Setback variance granted, but debate over homeless housing project in Glens Falls continues
Post-Star - 5/23/2019
May 23-- May 23--GLENS FALLS -- A project to build a 29-unit apartment complex for the homeless and mentally ill got a step closer on Tuesday with the Zoning Board of Appeals approving a variance to allow the building to be pushed closer to Cooper Street.
Warren-Washington Association for Mental Health is seeking to build at 47-50 Cooper St., which was formerly home to Mullen Iron Works.
The next step is a review by the city Planning Board on June 4 at 4:45 p.m.
Officials from the agency were seeking to move the building away from the residences on Leonard Street to create a bigger buffer. However, they needed a variance so it could only have a 30-foot setback instead of the required 50 feet.
Tom Jarrett, engineer for the project, explained that the change would help drainage on the site. "By moving the building somewhat closer to Cooper Street, it gives us more room to construct a swale. We want to get water toward Cooper Street if we can," he said.
There would also be a berm and vegetation along the property line. Jarrett said project engineers are going to try to save as many trees as they can and replace where necessary.
Moving the building was also requested by city officials to allow more emergency vehicles, according to Jarrett.
The board had no issue with the variance request. However, the board's decision followed about an hour's worth of public comment on issues raised previously and they were largely unrelated to these variances -- including whether this is an appropriate use for a property in the light industrial zone.
Opponents question site
Attorney Nathan Hall, who is representing several neighborhood landowners, said he believes that the variance is not necessary. The project could be scaled back.
"They have 2.6 acres with which to build this facility, and they've chosen to build an expansive 29-unit facility that now they have to try to fit in," he said.
He said he believes that the project is not suited for the light industrial zone. He also questioned the zoning of one of the two parcels, the 50 Cooper St. lot, and claimed that it is actually in a residential district.
Attorney Edward Fitzgerald, who represents the Zoning Board of Appeals, said the city disagrees with that conclusion and has ruled that both properties are in the light industrial zone.
First Ward Supervisor Jack Diamond said an industrial use at the site would generate more tax revenue, which he said would help Abraham Wing School. Diamond on Tuesday was elected to a seat on the school board.
Diamond reiterated the point that businesswoman Elizabeth Miller, of Miller Mechanical Services, had wanted to buy the property, which had been cleaned up.
Diamond also went on at length about the financial health of the Warren-Washington Association for Mental Health, noting that they own eight properties and have a net worth of $1 million and assets of $3 million.
He used that point to say the association could afford to pay more than a $5,000 payment-in-lieu of taxes agreement with the city.
"This is a not-for-profit organization coming in and saying we don't have any money. We can't pay any taxes. We want our neighbors to pay our taxes, but we can't afford it," he said.
Diamond's discussion of the organization's finances, prompted a sharp rebuke from Stefanie DiLallo Bitter, attorney for the association.
"I don't believe anybody else's financial worth is talked about when an application (is reviewed)," she said.
"I find this to be not necessary and pertinent to this review," she added.
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Anna Duggan, of Prospect Street, said she had concerns about property coming off the tax rolls and who would live in the facility.
"I also question the wisdom of the state of lumping victims of domestic violence in a building that houses the mentally ill and violent," she said.
Agency officials say that 14 of the 29 units will be set aside for people dealing with mental illness. There would be four units allocated for survivors of domestic violence, six for the chronic homeless and four family units. One unit will be set aside as a transitional unit for a short-term stay.
Bitter said she was discouraged to hear the negative comments regarding who will be occupying the property. The agency is trying to do a project that will benefit the community, she said.
Resident Nancy Underwood, who is running for the First Ward county supervisor position, reiterated her concerns about too many social services being located in the First Ward and said that the stormwater issues would be exacerbated by the project. She had 8 inches of water in her basement after the recent storms, and it is going to cost $8,000 to gut it out.
Her husband, Phillip Underwood, was more supportive of the project, as long as it would not tax the city's infrastructure.
Jarrett said the project would not generate any more stormwater and it would be managed more effectively with the new drainage infrastructure.
Advocates seek approval
Other people who spoke in favor of the project included Paul Hancock of the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
He said that an apartment complex would not add more noise or truck traffic and said many of the residents would not have cars.
Hancock said he also was not persuaded by the argument of losing the tax revenue.
"For the last six years that property has been vacant," he said.
He said society will be benefit by helping the homeless and he said this is a good site for the project.
"This is an area that is already zoned industrial, but the fact that it is surrounded by owner-occupied housing indicates that it is the perfect place for such a project," he said.
Enid Mastrianni, who formed an organization for women's rights, also supported the project.
"Victims of domestic violence need stable, safe living situations and there's a real lack of that in this area," she said.
Board member Dan Rice said the task is to consider the project that is before the board and the request.
"This could be someone's mansion. This could be a McDonald's. It could be any building from our perspective," he said.
He was persuaded that moving the building would help the drainage on the site and be positive change.
The board imposed a stipulation that the project would not be any larger than what would have been allowed had the setback variances not been granted.
Executive Director Andrea Deepe said she is excited to clear this hurdle.
Michael Goot covers politics, business, the city of Glens Falls and the town and village of Lake George. Reach him at 518-742-3320 or firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog at http://poststar.com/blogs/michael_goot/.
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