Rush to rezone farmland for business park in town of Florida gets push back

Town of Florida residents display signs against a planned unit development application at Tuesday’s Planning Board meeting.
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Town of Florida residents display signs against a planned unit development application at Tuesday’s Planning Board meeting.

TOWN OF FLORIDA The Florida Planning Board resisted pressure to issue an opinion on the proposed rezoning of roughly 500 acres of farmland to allow a business park in an agricultural district in the town on Tuesday.

The Planning Board had previously signaled its intent to issue its recommendation to the Town Board Planned Unit Development (PUD) application during Tuesday’s regular meeting, but members agreed the volume of information from the applicants and opposing residents require further consideration.

“I get the feeling this is being a little rushed,” Planning Board member Peter Rea said. “We’re talking about, we need a decision tonight. Is there any opportunity to step back from this a little bit and do a little bit more?”

Val Ferro, principal planner with Good Earth Advisors, suggested the board was going back on its prior commitment.

“So now you’re changing your mind,” asked Ferro, a representative for the landowners.

Town regulations give the Planning Board 60 days to issue recommendations on PUD applications. Town officials believed the clock started after the public hearing on the proposal was conducted in July where residents broadly came out against the application.

Landowners Karen and Larry Francisco and Nadler Brothers Inc. of Ballston Spa are applying for a PUD to rezone about 500 acres just south of state Thruway Exit 27 from agricultural to industrial and commercial.

The land would subsequently be used to construct a business park on both sides of Route 30 along Thruview Drive and Belldons Road. Initial concept plans call for three warehouse-style buildings spanning 300,000 to 2 million square feet.

The Planning Board must issue a recommendation for or against the PUD for consideration by the Town Board, which has the final authority to approve or deny the application. The Town Board would conduct its own public hearing before making a decision.

The Planning Board last month asked for more than the allotted time to form an opinion from project representatives who agreed since an unfavorable position would have otherwise been issued automatically.

Town of Florida residents display signs against a Planned Unit Development application ASHLEY ONYON/THE DAILY GAZETTE

After reviewing the law more closely, Town Attorney Deborah Slezak informed the board the 60-day window actually begins once all application materials and relevant information is received. That step was reached on Tuesday.

While John Hutchison was reluctant to take more time after the board gave its word an opinion would be issued this week, other members agreed more time was needed to develop the recommendation that must be submitted as a report detailing the reasoning behind it. They requested a workshop be scheduled later this month to consider the application in depth.

Ferro pushed back against the request, questioning whether town law references holding workshops on applications. Slezak pointed out the board has conducted workshops to discuss various applications and issues as needed in the past.

Expressing displeasure with the business park concept plan and its “excessive” size, board member Stephen Viele said more due diligence is needed considering all sides and maybe even requesting changes that could make the project more palatable by preserving more farmland.

“I don’t know what my options are by saying I don’t like it,” Viele said. “I just want to look at everything and see that we’re making the right decision.”

Referencing suggestions from representatives the involved properties and even more surrounding farmland could be targeted for large-scale solar projects if the PUD application is denied, Viele admitted any decision could result in repercussions for the town.

This seemingly softened Ferro, but she rejected suggestions that residents should be allowed to participate in the workshop considering the proposal that “never had a snowball’s chance” with locals.

“We would love to doodle with you, we have some ideas,” Ferro said. “What we can not do is overcome some of the polarized emotion that was thrown at us that had absolutely no basis.”

Residents over the years have made clear their opposition to the rezoning of any agricultural land in the rural farm community. Townspeople displayed signs against the PUD at Tuesday’s meeting.

Locals have lodged complaints against the proposal over the loss of farmland, incompatibility with the town comprehensive plan, impacts to the rural landscape, strains on infrastructure, overburdening of already stressed emergency services, potential for pollution, lack of community benefits and traffic in an already congested area.

A petition branding the proposal as an unwanted development that would irresponsibly rezone farmland signed by 188 residents against the PUD was submitted to the Planning Board last month.

The land eyed for the PUD has repeatedly been targeted for projects that would not normally be allowed under zoning regulations, including a proposal that raised the ire of many townspeople to construct a casino at the site in 2014.

Taking her argument further, Ferro suggested the Planning Board should not consider further comments on the PUD application from residents since the public hearing had already been conducted and closed. Slezak was clear that locals can discuss any subject on the board’s agenda during the public comment period at the end of every regular meeting.

When it was their turn to speak, residents reiterated their concerns about the application and urged the board to let locals have a seat at the table during the workshop.

“Consider equal representation from those opposed so it is a balanced workshop,” Ken Moritz said.

Otherwise, Moritz argued, project representatives must be left out of the discussion since the board apparently has all the information it needs to come to a conclusion on the application.

Project representatives have repeated opportunities to address the board throughout the review of the application, resident Cole Nelson pointed out. Residents were provided only one formal opportunity to comment on the still-changing proposal during the July hearing.

“They’ve had their chance to keep speaking, but none of us have,” Nelson said.

Town Councilman Matthew Gogis, liaison to the Planning Board, informed residents he would discuss with Slezak whether a public comment period could be held during the workshop to give locals a chance to be heard. He reassured townspeople they could at least attend and observe the public workshop.

“We represent you guys, we live in the town,” Planning Board Chairman Michael Taylor reminded concerned residents.

The Planning Board will conduct a public workshop to discuss the PUD application at the old Town Hall at 167 Fort Hunter Road at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 28.

Reach Ashley Onyon at [email protected] or @AshleyOnyon on Twitter.

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