by Lynne Jackson
SCHENECTADY: Volunteers for Save the Pine Bush (SPB) were invited by the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) to participate in a charette regarding eliminating the at-grade crossings at Morris and Cordell Roads in Colonie. The stated goal of the charette was to come up with ideas to allow safe passage of high-speed trains through the Pine Bush by eliminating the dangerous at-grade crossings.
Volunteers for SPB were told over and over that DOT had no pre-conceived notions about how this would be accomplished. Many times through the long and intense charette, participants were told that their ideas mattered and that DOT had no plan in mind.
SPB volunteers question whether DOT had plans to build a certain road all along, and that the charette was simply a charade to give a large land owner a road through his property at tax payer expense. Could this be corporate welfare for Pine Bush landowners?
A charette is a series of intense meetings over the space of a number of days where all of the various interested people and groups are brought together to discuss solutions to a particular problem. The problem to be addressed was eliminating the at-grade crossings at Morris and Cordell Roads in order to allow high-speed trains on the railroad track running through the Pine Bush. For this charette, residents of the area, business owners, Town of Colonie staff, and advocacy groups (such as The Nature Conservancy, FORCE, bicycle advocacy organizations, a rail passenger group and SPB) were brought together.
DOT staff pursued SPB and called several times to make sure representatives of SPB attended the charette. The charette took place over five days. Four SPB volunteers spent a total of about 20 hours attending meetings of the charette, including the advocacy group meeting on Friday afternoon, the Friday evening general presentation, the Saturday afternoon work groups and the Monday evening ending workshop. We invested a significant amount of our time and actively participated in all discussions.
We were very excited to be included. We believed DOT when they told us they had no pre-conceived ideas for a solution. We were naive enough to believe that DOT might have a charette where the solution was not a new road! What were we thinking?!
The first charette meeting we attended was the advocacy focus group where the question was asked, does the Town of Colonie want to preserve its Pine Bush or develop it? This is the most important question to be answered. SPB believes that most people who attended the charette would say that they would prefer the Pine Bush to be preserved, than to have more development. No additional development means no additional traffic, benefiting the neighbors, as well as preserving this globally-rare ecosystem.
There are many issues to be addresses. The Pine Bush ecosystem in this area is a very important, and it is a connector to the Woodlawn Preserve in Schenectady. If Woodlawn is to be saved, this area must be preserved also. Besides Pine Bush issues, the area is mostly zoned industrial, which causes a lot of traffic problems. Several of the industries in this area use enormous tracker-trailers to move supplies in and out. The only way for these huge trucks to get to a highway is to drive through narrow residential streets to the north to Central Avenue.
SPB’s solution would eliminate the tracker-trailer traffic in the residential areas, preserve the Pine Bush, and eliminate the at-grade crossings. SPB proposes that instead of building a road, DOT should buy out the businesses or do land-trades with the business owners (eliminating the tracker-trailer traffic) and make a bicycle/hiker emergency vehicle overpass on Cordell Road.
No more development should be allowed in this area. SPB volunteers believe this is a creative and realistic solution to this problem. Because this area has no easy access to highways, it should not be zoned industrial. Moving the businesses to more appropriate locations, and then adding this land to the Preserve may be less expensive in the long-run than building a road.
At the Saturday afternoon session of the charette, participants sat in small groups around tables and drew out ideas for solutions to the problem. Representatives from different groups were at each table; for example, each table had an environmentalist and most tables had a resident. Only one business representative attended.
Most of the solutions did not involve creating a new road. No one spoke about building more businesses, or creating more opportunities for development.
By now, representatives of SPB were quite optimistic about the outcome — solving the problem without building a new road in the Pine Bush. We were in for quite a shock at the last meeting on Monday evening, when DOT presented a proposal for two by-pass roads, and one round-about. The bone thrown to SPB was the Cordell Road overpass closed to cars but open to pedestrians, bicyclists and emergency vehicles — as if that did anything towards preserving the Pine Bush!
