BALLSTON — The Town of Ballston Zoning Board’s only agenda item last night was the appeal of resident David Stern and Smart Growth Ballston (SGB), a self-described “non-partisan grassroots organization” that has been protesting the proposed Walmart project and land development in the Town of Ballston off of Rt. 50.
Attorneys for SGB, the Rossi family and Walmart spent an hour presenting multiple dates and timelines, all arguing the validity of the Planned Unit Development District (PUDD) issued for the project in May, 2011. Stern was not present.
The main sticking point was over a letter issued by Ballston Building Inspector, Tom Johnson regarding “substantial progress” on the project from Sept., 2012. Jeff Baker, the attorney representing SGB received several documents related to the Walmart project, under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIL), of which, the letter was missing.
The Town subsequently claimed the issue was a clerical error after Baker was advised of the letter’s existence at the Jun. 24, 2014 meeting of the Ballston Planning Board.
An appeal to the findings of that letter were filed in late September, an action that is deemed too late according to Frank Rossi, Jr., attorney for the Rossi family and Leslie Mauro, attorney for Walmart.
Peter Reilly, attorney for the Ballston Zoning Board of Appeals also stated the petitioners were out of time to file an appeal in a letter to them dated Oct. 4, 2014.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, resident and SGB member Ben Baskin stated he “thinks the date should start from the time they received a letter in July.” The letter was a follow-up to the original Sept., 2012 letter, repeating the findings of the 2012 document, not a new or first-time determination, according to Johnson.
Mauro challenged Baskin’s statement by re-iterating the Town law and the statute of limitations reminding him that Attorney Baker and SGB were advised in June. She also questioned Baskin’s legal authority to make a determination based on his own thoughts versus the written law.
Another point of debate was over the definitions of “substantial progress” and “undue interruption”, an issue that all the attorneys agreed is not always clearly defined. Baker alleged that in the 24-month window of the PUDD, “nothing has been done”, a statement rebutted by both Rossi and Mauro with timelines and details about SEQR, traffic studies, wetland mitigations, continual contract negotiations and the letter from Johnson..
Rossi stated in a letter dated Mar. 4 to the Zoning Board “Petitioner Stern was an active participant in the PUDD legislation approval process during 2011” and “to claim he was unaware of the status of the PUDD and/or the contents of the PUDD legislation would be completely improper.”
In his presentation to the zoning board, Rossi has called the appeal “frivilous” and again raised the issue of SGB as “the financial alter ego of a competitor of Walmart” and that the only undue interruptions have been continually created by SGB themselves. He points to the “thousands of dollars in billable hours for their paid attorney” in addition to mailings, signs and other literature and has accused the group of astroturfing (the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization giving the appearance of originating from and supported by grassroots participant(s)).
SGB’s website states they are not an established as a 501C3 and donations made to them are not tax deductible. An email address is listed for anyone inquiring about the group’s financial status.
Zoning Board Chairman Michael Lesniak declined any additional comment and said a resolution would be developed and voted on in “April or May”, likely in April.
A message for additional comment by SGB attorney Jeff Baker was not yet returned as of press time.
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