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Rabideau’s townhouse plan faces friction from neighbors

This notice was how residents of a Duprey Street property found out about the development plans that may force them to find new housing. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

SARANAC LAKE — A townhouse development proposed at the intersection of Duprey Street and Tara Drive also sits at the intersection of some of the big conversations in this village: the affordable housing shortage, debates over the proliferation of short-term rentals, the future of the development code, and the mayor’s personal career as a contractor, developer and landlord.

Village Mayor Clyde Rabideau’s plans to build three townhouses at a 0.45-acre lot he owns at 51, 53, 55 and 57 Duprey St. have been met with criticism from neighbors and current tenants of the property.

Cedar Ridge Holdings Inc. is the landowning company, and Rabideau Corp. would be the contracting company. Both are owned by Rabideau.

Several residents on the street oppose the development and are asking the village Development Board to deny the project the permits it needs. They believe the project is too big for the lot and would change the character of the area.

“It’s just not fitting for the neighborhood,” Jim Cochrin said.

Cochrin has lived across Duprey Street from the property since 1979 and he spent his childhood summers there. He said he wouldn’t mind one townhouse on the property but feels three is excessive.

Some tenants renting from Rabideau at the property worry about finding a place to live if they have to move to make way for the development.

Many have spoken at the Development Board’s public hearings, several have written letters to the editor in the Enterprise, and one has obtained the legal services of a lawyer.

Meanwhile, the Development Board is diminished on this matter because two members have recused themselves since they are relatives of Rabideau.

Developers say the townhouses would fill a dire housing need in Saranac Lake. Neighbors worry they’ll just become more short-term rentals, which are more profitable than long-term housing.

This is not the first time one of Rabideau’s development projects has brought controversy and critique of his public and private life, but he’s also had other projects go down without any public opposition. Two cases of public opposition to his projects include a subdivision and home development on Fox Run Road and a planned welcome center for North Country Community College. This center never transpired and the property was sold.

Si Flores and Cathy Wigger live three doors down from the Duprey Street property. Flores believes the street could not handle the traffic if the units become STRs.

Several of the street’s occupants are the second or third generation to live in that neighborhood, and some are related. Walter McClure and Mary Beth Wigger, who live across the street from the proposed townhouse lot and who hired Glens Falls lawyer Claudia Braymer, are Flores’ brother- and sister-in-law. Lorraine Kelly, who wrote a letter to the Enterprise against the townhouse plan, is a Duprey by birth, the family after whom the street was named.

“Duprey is a great little street,” McClure said. “We live in Saranac Lake because a project like this doesn’t pop up in our neighborhood.”

Rabideau said he listens to the responses he gets from residents and respects their opinions.

For most questions, Rabideau deferred to Keith Braun, a representative with Cedar Ridge Holdings.

“It’s certainly added a lot of different perspectives for us to consider in the design of the project and we’re trying very hard to take those into consideration,” Braun said.

Braun said after feedback from the neighbors, they reduced the plans from four townhouses to three, which he feels was a needed compromise. But while the neighbors have a negative view of townhouses overall, Braun believes they’re a good thing.

He said the land was not purchased with townhouses in mind, but due to the limited number of open, developable properties in the village, it became an attractive idea.

“We feel Duprey Street’s a great neighborhood,” Braun said. “We feel it’s a good use of the land.”

The project and permits

Each townhouse would be two stories tall and have a 22-by-40-foot footprint. Each would have three bedrooms and two-and-a-half bathrooms.

Construction would involve removing a cabin and a converted trailer dwelling, but would leave an existing single-story, two-bedroom home in the back of the property.

Townhouses are only allowed to be built in this neighborhood’s zoning district — District A-2 — with a special use permit approved by the Development Board.

At the board’s June 1 meeting, members were scheduled to take a vote on this permit, but due to incomplete paperwork, they chose to tentatively postpone the vote until a July 6 meeting.

The public hearing was left open until this meeting.

The permit application had to be resubmitted because the number of townhouses proposed has been cut down from four to three and the paperwork needs to be changed to reflect that.

The opposition

At the June 1 meeting, Braymer, speaking as attorney for McClure, said the board has the authority to deny the permit if the project would adversely affect the character of the neighborhood.

Residents there believe it would.

“It just will totally change the characteristics and everything of the neighborhood,” Flores said.

Developers are also seeking a subdivision from the board because each unit needs separate ownership and the zoning district allows for only one residential unit per lot.