Also, DOT stated in the summary of its proposal that one of the recommendations was for “future land use opportunities,” which SPB can only interpret as meaning development opportunities. No one mentioned this at any time during the charette and SPB volunteers have no idea where this recommendation came from.
DOT’s proposal was so different from anything we heard during the meetings that we felt we must have attended a different charette. We were appalled, especially since the charette supposedly represented a “consensus”. We did not want to be seen as agreeing to this destructive proposal.
The Big Question
After the charette, a little bird told John Wolcott that the Town of Colonie owned the land where the DOT proposed the Morris Road by-pass. John discovered that a strip of land which happens to be the perfect width for a road, had been given to the Town of Colonie by Nemith and Vinciguerra in 2001. This strip of land follows the basic course of the proposed road laid out by DOT in its flyer summarizing the charette. And, Nemith and Vinciguerra retained title to the land on both sides of this strip of land.
This begs the question: Did DOT know before the charette that the Town was given this land? Was it a coincidence that this proposed road follows this land? And, the most important question of all: Is this proposed road truly a solution to the traffic problem or is it a way for Nemith and Vinciguerra to get a road built through their land at tax payer expense so they can develop it? Why else would Nemith and Vinciguerra simply give this land to the Town?
On June 11, Town of Colonie Supervisor, Mary Brizzell, graciously gave SPB the opportunity to speak to the Colonie Town Board to address our concerns about the charette. At that meeting, we told the Town Board of our big hopes for the charette, the time we invested, and how appalled we were at the outcome. We gave the Board Members a detailed letter explaining our concerns in detail. To our great surprise, the Colonie Spotlight newspaper printed the entire letter.
The Next Meeting with DOT
A few weeks after the charette, a representative of DOT contacted SPB and asked to meet with us again. Three SPB members met with four DOT staff on June 28. The meeting was recorded by a court reporter. The DOT staff graciously agreed to meet with SPB staff after hours.
George Hodges, who is the project manager for DOT Region One, explained the objectives of this project: public safety, healthy neighborhoods, healthy environment and healthy businesses.
Mr. Hodges explained the DOT proposal this way: The Morris Road by-pass will be built with “critter crossings” and underpasses for toads and amphibians to pass under. He emphasized that this would be a controlled access road, and that no development would be allowed on either side of the road. We did not ask, nor did Mr. Hodges address, the issue that the Town had been given the road by the developer Nemith. Could Nemith possibly have given the Town the land for the road without expecting compensation in the form of development?
The Curry Road Connector is proposed to go along the Niagara-Mohawk Right-of-Way (ROW). Again, there would be tunnels and culverts to allow for critter crossings. (DOT staff seem to have no concept of how important the powerline ROWs are to the survival of the Karner Blue.) This road would also be controlled access and no development would be allowed on the adjacent land. Perhaps the most surprising proposal mentioned was that DOT is thinking of closing roads. This is how Mr. Hodges explained this astonishing concept: an empire zone could be created near Exit 25 of the Thruway. Over the span of 20 years or more, businesses through land swaps or acquisition, could be relocated out of the Pine Bush. As the businesses leave, pieces of the various (unspecified) roads would no longer be needed and could be torn up.
SPB volunteers asked why a road had to be constructed in order to eventually allow roads be removed. To SPB volunteers, it seems like a lot of money could be saved, if the roads were not built in the first place. No coherent answer was given to this question.
Building roads in the Pine Bush would further destroy the ecosystem, not only destroying the land that is actually paved, but by further fragmenting the ecosystem. Karner Blues are often found living on Niagrara-Mohawk ROWs; building a road on the ROW may significantly damage the ability of the butterfly to survive. The Pine Bush is a globally rare ecosystem. Why is DOT even contemplating building new roads?
Mr. Hodges invited representatives of SPB to be on the Steering Committee for the project which SPB volunteers stated that they would be glad to be on the Steering Committee. The next opportunity for public participation in the project will be a public meeting in September where the Steering Committee will be formed.