A proposed law meant to make living in the city more affordable has local developers speaking out.
Under the inclusionary zoning proposal, developers of housing developments exceeding 10 units would have to make 20 percent of those units affordable. To ease the burden of the requirement, developers would be given a 20-percent “density bonus,” letting them build more units in a given space than currently allowed.
Sonny Bonacio, a local developer with his name on much of the city’s high-end condo stock, said the requirement needs to be written into the city’s zoning, not just into law. It was among a long list of concerns he expressed about the proposal at a special meeting Tuesday afternoon at City Hall.
“Otherwise, the developing community still has to go and fight through actually getting this bonus,” he said, referring to the process of getting projects approved by the Planning and Zoning boards. “[At those meetings,] it’s about reducing density, because they’re listening to their neighbors. They’re hearing the neighbors, and they don’t want it that big, that tall, that close.”
Bonacio said he wasn’t against an inclusionary zoning ordinance as a concept, but that he wanted to make sure it was a “workable document.”
“You’re almost ending your trip,” he told Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen, the council member behind the ordinance who is not seeking re-election in the fall. “You’re setting us up for the next 15 or 20 years.”
Mathiesen said he “would never do that.”
“I would never have run for office in the first place if I thought I was gonna do harm to this city,” he said. “The last thing I would ever do is try to create a scenario where it makes it difficult for developers to do the projects that you do.”
Mathiesen called the special meeting at the request of Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan and Accounts Commissioner John Franck, who continue to oppose the law as proposed. Mathiesen hoped it would set the proposal up for a vote next week, but after nearly two hours of concerns aired by developers and bankers alike, the council agreed to revise the proposal and push it back.
“The bankers and the builders are the two people that are gonna have to facilitate this,” said Public Works Commissioner Anthony "Skip" Scirocco. “We can pass all kinds of laws, we can do anything we want to do, but if in fact they’re not on board, it’s not gonna happen. We could essentially stop everything in the city by doing something like this. I think we need to tread lightly.”
John Wit, another prolific developer of expensive housing in the city, said the mandated affordable housing wouldn’t work for him financially, factoring in taxes and utilities. He also critiqued the proposal’s language.
“I really like the concept of adding more units, but there’s things in the ordinance, the ‘mays,’ the ‘shalls, the ‘grant relief,’ ” he said. “It’s wishy washy, and I don’t trust it.”
Tom Newkirk, a developer who owns Saratoga National Golf Club, said the requirement’s 30-year sunset is too restrictive and should be shortened. An earlier version of the proposal put no expiration date on the requirement.
“Something like 10 years might be better,” he said.
Newkirk also suggested the city adopt an inclusionary zoning or affordable housing “overlay zone, so that you don’t try to implement this across 100 percent of your city properties.”
Mayor Joanne Yepsen interrupted him, saying, “[We] have to follow the law … [We] can’t show any discrimination.”
Mathiesen added, “I think that would be contrary to the whole concept of being a city that welcomes everyone.”
Mark Hogan, of Saratoga National Bank, criticized a clause in the proposal that withholds certificates of occupancy until all units, including the inclusionary units, are eligible. In a development where not all affordable units have been sold, the prospective homeowner seeking a loan would be hurt the most, he said.
“If I’m homeowner No. 10 and the inclusionary units are not sold … I can't get a certificate of occupancy — I can't finance my house,” he said. “It's not homeowner No. 10’s problem.”
Mathiesen said the clause was meant to prevent developers from ignoring the requirement and building only market-rate units.
“I think it could potentially work in a scenario where the developer has a large enough subdivision where they’re financing the units,” Hogan said. “Most of the builders that are working here in town, they’re not financing their own properties — they’re all being done by the individuals.”
Council members agreed to return in two weeks with a revised proposal.
“We’re one city — we need to get something on the books,” Yepsen said.