GLENS FALLS — An official from the Warren-Washington Association for Mental Health made an impassioned defense of its project for the 29-unit Cooper Street Apartments for the homeless and people with mental illness, saying the opposition to the project is based on misinformation, ignorance and negative stereotypes.
“We sadly find ourselves defending reality from gross mischaracterization,” said John Farrell, director of facilities, at Tuesday’s Planning Board meeting.
Farrell attempted to address some of the criticism and clear up any confusion about the project. He said that the agency’s mission is different from Open Door Mission, which provides temporary and emergency housing. These would be permanent apartment units.
Farrell also rebutted comments made by First Ward County Supervisor Jack Diamond that the agency has tremendous assets and does not need any tax breaks. As a nonprofit agency, the Warren-Washington Association for Mental Health is exemption from taxation but has tentatively agreed to pay a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes of about $5,000. Farrell said 72% of the agency’s assets, reported as $3 million, are tied up in buildings.
The question of whether the use is permitted is the subject of an appeal filed by Nathan Hall, attorney for businesswoman Elizabeth Miller, to the Zoning Board of Appeals. The board will meet on July 15 to hear the appeal.
Multifamily housing is a permitted use in the industrial zone, although the city’s comprehensive plan — which was never adopted — says such uses should be discouraged.
Stefanie Bitter, an attorney for the agency, said the city code is ambiguous and case law states any ambiguity should be in favor of the property owner.
“The landowner has invested money, invested time, relied on the code to understand that this is a permitted use,” she said.
Bitter said she believes that this project would be a great bridge between single-family residential uses and light industrial uses.
Farrell criticized the appeal, which he said is based on “unfounded stereotype and stigma” about people with mental illness.
“The complainant takes great liberties in their assumptions and mischaracterization of our proposed apartment building,” he said, referring to Miller. “The arguments are speculative and dare I say specious.”
Farrell said the apartment building is not an institution or medical facility. Residents would receive some assistance on site in the form of learning life skills such as personal hygiene, setting goals and connecting them to services in the community. Other services would be off site with the exception of a visiting nurse or home health aide.
He said people should not be turned away in their hour of need.
“One traumatic experience, one life event and any one of us could be in need of the very housing we’re proposing,” he said. “In your hour of need, I’m sure you would not want to be shunned, ignored or, worse yet, demonized.”
Another issue that was brought up was environmental contamination.
Tom Jarrett, engineer for the project, said that a study has found low levels of contamination from its previous use as Mullen Iron Works that can be mitigated by capping the areas and bringing in new topsoil.
Board Chairman Daniel Bruno opened the public comment period by stating that he only wanted to hear new comments.
“All the comments from the last meeting have been reported, so I don’t want to hear them over again,” he said.
Nancy Underwood, a candidate for First Ward supervisor, said she appreciated Farrell’s passion, but said she did not appreciate him demonizing the neighborhood because of the opposition to this project. She reiterated concerns about flooding in that area of the city and the fact that Ward 1 is already home to many social services.
Resident Stephen Baratta disputed that and said Ward 4 also has many social services.
Bruno interrupted him, saying he made the comment last time.
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“I’m going to finish what I’m saying,” Baratta continued
Baratta also said that there have been other approvals for residences in the light industrial zone and that should not be used to deny this project.
“You could be accused of being exclusionary and at worse, discriminatory. I would like to put that out to you in making your decision,” he said.
Baratta is a member of the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals.
Resident Paul Hancock pointed out that the city’s insistence on the Madden Hotel being torn down on South Street displaced many of these homeless people.
Matt Cifone of 113 Cooper St. said his biggest concern is taking the property off the tax rolls, adding that he believes the project will decrease property values.
Miller, who wanted to purchase the property for her business Miller Mechanical, said she met with Andrea Deepe, the agency’s executive director, and Miller believes the project could be moved to another site.
Miller also reiterated her threat to relocate her business.
“You’re throwing away manufacturing jobs in Glens Falls. That’s the bottom line. I don’t believe that this is not a need in our area. I don’t believe this is the right location,” she said.
Her attorney, Nathan Hall, said the comprehensive plan discourages residential use, and he said there is a question as to whether this particular use classifies as a multifamily dwelling. In addition, he is also concerned about stormwater runoff from the property.
Diamond reiterated some similar concerns that he does not believe this is a permitted use, and he said more information is needed about whether there are more wetlands on the property and about the environmental contamination.
Bruno reminded Diamond that his 3 minutes were nearly up, which prompted a rebuke from the former mayor.
“You allowed Mr. Farrell to get up and speak for a half an hour,” he said.
“They were making a presentation,” Bruno responded.
“You’re doing an injustice to the city by not allowing the public to speak,” Diamond responded.
The board had heard public comments at the previous meetings.
“We’re not obligated to let the public speak,” Bruno said.
“Three minutes is not enough time Mr. Chairman,” Diamond said.
“We do accept written comments,” Bruno said.
The project was tabled until the Aug. 6 Planning Board meeting, which is after the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting.