John Drake stands at the end of Catalina Drive with The Summit project in the background and his home to his right with the 100-foot buffer between Jim Franco / Spotlight News
COLONIE — The Summit at Forts Ferry, a senior housing project tucked between a commercial area of upper Troy Schenectady Road and the quaint neighborhoods directly to the west, was heavily scrutinized for 18 months and everyone was OK with the plan if not completely satisfied.
Now, though, the building is well under construction and there is a new wrinkle with the buffer between the project and the lands along Catalina Drive and Harrogate Way. The Buffer issue dates to 2006, when the idea to develop the land was first talked about. At that time, some still maintain, the town imposed a 300-foot buffer at the site, 200-foot more than what is required by Town Code between a commercial and residential zone.
To encapsulate: The town tried to enforce the larger buffer, the developer, Frank Nigro, sued and the courts ruled in his favor. Part of the problem, according to town officials, is that no official documentation could be found justifying the increased buffer so it had no legal leg to stand on in front of a judge.
Fast forward to 2108. The Planning Board approved the 62-unit, three-story senior housing facility and the separate, 30,000-square-foot office building closer to Forts Ferry Road. The 13-plus acres of land was wooded and there is a 100-foot buffer, owned by Nigro, between the development and the existing neighborhoods.
If pushed to the max under the existing zoning regulations, Nigro could have built a 235,000-square-foot office building on the site.
But, while looking out his second floor window on Catalina Drive, John Drake said there is not enough room between the existing foundation to install some landscaping, a road, a row of garages and still have room to plant the row of Norway and White Spruce Trees as the addition to the tight, if not impossible squeeze, the 18-foot high bay of garages would be sitting on a five- to six-foot high retaining wall.
“So we have a tree that is supposed to have a 20-foot diameter, a 10-foot radius, that is only planted four to five feet away from the retaining wall,” he said. “And since it is on the north facing side, they are not going to get sun for a good part of the year. We are concerned they will not have room to grow if they grow at all and they don’t just die.”
He cited Planning Board transcripts that include statements by the project engineer, Mike Tucker, and the Town Designated Engineer, Joe Grasso, saying the trees would be planted “and allowed to mature” between the buffer and the garages.
It’s not necessarily wrong or illegal for the developer to plant trees in the buffer if additional trees will provide a more thorough screening. And, there is no legal requirement for the developer to plant any additional trees but such demands by the Planning Board are not and are often contingent upon site plan approval and are more often than not agreed upon by the developer to appease neighborhood concerns.
Who from the town follows up, though, with the often timesextemporaneous agreements is another question on Drake’s mind.
Joe LaCivita, head of the town’s Planning and Economic Development Department, said the promises made by developers at the meetings to answer the concerns of residents are not always a requirement for acceptance, and that it is up to a town department to follow through depending on what area of concern. Inspectors in the building department would make sure a fence is the correct height, Pure Waters would oversee sewer lines and connections and the Department of Public Works would make sure streets and storm water systems are installed properly.
More often than not, LaCivita said, those extemporaneous agreements made at Planning Board meetings are worked out between the town, the developer and the residents as the project progresses.
For example, he said, neighbors of a recently developed housing complex first wanted a 6-foot fence installed as a buffer and then wanted an eight-foot fence but that was too imposing so town moderated a discussion between the neighbors and the residents so install a six-foot fence with two feet of lattice on top.
The issue of who polices the builders came up at a recent Town Board meeting and things get a bit heated between Town Board members Jennifer Whalen and David Green and DPW Commissioner Jack Cunningham.
As to the specific issue at The Summit, LaCivita said the conversations are continuing between Nigro and the Drakes.
“The trees are planted outside the buffer,” LaCivita said, adding the scale of the schematic drawing is somewhat skewed. “The landscaper has been on site and there are insurances the trees will be maintained and that they will survive and grow.”
Drake, the vice president of the West Latham Neighborhood Association, said his group has, in the past, hired an attorney and an engineer. For the time being, though, he said he is awaiting a revised plan from the town but sees the only two options are planting the trees in the buffer or moving the garages to another location on site to make room for the trees.
“Right now it doesn’t seem like what is being done is consistent with what was presented to the Planning Board,” he said. “Even if it goes into the buffer, we are open to seeing a proposal and what it looks like and see if it would provide sufficient screening and how much of the buffer would it eat up and how many existing trees would have to be taken to make room for the new ones. Having the spruce trees is better than not having the spruce trees.”