By Kassie Parisi
CLIFTON PARK — As a public referendum nears on the school district’s plan to sell 32 acres of land to developers, two groups have emerged, each with its own rhetoric and sparking a vitriolic battle before the April 4 vote.
The land, located on Maxwell Drive behind Shatekon Elementary School, has become a controversial topic since the Shenendehowa school board, in December, voted 4-3 to sell it to BBL Construction for a little more than $2 million. Angered by what they saw as a lack of transparency from the school board regarding the decision, open space advocates gathered more than 5,500 signatures in less than a month, thereby forcing the referendum.
While a majority no vote by residents would stop the sale to BBL, it would not keep the board of education from holding another request-for-proposals process to sell the land.
It also would not prohibit BBL from coming back and making another bid for the property, or the school board from accepting a bid from another developer.
BBL will not seek any tax incentives for development of the land if the company does gain possession of it, according to Marc Goldstein, director of real estate for the company.
“From a tax standpoint, it’ll be fully assessed,” he said.
Daphne Jordan, a Halfmoon town councilwoman, said that, in her opinion as a resident, a yes vote would be the only outcome that guarantees land will be donated for a public park.
“A yes vote is a win, win, win situation,” she said, adding that she has seen misinformation regarding the BBL deal. She criticized those who are urging a no vote. One “fake fact” being spread, said Jordan, is that the land isn’t suitable for a park.
According to her, advocates who petitioned for the referendum in December claimed a no vote would definitely lead to a park for the town, and she said they have since backed away from that claim, after it came under scrutiny.
At the heart of the issue for Jordan, though, is the fact that the sale of the land would ultimately be a win for more than just Clifton Park. It would allow the school district to look into purchasing land in Halfmoon for a new school, she said.
“It’s a huge issue for me because I can’t believe that a group of people would think that the land should be either given to them or should have been sold [to the town of Clifton Park] at the lowest (bid) for the benefit of one of six towns in the Shen school district,” she said. “This is not being done properly.”
Jordan urged people to educate themselves about the issue before going to vote.
Bill Casey, a long-serving member of the Shenendehowa Board of Education, voted against the BBL sale in December. He helped with the petitioning effort over the winter and said part of his decision to run for reelection to the school board in May was his desire to right what sees as wrongs committed by the board through the land-sale process.
“This whole process has kind of given me an epiphany,” Casey said, mentioning that, in his opinion, the board showed little respect to the public in how it made its decision. According to Casey, misinformation about the land campaign could stem from the fact that the school board didn’t give the public any information about the selling process to begin with.
A DIVISIVE TIME
Casey said he’s never seen the community so energized over an issue. He called the past few months “divisive,” and said he hopes that, when all is said and done with the referendum, the school board will take a long, intentional look at its transparency.
“We need to focus on: keep doing the right thing, educationally,” he said.
In a prepared statement, Clifton Park Town Supervisor Phil Barrett said the referendum should be decided on its merits and individual opinions of the voters, not on the idea that one municipality is positioned to gain an advantage over another.
“People have strong feelings about the upcoming vote on both sides of the issue,” said Barrett. “Many people have worked hard through a grass-roots effort to force the referendum vote, and the process will soon come to a conclusion. It is vital that any and all forces within this process that are attempting to divide the towns within the Shen School District, to further their desired result, be minimized now and after the results are counted.”
TRYING TO SWAY VOTERS
In recent weeks, campaign literature about the vote has been published in various places, including The Daily Gazette. One such advertisement, which urged readers to “Vote YES for a Park,” makes many claims about what would happen in the aftermath of a yes vote. The ad was paid for by a group called Vote YES for a Park LLC, which may have ties to BBL, according to Marc Goldstein, BBL’s director of real estate. He said he is not involved with the group personally, however.
The advertisement makes note of an “engineer’s review” that deemed the land suitable for a park. That review was commissioned by BBL and was conducted by Environmental Design Partnership, a Clifton Park firm specializing in environmental consulting and landscape architecture. Joe Dannible, an employee at EDP, confirmed the review was done and said that, of the approximately 20 acres BBL wants to donate to the town, around 16 acres would be suitable for parkland.
He noted that, while 4 acres would fall under Clifton Park’s land conservation zoning laws, the property overall would be suitable for a park, and he said passive development, such as trails, could be built around the protected parts.
“The majority of the land is upland,” he said. “It would be a good park.”
The advertisement also states the land sale would provide significant funds for the school district. This is true, as the district would receive just over $2 million from the sale.
The ad also claims the district would rake in $100,000 or more in taxes each year from the development, which may include a new ShopRite store, according to developers.
According to school district spokeswoman Kelly DiFiciani, the land would have to be assessed with BBL’s construction on it in order to determine the amount the district would get each year.
However, a ShopRite store on Nott Street East in Niskayuna has an assessed value of $9.5 million. In Clifton Park, a business of that value would pay approximately $165,000 in school taxes each year, and around $50,000 in town and county taxes, DiFiciani said.
The ad also claims that “Nearly 20 acres will be given to the town for free, as parkland.” While it is true BBL has committed to donating 17 to 19 acres of the land to the town if the company purchases it, Barrett has repeatedly said the town has not committed to accepting the land from BBL. Even if the town did come into ownership of the parcel, Barrett said, it would need committed partners to build the park, which, at this point, the town does not have.
The advertisement boasts some blatant falsehoods, as well. One is the claim that “a yes vote guarantees a park.” A yes vote would not guarantee anything, as the town has not committed to taking the land from BBL.
The ad also claims “voting no means no park,” which is not entirely true. A no vote would simply ensure that, for now, the land remains under the district’s ownership. At this point, neither a yes vote nor a no vote would guarantee a park on the land.
Other types of campaign methods have been utilized. Residents have reported receiving robocalls about the referendum. Clifton Park resident Frank Berlin said he got two calls, including one on March 20 that featured a man’s voice urging listeners to press “1” if they want the land to be sold and if they want a park for the town.
According to Berlin, no other options were offered, and when he pressed other numbers, the same message was repeated. Berlin said the call also provided a phone number people could call for more information, but when he called it, he got a busy signal.
An internet search suggests the call came from a landline operated by Global Crossing, a telecommunications company headquartered in Bermuda, and that it originated in Jonesville. It was unclear who commissioned the calls.
Berlin, who is both a member of the Clifton Park Open Space committee and president of the Friends of Clifton Park advocacy group — which is pushing for a no vote — said that, in his opinion, passive development like boardwalks on wetlands is usually too expensive for municipalities to consider. Even if the town wanted to include such amenities in a park, Berlin said, there would be no guarantee the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation would approve wetland construction.
Berlin would prefer a park that remains forested, with handicap access, park benches and cross-country skiing and running trails. But, he noted that if the town does ever gain ownership of the land, the public, not a single group or person, should be the guiding force in deciding what sort of park it should be. He said Friends of Clifton Park is primarily concerned with making sure the land stays in the public domain, not planning an actual park.
The referendum will take place from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. on April 4 at Gowana Middle School.