Imagine downtown Saratoga Springs’ Congress Park replaced by retail or office space. That’s what Bob Miller asked Shenendehowa’s Board of Education to consider before making a long-awaited decision on the future of 34 acres of undeveloped land behind Shatekon Elementary School Tuesday evening.
Despite impassioned pleas from community members urging the board to keep the undeveloped land in the public domain to be used as a park, board members voted 4-3 to sell the land to developer BBL Development of Albany.
BBL offered $2,050,001 and agreed to donate between 17.5 to 19 acres of the land to the town of Clifton Park to be used as a park, while the remaining 17.5 to 19 acres will be developed as retail or office space.
“This decimates the potential of a central park in Clifton Park. We do not understand why the school board would choose a developer over its citizens,” said Susan Burton, vice president of the Friends of Clifton Park Open Space.
Gary DiLallo, Robert Pressly, Todd Gilbert and Mary Blaauboer voted in favor of the BBL proposal. Gilbert cited the importance of securing funds to buy land that’s more developable in the future.
Deanna Stephenson, William Casey and Christina Rajotte voted against the decision to accept the BBL bid. “I think we’re being short-sighted,” said Stephenson, the board’s newest member.
The Friends of Clifton Park Open Space gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition to keep the land in the public domain, Burton said.
“It’s our land. We don’t want the money, we want the land,” said Frank Berlin during a public comment period.
Berlin said he has searched for people who think selling the land to the town is a bad idea. “Out of the hundreds of people I talked to, you folks on the board are the only people who voted no. It means a great deal to us.”
The school district began accepting requests for proposals last May but received just one offer by its original Jan. 4 deadline. It came from developer DCG Development Co.
DCG had offered $1.7 million for the lot, but then rescinded that offer. The district then again sought requests for proposal.
BBL Development made the highest offer. DCG Development submitted a second bid of $1,529,000 while United Group bid $1,125,000 and the town of Clifton Park bid $1,000,000. Clifton Park’s proposal would have been paid over the course of a year after closing. According to the district’s attorney, David Rowley, the request for proposals forbade payment over time.
The land, between Moe Road and Maxwell Drive, has been owned by Shenendehowa Central School District since 1970 and was originally intended for the school’s expansion.
This past September, Clifton Park Town Supervisor Phil Barrett said he was cautiously optimistic that the town would be able to secure the land. “The town made a very attractive offer that included cash and a proposed partnership for playing fields for the cleared property adjacent to Shatekon Elementary School. Unfortunately, a wide gap remained between our offer and the expectations of the school district,” said Barrett in that same interview.
Joe Niall, another member of the Clifton Park Open Space Committee, encouraged the board to consider the importance of doing the right thing for the future of the community.
“Since this parcel is publicly owned by these taxpayers through the school district, it’s clear — residents should be heard from before their public land is sold to a private developer and thus lost to them forever,” said Niall. “Certainly including the community in deciding this issue would enhance good feelings and let everyone know the school board respects all the residents, all the taxpayers of Halfmoon and Clifton Park,” he added.
Linda Seymour, a Clifton Park resident for the last 48 years, recalled a time in the 1980s when she sat on Shenendehowa’s Board of Education and had to consider the fate of the land in question. Noting it was a difficult time financially for the district, Seymour said, “based on the input from our community, we did not feel compelled to sell that property. We felt that the benefit to the taxpayer would be insignificant, just as I feel it would be now.”
After the board announced its decision, Seymour addressed them saying, “You sold yourself out.”
Miller likened the financial benefit of selling the land to a developer as about one Big Mac per resident.
“I am profoundly dissapointed that I am in the minority on this board,” said Casey. “This is an irreversible decision. A developer is going to come in and develop that 15 acres and cut those trees down and put in retail and office space. We don’t need more of it. We have not been transparent in this process. This is the first time the public has had the opportunity to see these bids. Nothing has been out there in the public on this. This is a disservice to the public.”
“It’s not often anyone gets a chance to make a difference but you as a group have an opportunity to make a difference,” said Miller. “Special places don’t just happen. They’re the result of hard work by a lot of people and sound reasoning,” he added.