Golf course proposal divides Saratoga Springs council

I can’t predict which way the Saratoga Springs City Council is going to go on plans to expand Sarato

I don’t predict election outcomes any better than I pick horses, but I haven’t given up trying — so I’m not afraid of failure.

But even so, I can’t predict which way the Saratoga Springs City Council is going to go on plans to expand Saratoga National Golf Club into a year-round resort.

A good many silver-tongued types who genuinely care about the city have spoken up in favor, but this may not be a case where eloquence will win the day. Two of the five council members seem dead-set against it and only one, Accounts Commissioner John Franck, is unreservedly in favor.

“I haven’t heard one downtown business complain,” Franck said. “The golf course hasn’t hurt downtown at all. For God’s sake, we’re the Spa City.”

But the council’s only Republican, Public Works Commissioner Skip Scirocco, isn’t reflexively lining up with the GOP powerbrokers who support allowing a hotel and condos at the tony golf club off Union Avenue in the exclusive country east of the Northway.

“Does this open up the floodgates for other hotels out there? I think it does,” Scirocco said at a City Council workshop Tuesday so jammed that dozens of people watched on a video monitor in the hall.

Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen, characteristically, isn’t budging from his initial skepticism about allowing any new development in the city’s outer “greenbelt.”

“The ‘City in the Country’ has been an important concept to the success of the city,” he said.

The golf club’s plans have been pretty thoroughly thought out in terms of how to rebut criticism, including putting permanent conservation easements on the golf course, increasing public access, allowing a planned off-road trail to cross the land and hiring local architect Mike Phinney, whose credentials as a “green” architect are impressive.

Even so, the plan raises the questions that recur every decade or so about the lands around Exit 14 — which are green now, but make people who want hotels or apartments salivate. Currently, zoning prohibits commercial development in the “greenbelt,” and the golf club project would require creating a loophole.

Only the City Council can open that loophole by changing the property’s zoning.

“The Saratoga National group would like a path to present a project to you, and there really isn’t a path to that right now,” Phinney told the council.

Conveniently enough, the city is reworking its comprehensive plan, which is intended to set broad land-use policies such as what kind of development to allow east of the Northway. The comprehensive plan committee couldn’t resolve its internal differences over the golf course proposal and made no recommendation to the City Council.

Sustainable Saratoga, probably the city’s most influential citizen group, is firmly in the “just say no” camp.

“Would all this great downtown development have happened if we had opened up the greenbelt [to development] in 2001?” asked Sustainable Saratoga Chairman Harry Moran.

Mayor Joanne Yepsen and Finance Commissioner Michelle Madigan have kept their cards close to their vests, but Yepsen told me she’s open to the project.

On Thursday, it was announced that Saratoga PLAN will be acquiring the Pitney Farm on the city’s West Side, preserving it from the possibility of becoming another tract housing development. Yepsen was at the announcement, supporting a role for the city in keeping that land undeveloped, or at least having its development limited to new agricultural pursuits. The city is being asked to spend $1.2 million from its open space bond fund to buy the development rights.

“This exactly fits what the bond-funding authority was for,” Yepsen said.

She noted that both tourism and agriculture are vital to Saratoga County’s economy and the city’s, and suggested the golf course expansion and farm protection projects complement each other.

“This project balanced with that project reflects the opportunity to say we can do balanced growth and intelligent growth,” the mayor said. “They both represent what we are as a city.”

The council isn’t expected to have another discussion about the golf course for a couple more weeks.

As for when the issue will be resolved, I’ve learned to recognize a slow horse when I see one.

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