There are three units currently on the property, more than what is allowed under the current code, but the units predate the code and were grandfathered in.

Subdivision of the property would result in four lots that are each smaller than the 10,000-square-foot minimum lot size required, so developers are also asking for a variance allowing this.

Those opposing the townhouses said the developers are asking for too many variances and exceptions.

“The applicant basically is asking for a variance for everything,” McClure said.

Rabideau and recusals

Rabideau said he’s been a contractor for 44 years, and in his 11 years as mayor of Saranac Lake, this is the first variance he’s asked the village for.

Some residents feel Rabideau’s position as mayor is in conflict with his aspirations as a developer seeking village approval.

“He’s definitely got his fingers in the works,” Cochrin said of Rabideau.

Rabideau said he doesn’t get any special treatment as mayor. He feels he gets the opposite.

“I get extra scrutiny. Of course I do,” he said.

Two members of the board have recused themselves from the vote because of familial connections with Rabideau. Bob Bevilacqua is the mayor’s brother-in-law and C.J. Hagmann is the mayor’s nephew through Rabideau’s wife Janie (Bevilacqua). Both recused themselves.

Community activist and former Green Party village board candidate Fred Balzac also asked if Adam Harris should recuse himself since he is an agent at Say Realty, which is owned by Rabideau’s sister-in-law (and Hagmann’s mother) Cherie Sayles. He asked if this would be a financial conflict of interest.

Board Chair Donna DiFara said it would not. She said only familial relationships warrant recusal and that Harris’ relationship to Rabideau doesn’t meet those standards. She also said Allie Pelletieri, who was absent from the June 1 meeting, has similar relationships with people involved but that the board needs the legal number of members left to actually vote on the permit.

“We can’t eliminate everybody,” DiFara said.

Balzac said the root of the problem is that the mayor is also a contractor and developer.

Tenant

A tenant renting from Rabideau on the property said they are worried about being evicted. Asked where they’d live if they are evicted, they said, “I have no idea.” The tenant requested anonymity for fear of eviction, and the Enterprise granted that request.

They said they’ve lived on Duprey Street for three years and love the neighborhood. They said the people are friendly and it’s a peaceful spot. The townhouse development came as a surprise when one day they found a laminated sign stapled to a stake in their yard with a notice of the public hearing at the Development Board.

Braun said developers are planning a phased construction of the project, to accommodate the needs of the existing long-term tenants who’ll need to find new housing.

“It’s not our intention by any means to leave somebody without a place to live,” Braun said. “We don’t intend on kicking people out of where they live just to progress the project.”

Precedent

Several neighbors and other village residents have said they worry that if the Development Board allows this permit, it will set a precedent for more townhouses to be allowed in similar neighborhoods. The village is considering creating a path for more projects like this in the future.

Village Development Code Administrator Paul Blaine said the village has never had a townhouse project in a neighborhood like this before and said there are “deficiencies” in the village’s code regarding townhouses.

He said the developer could have either applied for a special use permit and variance, which Rabideau is doing, or the village could have the code include design standards for townhouses.

“I think, ultimately, that’s what we’re going to do after this project,” Blaine said. “We learned quite a bit about townhouses and how to look at them maybe for development within the village, so this is going to help us when we do develop a better code for townhouses in the future.”

McClure said he hopes it’s not a foregone conclusion that townhouses will be approved in residential neighborhoods like his.

Braymer said the board is doing things backward.

“Make the applicant put his application on hold,” she said. “Do what’s best for the entire village, and forget the fact that the applicant is the mayor. Update the code, and then go forward with applications.”

STR concerns

The application states the purpose of the townhouses is to “fill a need for housing in our community.”

“Townhouses do a good job of moderately increasing density in an area,” Braun said. “It’s certainly not the only solution to that, but it’s certainly a good one.”

But residents think the townhouses will become STRs. They’ve seen similar townhouses across state Route 86 selling for $200,000 to $300,000 and being rented as STRs. They said that price is too high to fill the low-income housing needs of the area.

Flores said whoever pays for these townhouses will want a return on their investment, and the quickest way to do that is to operate them as STRs.

Braun said the plan is to sell the townhouses individually when they are completed. He did not hazard a guess on how much they’ll sell for because he said it’s hard to predict the market several years out.

He said they’d make good starter homes.

McClure said once they’re sold, there’s nothing to stop them from becoming STRs.

“I don’t consider that progress,” he said.

If allowed, developers plan to start Phase 1 of construction — taking down the cabin — immediately, with work expected to last until September 2023.

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