Dominick Calsolaro

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Pine Bush hotel hits another council roadblock

Published on 4/7/2009 by the Times Union written by JORDAN CARLEO-EVANGELIST, Staff writer

ALBANY — A long-stalled hotel project slated for the Pine Bush has been denied another chance to move forward.
The Common Council was on the verge Monday night of approving a crucial zoning change for the Residence Inn on Washington Avenue Extension when some of the lawmakers asked whether the council should demand that the developer provide land for preservation.

Instead of green-lighting the project, the council dispatched it back to committee.

The change from residential to commercial zoning would have been the second for project, which has been on the drawing board since 2002 and faced stiff opposition from Save the Pine Bush. The environmental group believes the 124-room hotel would damage the fragile Pine Bush habitat.

Save the Pine Bush sued to force a more detailed environmental review, partially succeeding in 2007 when a state Supreme Court justice ordered the city and the developer to take a harder look at how the proposal would affect plants and animals other than the endangered Karner blue butterfly.

Last summer, a state Department of Environmental Conservation biologist found a rare worm snake in the area of the 3.6-acre site at 124-128 Washington Avenue Extension.

The Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission, an advisory group formed by the state to protect the rare inland scrub pine habitat and counsel local governments, has never opposed the project but said it believes the developer should provide money to protect twice as much land someplace else.

Under the current plan, the developer, Tharaldson Development Companies of North Dakota, would make annual payments for at least 50 years for preservation of Karner blue habitat elsewhere in the area. Those payments are welcome, said the commission's executive director, Chris Hawver, but they are not the same as replacing habitat that will be developed.

The commission was asking for money to protect about seven acres, about twice as much as the development's footprint, which Hawver said is in keeping with past practice.

The council was poised to accept the supplemental environmental review Monday when Councilman Dominick Calsolaro asked why the resolution said the council had determined that Tharaldson should not pay for the acquisition of more land.

Calsolaro insisted the council was never told it had the power, as the lead agency under the state Environmental Quality Review Act, to impose such mitigation requirements.

Assistant Corporation Counsel Patrick Jordan, however, said the council was informed "several times."

Councilman Daniel Herring, chairman of the planning committee, said the resolution's wording was based on the council's previous approval of the zoning change without the requirement.

"I think it could have been voted on tonight," said Herring, noting that the land-swap issue wasn't brought up at March 25 meeting when the committee approved the supplemental environmental review.

The Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations has unanimously panned the project, and Save the Pine Bush continues to oppose it.

Daniel Hershberg, an engineer representing the developer, seemed frustrated as he addressed lawmakers, stressing that the mitigation issue had already been resolved with the payment plan.

"We did not move into the middle of the Pine Bush," Hershberg said. "This is on the fringe of the Pine Bush."

The issue is complicated by the fact that the hotel property is not within the Pine Bush Preserve but is inside the commission's broader Pine Bush study area. While the land is not currently recommended for any level of protection by the commission, Hawver noted that — given new revelations about rare wildlife around the site — that could change when the commission's new draft master plan is completed at the end of this year.

Jordan Carleo-Evangelist can be reached at 454-5445 or by e-mail at jcarleo-evangelist@timesunion.com.