ROTTERDAM -- Nearly three dozen neighbors of the planned Whispering Pines senior citizen complex have sued the town and the developer, seeking to negate the Town Board's approval of the controversial project.
The Rotterdam Town Board approved a rezoning for the project in a 3-2 vote on July 11, after nearly 18 months of various reviews. The project proposed by Lecce Senior Living would develop the Whispering Pines Golf Course on Helderberg Avenue as a 496-unit senior housing complex.
In the lawsuit, filed Friday in the Schenectady County Clerk's Office, 33 neighbors argue that the town's approval was illegal. The case will be heard in state Supreme Court in Schenectady.
"Under the guise of developing an 'aging in place' residential community for seniors, the proposed project is, in actuality, a large-scale 550,000-square-foot mixed commercial/residential development comparable in size to the Colonie Center Mall and estimated to cost more than $100 million," the lawsuit states.
The developer has put the cost at $55 million.
The neighbors argue that the zoning change violated the town's comprehensive land use plan, is a case of illegal "spot zoning," and that a series of irregular 100-foot setbacks were used to diminish the opposition rights of opponents. Had the project included a consistent setback, the lawsuit argues, the project would either need to have been smaller, or the adjoining property owners would have been able to force the approval to require a four-vote "super-majority."
Under state law, a super-majority is required if owners of 20 percent of properties within 100 feet of the rezoned land file a written petition of opposition. The lawsuit argues that the 100-foot setbacks from some properties but not others were an effort to get around that rule.
"The defendants' reliance on partial setbacks... is a transparent attempt to defeat the rights accorded to adjacent and opposite landowners under Town Law 265 and cannot be countenanced," the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit seeks to invalidate the zoning change, prevent Lecce from doing any work on the site, and seeks to recover legal costs. Attorney Thomas West of Albany is representing the neighbors.
Town Supervisor Steven A. Tommasone, who has consistently supported the plans, said he expects the approval to hold up to court review.
"I have confidence that the town procedurally did everything correctly," he said. "We did have multiple opportunities for public comment, and the project itself, long-term, will be beneficial for our residents and seniors who require services at the location. That's what's most meaningful for me."
Tommasone acknowledged many neighbors spoke against the project at Town Board meetings. "I think we do have to heed what our residents say, but at the same time we, as a body, have to do what we think is right for the town," he said. "We have a difference of opinion. I think the project has tremendous merit."
Lecce Senior Living, which is owned by developer Lou Lecce in Niskayuna, issued a statement saying, "Lecce Group respectfully declines to comment on pending litigation."
The zoning change, as approved, would allow construction of 496 units of senior housing on a 90-acre Helderberg Avenue property that is now a golf course. The plans include 67 single-family units, 58 townhouse units, 119 independent-living apartments, 144 assisted-living units and 108 memory-care units. The current 18-hole golf course would be converted into a nine-hole course, and remain open to the public.
Work has yet to start, with Lecce still moving through the site plan approval process with the town Planning Commission.
Throughout the review process, neighbors and other project opponents argued the number of units proposed is too many for the area, where most of the other development has been single-family houses.
The original version of the project, submitted to the town in early 2017 as a 680-unit planned development district, was controversial and was withdrawn by the developer after extensive public criticism. Revised plans submitted in February called for construction of 496 residential units.