyond that.
The hospital plans for the 140-acre site include medical offices, long-term assisted residential care and eventually a full-service hospital.
“It is a significant project that we expect would unfold over the next two decades,” said Matthew Jones of Saratoga Springs, the hospital’s land use attorney.
Plans for a new hospital will also require an approval, called a certificate of need, from the state Health Department.
Meanwhile, the 100 acres immediately west of the hospital land are owned by the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese, which paid $3 million in 2002. Church officials thought a new parish might someday be needed to serve growing central Saratoga County.
The diocese in 2005-06 pursued town approval of near-term plans for a new cemetery, with an eventual vision that could include a church and classrooms. However, rezoning legislation has never been finalized, and the church is waiting for the results of a diocese review of future needs before pursuing plans for the site. Church representatives haven’t met with the Town Board since December 2006.
Diocese spokesman Ken Goldfarb said last week that the future of the property is part of the current “To Be a Church” review the diocese is doing to determine the future of various churches and other properties in its 14-county area.
Local planning groups in the diocese are making recommendations, but Bishop Howard Hubbard isn’t scheduled to announce decisions about those recommendations until January.
“We’ll be evaluating the situation [at Malta] in terms of the overall diocese plan,” Goldfarb said.
Both the hospital and church properties are zoned for residential development. That means either of them will need the town to approve a new planned development district.
The upcoming environmental impact review will include a lot of attention to how the hospital buildings will look from the surrounding roads, and whether some existing horse paddocks, barns and pastures can be kept in the plans.
The hospital wants to concentrate its buildings near the center of the property, preserving the meadows closest to the highways.
“What it looks like is going to define how people feel about it,” said Nick Schwartz, a landscape architect with Clough Harbour & Associates, one of the town’s engineers.
The additional traffic, if the property is fully developed, could impact as many as a dozen intersections, said Schwartz, who reviewed the hospital’s draft environmental impact statement for the town.
The environmental review will identify which road improvements the hospital should be required to pay for.
The only full road access to the site, at least initially, would be from the existing State Farm roundabout on Route 67. But traffic volume will eventually make a single entrance inadequate, according to Clough Harbour.
“As we move through this, from a traffic balance standpoint, it’s going to become imperative that there be a second egress,” Schwartz told the Town Board recently.
The most likely solution would be to negotiate an agreement with the diocese to have a second entrance through the church property, Schwartz said.
Town officials and the hospital have agreed that there won’t be a full entrance on Raymond Road, a rural residential road behind the property.
According to Jones, the first building likely to be built if the complex gets approval is a free-standing acute care facility. But he said that won’t be for three or four more years.
Town officials are also hopeful some arrangement can be worked out to rehabilitate the Van Aernum house on the property, an abandoned house that may once have been a way station for runaway slaves seeking freedom through the Underground Railroad.
“It would be a shame to tear it down if it could be used for a medical office,” said Town Board member Sue Nolen.
As a nonprofit health care corporation, the hospital can’t sink large amounts of money into rehabilitating the building, hospital officials have said. They have offered to donate the Van Aernum house to the town.
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