Planning Board postpones vote on homeless housing project
Post-Star - 8/7/2019
Aug. 7--GLENS FALLS -- The Glens Falls Planning Board on Tuesday voted to postpone until next month a decision on a proposed apartment complex on Cooper Street for the homeless and people who live with mental illness, as board members wanted to more time to review a lengthy environmental report for the property.
The board's decision followed another 90 minutes of public comment and discussion of the Warren-Washington Association for Mental Health proposed 29-unit Cooper Street Apartments.
At issue was an environmental study conducted for the 47-50 Cooper St. property, which was formerly home to Mullen Iron Works.
Board members had been emailed a copy of an already-existing report commissioned by the city about the parcel at about 3 p.m. Tuesday afternoon.
"There's a lot of information," said board member Rachel Murray. "I am still a little concerned about the possible contamination just because you are going to put families in there. It's going to be a residence."
The property was formerly home to Mullen Iron Works. The association purchased it for $300,000.
Tom Jarrett, engineer for the project, said there is some contamination in the soil, but it does not rise to the level of remediation by DEC and has largely stayed in place.
Glens Falls City Engineer Steve Gurzler reviewed the report and was comfortable with the project being proposed, according to Jarrett. The plan is to bring in replacement soil and install rain gardens to assist with drainage.
First Ward Supervisor Jack Diamond said a full hydrology report is needed so it can be determined that there is no contamination from the groundwater flowing onto adjacent properties.
The public comments retread familiar ground and got emotional at times. Elizabeth Miller, owner of Miller Mechanical Services, reiterated previous concerns that a residential facility does not belong in a light industrial zone -- even though multifamily housing is a permitted use. She expressed concern about the mentally ill living at the site. Her brother had schizophrenia.
The association has said there would be a concierge-type person helping residents connect to services such as transportation and other health care facilities, but no health care services would be provided on site.
"How can this person be responsible for what residents do once they leave the premises?" Miller said. "Again, I have firsthand experience with this type of mental illness in my own family. I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly of what it can mean for families and the communities around them. Let's find a way to help these people without exposing our children to danger or altering the character of our own Ward 1."
John Farrell, director of facilities for the Warren-Washington Association for Mental Health, said comments like that were fear mongering. Miller wanted to buy this property and has offered to buy it from the association, and has been a vocal opponent. Her attorney Nathan Hall, had filed an appeal to the Zoning Board of Appeals of the interpretation of the city's zoning code, alleging that multi-family housing was not an appropriate use in this zone. The Zoning Board of Appeals ruled last month that it was an allowed use.
Farrell said the association is not selling.
"I personally don't like to give in to bullies," he said. "This has been a labor of love. I don't like being mischaracterized (about) what we're trying to do here. I wouldn't be in this business to try to scare my neighbors."
Fourteen units are intended for those with mental illness, six for those experiencing chronic homelessness, four for youths, four for domestic violence survivors. Four of the units are able to accommodate families.
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A few city residents including Jerry Kelly said he worried about mixing the different types of individuals. He also worried about adding traffic to the area.
Farrell explained that the unit set aside for a family has a separate entrance.
Farrell said that putting the different groups together is an asset, similarly to how special needs children are integrated into regular classrooms.
"As we intermingle the different people in our society, they learn to live together, know each other and hopefully reduce the stigma that exists by not knowing what their neighbors are going through," he said.
Farrell explained that many of these residents cannot afford cars.
Diamond also alleged that the association was not being forthcoming about the details of the grant application.
Farrell said he gave him a copy of the grant application for one of the grants. The other one is largely for brick-and-mortar issues and filled with pages of technical material.
"Nobody is trying to sneak anything past you," Farrell said.
Edward Fitzgerald, attorney for the Planning Board, reminded the members to contain its discussions to the site plan.
"The board cannot deny this project because people may have mental illnesses. That would potentially violate federal laws protecting disabled individuals," he said.
Board member Ethan Hall said the project has been reviewed as much as any he can recall.
"The things that are being brought up are outside of this board's purview," he said.
He said afterward that he had been ready to vote on the project.
The board will take up the application again on Sept. 3 at 4:45 p.m. in Common Council Chambers.
Warren-Washington Association for Mental Health Executive Director Andrea Deepe said she was a little disappointed that the project was not approved, but said the board is just being thorough.
"I understand that they need time to review, and I think that's fair," she said.
Michael Goot covers politics, business, Glens Falls and 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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