NISKAYUNA -- Some Niskayuna residents are opposed to the town's plan to rezone the 44-acre O.D. Heck property on Balltown Road.
Nine people gave the proposal negative reviews Monday night during a public hearing before the town Planning Board. Residents say they believe a zoning change will alter the character of the neighborhood.
The 500 Balltown Road site is home to Capital District Developmental Disabilities Service Organization-Oswald D. Heck Developmental Center. The space contains several buildings and is also home to the Pooh's Corner Child Care Center.
The development center has not had permanent residents since 2015. Wooded land next to Balltown Road is also part of the property under consideration for rezoning.
The town's planners said the initiative is about future usage. The planners want to rezone the property from R-2 for residential use (medium density) to a neighborhood-mixed use designation. Instead of dozens of new single-family homes filling the land -- the kind of development allowed under the current zoning -- the town would prefer future developers use the space for a mix of residential and retail buildings.
Planners said the state has not signaled an effort to sell the property, but if the land does go up for sale, they want the new zoning in place.
"We honestly don't even know if this parcel will get sold by the state," said Assistant Town Planner Jeffrey Twitty during a presentation about residential and mixed use zoning designations that preceded the hearing. "We just want to make sure that if it ever does, the town will be in a position to follow its comprehensive plan."
Officials with O.D. Heck did not respond to a call for comment on Wednesday.
Twitty said planners anticipated concerns about a mixed-use zone's perceived negative impacts on neighbors' quality of life.
"In the Planning Department, and I'm sure also in the town, we don't necessarily see it that way," Twitty said. "We see it as giving people a new alternative -- new housing alternatives, essentially. We have a demonstrated demand here in town with people who want ... to experience a variety of amenities in the places they live. We feel there are real opportunities to be had in a neighborhood-mixed use zone."
Twitty noted other communities have had success with mixed use neighborhoods -- the Village at New Loudon in Latham and Ellsworth Commons in Malta, for example.
Residents did not like the idea for Niskayuna.
Nick Chiesa of Dewitt Avenue in Schenectady -- located off Balltown Road and across the street from the O.D. Heck site -- had several questions.
"Why is the town of Niskayuna considered a party of interest when the town is not the current owner, purchaser, contractor nor the developer of the property?" Chiesa asked. "How does the town have standing ... to submit this zoning application?"
Chiesa also wanted more information about uses allowed on neighborhood-mixed use parcels.
"Could it be a Walmart supercenter?" he asked. "What kind of retail are you talking? What is acceptable in mixed use and what is not acceptable?"
Chiesa also was concerned about impacts on traffic and the South Colonie Central School District. New homes would mean more children in the district's schools, he said.
He also questioned the timing of the proposal.
"First off, you are putting the cart before the horse," he said. "It is not necessary to change the zoning at this time. There is no change in ownership of the property. When the property is sold and changes ownership, then an application should be made by the new owners with the specific project they have in mind."
Alan Hamlin of Consaul Road said the neighborhood should remain residential, without any commercial additions. He believes safety would be compromised if new businesses are opened there.
"There's way too much traffic -- speeding cars up and down Consaul Road. Very seldom are the police out there," Hamlin said. "Consaul Road is getting worse and worse all the time. I'm afraid if you have more commercial there, it's going to get worse and worse. I walk up Consaul and sometimes it's a little scary."
Lorene Zabin of Brookshire Drive believes the timing is off for both the proposal and the discussion.
"We don't really know the thinking of the state," Zabin said. "I think this whole public hearing is kind of a time-waster ... this probably won't even come to the board before another five years.
The public hearing lasted about 45 minutes.
Planning Board Chairman Kevin Walsh, addressing the issue after the hearing, said if the land were purchased by a developer, that developer could fill it with single-family homes -- an allowed use under the current R-2 designation.
"They're going to get as many homes as they can get in there," Walsh said of a hypothetical investor, adding that more children would be part of that development. That would mean more students for South Colonie.
"The mixed use is an opportunity to minimize the intensity, but also provide services and provide a spot for folks who, maybe as they age or they like that type of living ...," Walsh said
"We want to see the developer not develop just part of this. We want to see the whole big picture, so it all works well together."
Town Supervisor Yasmine Syed, who said in a January interview with The Daily Gazette that rezoning the O.D. Heck property would be a priority in her second year as supervisor, attended Monday's meeting.
"We're definitely going to take their comments into consideration," Syed said of the public hearing. "It's going to be an ongoing discussion. This isn't anything that's going to be decided tomorrow and, in all likelihood, not even in the next couple weeks."
Syed also said she believes Planning Board members did a good job explaining the rationale behind the rezoning proposal.
"The harm in waiting until there is an application is we'll be obligated to hear a plan for R-2 zoning," she said. "It's up to the Planning Board and then, in the future, the Town Board to decide whether that is the best use."
But if a future developer follows all guidelines for residential use, Syed added, such a site plan likely would be approved.
The Town Board would have to conduct its own public hearing before voting on the matter.