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Mayor’s project gets favored treatment

I was pleased to see in a recent edition of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise that a local business had cleared an important site plan review hurdle with the Development Board. What does not please me is the apparent uneven approval process that seems to favor certain projects.

The Dew Drop Inn restoration, for instance, was finally abandoned due to permit adversity. Dannemora-on-the-Lake, on the other hand, has been expedited at every turn, even including lake bottom to accommodate the extravagant structure’s zoning requirements.

The village Development Code vows to protect the character of our neighborhoods, carefully weighing such factors as environmental and wildlife issues, and particularly to allow public comment during a project’s approval process. And although there are a number of separate avenues by which various types of projects gain village approval, the preferred choice in the Development Code is always to allow for public comment. A decision to bypass public comment, on the other hand, must meet the carefully worded code requirements of Article III, 106-20, A.

Last spring, Mayor Rabideau purchased a lot in our neighborhood on which to build two single-family houses. For Mayor Rabideau’s project, the Development Board made a decision that it would not require public notification, determining that there was no public interest. That’s convenient. And related to this, Article XVII, 106-121 B. (2) calls for notification of the public if discussion of the subdivision will be held at a public hearing. This, too, was not done for the mayor’s project. To date the board has provided neither justification nor a written finding to explain why this project did not require public notice, and why they held a public meeting to discuss it without proper notification of the public.

Even at that point in the process, where formal public notification was waived, the Development Board could still have required the developer, Mayor Rabideau, to at least notify the immediate neighbors. [See Article III, 106-20 A (2).] Here, too, they declined to do so. This, in effect, moved the project forward in stealth mode. Why go this route, you might ask? Simply put, the notification of the neighbors would have been a risk to the project. Anyone can drive the length of Maryland Avenue and Fox Run and see the mayor’s project is not a good match for the neighborhood. Had there been any warning, the entire neighborhood would have been up in arms, and with plenty of time to appeal the project.

That waiver of the public notification process, and failure to even notify the neighbors of the mayor’s project, immediately eliminated any and all public debate. When the notice of the next board meeting was posted in the ADE, no mention of an agenda item concerning Mayor Clyde’s subdivision was found. Our neighborhood was completely in the dark regarding an important development gliding towards final approval.

When the Development Board did meet to publicly discuss the project, the village attorney presented the mayor’s project for approval! (Read that sentence again.) She apparently explained to the board that the conflict of interest was not all that bad, and that she could represent both the village and the mayor’s firm in this matter. The meeting was a well-oiled operation. And so, without any opposition to the subdivision, and with the overt support of the village attorney, the project slid through with little comment. The clock began ticking whereby our ability to appeal would be denied. We didn’t even know.

Sometime after that meeting, the sign for the mayor’s company went up at the property. We didn’t think much about it — a sign had been there for years. Eventually, though, two of the neighbors got informal letters from Rabideau Corp. saying it intended to build on the lot. Two days later, heavy equipment showed up and began indiscriminately pushing over numerous large trees. We were very alarmed and went to the village offices for information. We discovered that a building permit had not yet been issued.

Significantly, at that very time, the period within which we could submit an appeal to the Development Board had run out. A band of angry neighbors showed up at the next Development Board meeting. They were an unorganized lot, unprepared to make a presentation, and were easily handled by the chairman and a code enforcement official. In fact, the code enforcement official went so far as to prepare a slide presentation to praise the mayor’s virtues as a builder and to show what a house on the property might look like when complete. This cheerleader role by a code enforcement official truly crosses the line and would result in a severe reprimand in a more functional governmental agency.

Many, many other details could be included, such as the glaring lack of a stormwater pollution prevention plan upon approval to begin foundation work, but I hope to make my point with the condensed version. Our developer mayor is the highest elected official in the village and wields great authority and presence. This sets up the clear potential of inappropriate influence on the very village personnel who will oversee his projects, overt or not. Just as a sniff test here: Compare the ease of approval for the mayor’s project with the travails suffered by the Dew Drop Inn project.

Our village administration appears to me to have been co-opted. In a glaring case of unfair advantage, the mayor has gained a huge competitive advantage over every other developer-builder in the area. We do not need a self-interested man leading our village government, working to sell off our precious natural environment to the rich and famous, bringing in crews from the Plattsburgh area to work on his houses when so many are out of work locally, pushing the village to spend money and apparently planning the full Aspen-ization of our quiet burgh. We don’t need another Aspen, Lake Tahoe or Lake George. We have plenty of those already. What we don’t have are many authentic Saranac Lakes. Please help vote Clyde Rabideau out of office in ’20.

Stephen McAuley lives in Saranac Lake and worked as a construction manager and affordable housing property consultant until retiring.

(Corrections: In an earlier version of this Guest Commentary, Stephen McAuley incorrectly said Mayor Clyde Rabideau is an “outsider” and “doesn’t pay village taxes.” Rabideau lives inside the village and pays village taxes on his home as well as other properties he owns in the village. Also, McAuley said Rabideau brought in crews from Plattsburgh; Rabideau said he brought in a crew from West Chazy, in the Plattsburgh area, but not Plattsburgh itself. The Enterprise regrets not catching these errors before the essay was published.)