SARANAC LAKE - Village Mayor Clyde Rabideau has tried to stay out of the public eye on his plan to build a Welcome Center for North Country Community College, but he's still been weighing in on it from the sidelines.
Rabideau sent a three-page email to village Community Development Director Jeremy Evans and planning board Chairwoman Leslie Karasin last month, pushing for a conditional approval of the project and analyzing some of the thorny issues surrounding its review. The Enterprise obtained copies of that July 31 message and a handful of other emails Rabideau sent to Evans about the project through the state Freedom of Information Law.
None of the emails indicates that Rabideau - who appointed three of the five current members of the planning board - was attempting to use his position as mayor to influence the project. Instead, it appears like he's doing what a developer would normally do: Respond to questions and concerns about his plan, and try to push it along.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
The Freedom of Information Law was asserted in making this report.
"I think he's been walking a tricky line," Karasin told the Enterprise Tuesday, "but I think he's been doing it with a great deal of sensitivity about how to be responsible about it, and how not to cross the line or exert any influence."
When the project was first proposed in June, Rabideau said he expected questions would be asked about his involvement in the project, given his job as the village's mayor.
"So not only do we openly discuss my participation and recuse myself from any village involvement, but we will also exceed all that is required of us," Rabideau said in joint press release from the college and his real-estate company, Cedar Ridge Holdings, announcing the project.
Since then, Rabideau hasn't attended any of the planning board's meetings on the Welcome Center, although he took part in a recent site visit. Susan Rdzanek represented Cedar Ridge Holdings at the meetings.
College President Steve Tyrell said Tuesday he has primarily dealt with Rdzanek on the project, though "I've certainly talked to Clyde Rabideau, no question about that," he said.
"But my perception is Clyde Rabideau has tried to distance himself from the project," Tyrell added. "I think he's worked really hard at that."
The emails obtained by the Enterprise show Rabideau has been informed about what's been discussed at the meetings. On July 26, a week after the planning board raised concerns about the overall architectural design of the building, Rabideau wrote Evans and Rdzanek, saying, "I will not compromise our design further to please the vanities of certain planning board members who have no right to insist upon what they insist."
Five days later, Rabideau sent Evans and Karasin what he described as a "review and analysis" of the village's architectural guidelines as they relate to the Welcome Center. He prefaced the message by asking the board to consider granting conditional approval at the Aug. 7 special meeting.
"Time is of the essence for this project as our purchase options expire August 31," Rabideau wrote. "Without approvals in hand by the end of August, this project will be regretfully terminated."
He updated that to the Enterprise Tuesday. Just one of the two options was set to run out Aug. 31, but that property owner has given him a "grace period" of another week, he said. The other option doesn't expire until mid to late September.
But even that purchase burden was taken off his shoulders Tuesday as NCCC officials decided to have the college's foundation buy both lots.
In response to questions about the architectural style of the proposed building, Rabideau cited a section of the land-use code that says what commercial styles are allowed in the village. The list includes "neo-alpine," which Rabideau said is the style the Welcome Center was designed in. He also points out the other features of the two-story building, like its color, height and facade, that he says comply with the code.
As for the June 26 message about "the vanities of certain planning board members," Rabideau said he was responding to a suggestion that the building look more like a cure cottage. Although cure porches have been added to buildings of different architectural styles in Saranac Lake, "there is no such thing as a cure-cottage style," Rabideau said Tuesday. "We cannot have a planning board person demand cure-cottage style when it's not in the code and there's no such thing."
Karasin said Rabideau's written feedback "provided his perspective on how to adhere to some pretty vague guidelines.
"I think, generally speaking, more communication from an applicant is always more helpful than less," she said.
To that end, the planning board has asked Rabideau to attend its next meeting on the project, scheduled for 7 p.m. Sept. 3. Rabideau said he plans to attend, although he doesn't know exactly why he needs to be there.
A key issue raised at the last meeting was the zoning of one of the two land parcels. The lot currently owned by the Duffy family is located in zoning district "C," where the newly adopted village comprehensive plan says the primary planning strategy should be to maintain the residential character of the neighborhood. At the meeting Karasin said that is "the one thing where we could rightly say this is not an approvable project."
Asked about it Tuesday, Rabideau said the project "fully complies with the intent of the comprehensive plan" because it would leave the Duffy lot vacant of any buildings. The Welcome Center would be built on the neighboring lot, where a use like what's proposed is allowed. Rabideau said there would also be green space on the Duffy lot to buffer the neighborhood from the commercial buildings on Lake Flower Avenue.
"So, in my opinion, it fits in very nicely," he said.
Staff Writer Jessica Collier contributed to this report.