SARATOGA SPRINGS -- The city Planning Board has recommended approval for a zoning change that could allow Saratoga Hospital to build a medical office building opposed by many people in the surrounding neighborhoods.
The rezoning of 16 acres at Myrtle and Morgan streets from residential to medical office would still need approval from the City Council, which has already been hearing about the matter for months from both hospital officials and neighbors in developments like Birch Run and Park Place.
The Planning Board discussed the matter only briefly at a meeting Thursday, but has been reviewing the matter and hearing from both sides since April, when the City Council asked for an advisory opinion. It recommended a designation of the land as "office medical business," meaning no other commercial activity could take place there without another zoning change.
"A designation of OMB-1 allows less intensity and fewer permitted uses to ensure retention and community character and limit adverse impacts to surrounding neighborhoods and institutions," the board's recommendation states.
Hospital officials have pushed aggressively for the change, saying having medical offices closer to the hospital will improve medical care. The land is about a block from the hospital, which sits at Church and Myrtle streets.
“This advisory opinion is another important step forward for a project that will benefit patients throughout the city and the entire Saratoga region,” Saratoga Hospital President and CEO Angelo Calbone said in a release on Friday. “We appreciate the Planning Board members’ thorough review and their recognition that we have a responsibility to grow to keep pace with the needs of our community.”
One opponent, Dave Evans, said the decision was expected, and the fight isn't over.
"This fight has just begun for us. We expected this," he said. "The Planning Board is doing their best, but they're influenced by politics, by the council, by the mayor. It's hard not to see that this decision is counter to the intent of the comprehensive plan."
The neighbors believe the council is likely to approve the change, and they're prepared to go to court, Evans said. "There's no question the neighborhood group is prepared to pursue this to every legal avenue there is," he said.
The dispute between the hospital and neighbors goes back to 2015, when the hospital first proposed a three-story medical building on the vacant land, which is owned by a commercial development company. At that point, the City Council didn't approve a requested zoning change, because of opposition and because two council members recused themselves due to business connections to the hospital.
A citywide review of the city's comprehensive land use plan then recommended the zoning be changed, and that's what has been under review. The Planning Board actually recommended 18 changes to bring city zoning into compliance with the comp plan, though only the hospital proposal has generated controversy.
"We've been told all along that the hospital project isn't going before the City Council, but it's a little misleading, when the hospital officials and attorneys are at every meeting," Evans said.
If the City Council approves the zoning change, the hospital can then apply to build its medical building, and the application will need only Planning Board approval.
The City Council must hold a public hearing before making its decision, so a final decision could be months away.
The hospital maintains that having its doctors at one nearby location rather than rented offices farther away will lead to better medical care for hospital patients.
“We look forward to the City Council review and the opportunity to demonstrate, once again, that the proposed zoning change and our medical office center are in the best interest of the region we serve,” Calbone said. “There is no better use for this land than a project that helps ensure the continued health of our community.”