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Whispering Pines senior housing approved in 4-1 Rotterdam vote

Daily Gazette: Whispering Pines senior housing approved in 4-1 Rotterdam vote

ROTTERDAM — The Rotterdam Town Board voted 4-1 Wednesday night to approve a new zoning district for the planned Whispering Pines senior citizen housing project, with Councilman Evan Christou dramatically voting in favor of the controversial project after previously being opposed.

Christou’s vote in favor reversed his stance from two years ago when the board voted 3-2 to approve the project, and assured that the approval has the four-vote “super-majority” needed to overcome a protest petition filed by neighbors of the Helderberg Avenue project. The housing would be built on a portion of the former Whispering Pines golf club.

Christou is also the deputy town supervisor and lives in the neighborhood next to the project where many of its opponents live. He spoke for nearly 20 minutes explaining his vote in favor, and to respond to criticisms.

“I have spoken to over 100 people about this, either in person or by phone,” Christou said at the meeting. “The neighborhood was split about 50-50. In the rest of the town, the sentiment was clearly in favor … I represent all 31,000 residents of the town of Rotterdam.”

The 496-unit, multi-faceted housing plan has been controversial since it was proposed three years ago. Although a zone change for the project had already been 3-2, the state Supreme Court Appellate Division in Albany ruled that a “super-majority” of the Town Board would be needed because of the neighbors’ protest petition.

Christou had remained uncommitted on the new vote until the meeting, despite his previous opposition.

Other claims against the project by opponents — largely having to do with the change being “spot zoning” and inconsistent with the town comprehensive plan — were rejected in the appeals court decision, and Christou noted that in his explanation. “If done correctly, this project can benefit the town of Rotterdam very, very, very much,” he said.

Opponents contend such a large senior living project will amount to a mall-size commercial development on land that has been a golf course and was zoned for agriculture.

“This was not unexpected,” said opponent Jack Dodson, who lives just doors away from Christou. “Where we go from here remains to be seen. It’s up to the developer now to maintain his commitments.”

Dodson also said he thinks the project is better because neighbors have spoken out since Whispering Pines was first proposed as a 680-unit development with medical component in January 2017. “Whenever neighbors can come together and use due process, people should not be afraid to come together against a large developer,” he said after the vote.

Also voting in favor of the zoning change were Town Supervisor Steven A. Tommasone and board members Samantha Miller-Herrera and Stephen Signore, all of whom have consistently been in favor of the project, saying the town needs senior citizen housing options and it will bring an estimated $500,000 in school tax revenue without contributing to the school population.

“The biggest problem we have is all the misinformation out there,” Tommasone said. “The Appellate Division decision gave us a clear path forward. This is a tremendous project for the town.”

Councilman Joe Guidarelli, the only Republican on the board, voted against the project, as he did two years ago. “The density is immense as proposed. We are adding a whole village in our town,” he said, noting he has concerns about the town’s ability to monitor construction of such a large project, which is expected to take years to build out.

The proposal now before the board is identical to the one approved in 2018. It establishes a senior living district, tailored to the Whispering Pines plan. It will include 125 single-family cottage homes, either detached or townhouses; 119 independent-living apartments; 144 assisted living units; and 108 memory-care units. It would also reconfigure the existing 18-hole golf course into a nine-hole executive course that would be open to the public, with a 2,500-square-foot clubhouse.

On Thursday, developer Lou Lecce of Niskayuna said the project has already been in site plan approval discussions before the town Planning Commission since last fall, and he hopes for final approval this spring. That will allow him to start full construction by this summer, and for the opening of the first single-family cottage by next spring. Construction work would continue over the next four years or longer, he said.

“I think the Town Board got it right,” Lecce said. “We have had numerous contacts with seniors who want to see it approved. We have about 55 on our waiting list.”

During a public hearing before the vote, opponent Shelly Dodson alluded to a meeting Tuesday night between Christou and Lecce at Tops Diner, which Christou owns. Both men said there was nothing improper about the meeting, which took place after Lecce made a scheduled appearance before the Planning Commission.

“I went to the restaurant and asked to meet with him to make sure his concerns were addressed,” Lecce said. “We spoke at a booth in the restaurant, and it was right by a window. This wasn’t a secret meeting in back room, it was in the middle of the restaurant.”

“Mr. Lecce humbly asked to meet with me at the restaurant, and would have left if I had refused,” Christou said. “I talked to him about all the concerns. I hit him with all the concerns I had heard.”

In the end, he said he was satisfied with the responses he heard, but he said he expects to closely monitor the project and make sure Lecce lives up to the commitments he has made to the town.

Neighbors were angered this winter when Lecce began road construction for tree removal and work continued after the town issued a stop work order because soil hadn’t been properly stabilized. Work didn’t stop until February, when the state Department of Environmental Conservation stepped in, saying no work could be done until all necessary environmental permits were issued.

Town water and sewer lines are to be extended to the 90-acre site, which also borders the state Thruway.