SARANAC LAKE - When the village planning board meets next week, a controversial project it's labored over for the past three months could be back on its agenda.
Village Community Development Director Jeremy Evans said Thursday he expects to receive a revised plan for North Country Community College's proposed Welcome Center sometime today. If that happens, it would be considered at the planning board's Wednesday night meeting.
The planning board soundly rejected the original plan for the the two-story, 4,200-square-foot office building on Sept. 3, when a motion to conditionally approve it failed for lack of a second. Some board members said the building had been "shoehorned" into the site where it's been proposed off of Lake Flower Avenue, and they questioned whether it meets the village land-use code and comprehensive plan.
This lot at 433 Lake Flower Ave., owned by Raymond Foster, could become the site of a new Welcome Center for North Country Community College. The college's foundation also intends to buy the lot with the white house at left, owned by the Duffy family, which would connect the Welcome Center to Santanoni Avenue and thus the college. The houses on the lots would be demolished.
(Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)
Evans said he's been talking to planning board members since then.
"They've got some legitimate concerns, but, you know, the door's not shut yet," he said.
Proposed by the college and Cedar Ridge Holdings, a development company owned by village Mayor Clyde Rabideau, the Welcome Center is designed to serve as an eye-catching gateway to the college's Saranac Lake campus. It would also be a one-stop shop for students, housing the college's registration, financial aid, admissions and bursar's offices.
Since the last planning board meeting, NCCC President Steve Tyrell said the college has been "seeking clarification" about some of board's concerns.
"What we want to do is take a look at what are those issues that are critical to the planning board, and if we think there's some movement on our end to consider those items, then we would put some information together and ask the planning board to consider reviewing our request," Tyrell said Thursday.
One of the long-running issues has been Cedar Ridge's decision to locate the Welcome Center near the back of one of the two lots it's under contract to buy. The building would face Lake Flower, with a parking lot in front of it. Board members have asked for the structure to be located near the front of the property or to the side of it to better fit in with other Lake Flower Avenue buildings.
"We are currently reviewing that right now," Tyrell said.
"If it's up further on the front of the property, I think that would be a good change," Evans said. "I don't know if it necessarily addresses all the concerns that have been raised, but I know that's a concern that's been out there for some time."
Rabideau said at the board's Sept. 3 meeting that his company's options on one of the two properties had expired but that he had been given "a week's grace."
Rabideau has declined to speak to the Enterprise about the project since the last planning board meeting, saying his company policy prohibits discussion of its customers' business beyond the limited statements he's made so far.
Asked Thursday if Cedar Ridge still has options to buy both properties, Tyrell said "it's my understanding that they do," but otherwise deferred the question to Cedar Ridge.
Since it was proposed in June, the Welcome Center has drawn its share of scrutiny from some local residents and at least two politicians who represent the college's two sponsoring counties, Essex and Franklin.
Some people have raised objections to the proposed site of the Welcome Center and have suggested different locations for it. Others have questioned Rabideau's ties to the project, given his position as village mayor.
The Enterprise hasn't uncovered anything to suggest Rabideau has used his political might to influence his company's plan. In fact, the village board turned down a request to have the village take over a road that would cut through the site. During that discussion, Trustee Allie Pelletieri said he was opposed to the project because it would take the two properties involved off the tax rolls.
Rabideau has largely stayed out of the public eye during review of the project, but he hasn't been completely out of the loop. In late July, he sent a three-page email to Evans and Planning Board Chairwoman Leslie Karasin, analyzing some of the issues the board had raised. He later told the Enterprise the email "speaks for itself" and that he was within his rights as a developer to weigh in.
At the county level, Willsboro town Supervisor Ed Hatch said in late August that the project "is not in the interest of, the best interest or the intent of what community colleges are for."
Franklin County Legislator Paul Maroun of Tupper Lake has repeatedly raised concerns about how NCCC's administration has handled the project, most recently at a meeting Thursday in Malone.
"My issue is with the administration for putting something that has the appearance of something wrong, the smell of something wrong, and not letting it go out to public bid," Maroun said. The only way taxpayers can get the best price on a project is to bid it, he said.
The college "put this singularly to (Rabideau's company) early on," which "has made a lot of people question the integrity of the administration of North Country Community College," Maroun said.
When the Welcome Center plan was announced in June, Tyrell said the college wouldn't have to put the construction out to public bid because it planned to buy a "turnkey" facility, one that's ready to move into.
"We do have a right to go through turnkey arrangements," Tyrell said at the time.
At that point, it hadn't been decided whether the property would be purchased by the two counties, the college's association or its foundation. That was settled in late August when the NCCC Foundation voted to buy the properties and the college's Board of Trustees passed a resolution supporting that decision. NCCC trustees made it clear at the time that they felt construction of the building should be put out to public bid, not just given to Cedar Ridge.
"When we move forward with construction of the facility, we will bid the project," Tyrell said Thursday. "That's a reflection of putting it out there and letting people be part of a full process of conversation about how they feel about it. I see that as a positive."
Enterprise staff writer Shaun Kittle contributed to this report from Malone.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.