SARATOGA SPRINGS — Saratoga Hospital’s planned expansion to build an 80,000 square foot office building is in flux after an appeals court said the city conducted an improper environmental review.
The Third Judicial Department Appellate Division on Thursday rejected the city’s position that it properly performed an environmental impact analysis prior to approving the zoning change to a residential neighborhood parcel on which Saratoga Hospital sought to build the office building.
The lawyer for a group of neighbors who opposed Saratoga Hospital building the medical office, about a block from the hospital, celebrated the triumph.
Residents in 2020 filed a lawsuit to overturn the Saratoga Springs City Council’s approval of the zoning change.
Three appellants remain from the initial suit, according to their lawyer, Claudia Braymer of Glens Falls.
“We’re really pleased with the court’s decision,” Braymer said by phone Friday. “We have been arguing all along that the City Council did not fulfill its ‘SEQRA’ obligations when it tried to rezone that parcel from residential to commercial for the proposed office campus.”
The lawyer was referring to the acronym for the state Environmental Quality Review Act.
“So without that, rezoning to the commercial business district, the proposed office complex project needs to be, at the very least, put on hold,” Braymer said. “I have asked the Planning Board to deny the project and I’ve asked the applicant’s attorney to withdraw the project.”
A Saratoga Hospital spokeswoman said in an emailed statement:
“We are disappointed in the court ruling. As we’ve said all along, a project that enhances patient care is the best use for this land. A medical office center, which would bring doctors’ offices within walking distance of the hospital, is in keeping with our goal of continually improving access to healthcare in the Saratoga region. We look forward to continuing to work with the City Council to find the right solution.”
In 2020, the group of neighbors asked a state Supreme Court judge to overturn the City Council’s approval of the zoning change.
Neighborhood opponents believed the office building would harm the character of the neighborhood and potentially decrease their property values, as well as increase traffic.
In a news statement Friday, Mayor Ron Kim targeted former Mayor Meg Kelly and former city attorney Vincent DeLeonardis for trying to “ram this rezoning through without taking a hard look at the environmental impacts.”
Kim, whose tenure started Jan. 1, went on to call it a “lack of transparency and stomach-churning duplicity of the former administration and city attorney.”
“Declaring that there would be no environmental impact to rezoning a residential parcel so that an 80,000 square foot office building could be built, by pretending that the project doesn’t exist, even though everyone knew that was the only reason the zoning change was being pursued by the former Mayor and City Attorney, is gas lighting extraordinaire and was correctly rejected by the appellate court,” Kim added.
Kelly said she had no comment in response to Kim’s remarks.
The lawsuit, which was filed with the Saratoga County clerk’s office in Ballston Spa on May 27, 2020, sought to have the council’s 4-1 vote from Dec. 23, 2019 that approved the zoning map change declared “arbitrary and capricious, irrational, and affected by error of law,” and asked the court to reverse it.
Among other contentions, the five initial neighbors who were represented by Braymer, said the council did not take a required “hard look” at possible environmental impacts before declaring that the zoning change would not have significant environmental impacts.
“The parameters of that potential (Saratoga Hospital) expansion project are sufficiently known so that the potential adverse environmental impacts should have been identified and considered by the City Council in making its determination of significance,” the neighbors argue in court papers.
The City Council’s position in December 2019 was that the zoning change from residential to office medical business didn’t have a direct environmental impact, and any environmental impacts from the project the hospital is expected to propose would be addressed by the city Planning Board.
The hospital had been looking for years to get approval for an 80,000-square-foot medical building that would be built on 18 acres of vacant land at Myrtle and Morgan streets, bordering residential neighborhoods. The hospital purchased the land last summer.
During the public hearings the City Council held before the December vote, residents of the neighboring residential areas spoke out against the change, while hospital officials and their supporters said that the proposed building, which would be built less than 1,000 feet from the hospital, is needed to consolidate off-site medical staff in one location.
While hospital officials originally wanted to add the land to the hospital’s planned development district, that effort was blocked in 2016 after two City Council members, including then-mayor Joanne Yepsen, recused themselves from voting because of potential conflicts.