The question of whether it would be in the public’s best interest for a parcel of land in the Town of Florida to be annexed by the City of Amsterdam was discussed at a public forum held Thursday at Amsterdam City Hall. The property is adjacent to the city line and located east of the city between Route 5s and the New York State Thruway.
The meeting was attended by all five city council members, City of Amsterdam Mayor Michael Villa, Corporation Counsel Bill Lorman, Town of Florida Supervisor Eric Mead, members of the Town of Florida Board, Attorney for the Town of Florida Michael Crowe, members of the public and other officials.
Lorman and Crowe opened the meeting and introduced town and city officials.
The first to speak at the meeting was Benjamin McGuire, attorney for the Tribes Hill Heritage Center. He explained that the center has an option to purchase the northern half of the property which is divided by the New York State Thruway from the sole property owner Dr. Pervaz Choudry. The center’s vision is to build a multi-building educational, cultural, and commercial development on the land. Choudry recently submitted a petition to the city requesting the annexation.
Given that the center’s vision does not fit the current “industrial business park” zoning designation, McGuire mentioned that the Town of Florida Planning Board submitted a request to the Montgomery County Planning Board in January to change the designation of several properties including Choudry’s to “mixed use commercial.” The request noted that no development had occurred on the property in the last 20 years. The county planning board approved the change later in January, but so far the town planning board has not voted to give final approval to the change.
McGuire said the primary reason for annexation is to allow for the city to provide municipal water and sewer services to the planned development, which he said could initially attract tens of thousands of visitors annually. Secondly, he said that given the volume of visitors, it was important to have full-time police and fire department coverage from the city. As part of the town, the property has coverage by the county sheriff’s department and a volunteer fire department.
Town Supervisor Mead spoke next and countered that the town has a water and sewer agreement with the city and the property does not need to be part of the city to connect to those services.
Mead also pointed out that the city sells water to customers outside the city at a rate 50% higher than the rate inside the city borders.
“Don’t you think it would maybe be in the better interest of the city to capitalize on selling that water to the town and use that as a money-maker to themselves for the water and sewer?” asked Mead.
Mead also questioned who would pay for the lines to extend water and sewer services to the property.
McGuire said, “I believe that if the water and sewer were extended, that would obviously be a cost of the owner of the property.”
He added that even with the difference in the water rate, the city stands to come out ahead with the annexation. Part of the vision of the center is to sell crafts and other handmade goods which would generate sales tax.
“I believe [the difference in rate is] going to be offset by the significant amount of sales tax and any other revenues which will be coming into the city. I believe the city would end up making a lot more money [if the property] is annexed and to fully tax the property as a city property compared to the amount of additional revenue that they might get on the water and sewer,” said McGuire.
Mead then said that as part of the water and sewer deal between the town and city, there is also revenue sharing agreement that stipulates that the city receives 20% of any sales tax revenues the Town of Florida receives over $714,000 in a year.
“I would say that by taking land out of the town into the city, that’s going to lower the assessed value of the town, sales tax revenue is also going to be less revenue to the city as well,” said Mead.
McGuire said he has not seen the details of the agreement, but said, “I know normally, a city is entitled to a significant amount of sales tax, and any additional amounts are split between the various towns within the county.”
Mead asked if it was the intent of the purchaser to file for tax exemptions.
“I believe it’s a not-for-profit corporation, but I don’t believe there’s any application being put forth for a tax-exempt property,” said McGuire.
Harold Alikonis, a town board member, suggested that odors from the nearby transfer station would be blown westward over to the property. He said there is also a commercial trucking facility to the east of the property.
“How is this center going to fit in between those two facilities?” asked Alikonis.
McGuire said that the center has detailed plans for the layout of the buildings, parking, and various features of the development on the approximately 50 acres that they wish to purchase.
“There appears to be room as far as the 50 acres are concerned. My client’s put a significant amount of time and effort and money into the project making sure that it can become viable and that this site would be an appropriate location for it. I believe they’ve done the necessary checks that they would need and they feel comfortable moving forward with this parcel of land.”
“As long as they don’t mind the smell,” quipped Alikonis.
The meeting was then opened to comments from members of the public.
One resident who said he owns adjacent property asked if the entire 111 acre would be annexed or just 50 acre portion that the center wishes to buy. He noted that the portion to the south of the thruway doesn’t have any road access except through his property.
McGuire responded that the entire property is proposed to be annexed, but would need to be subdivided and the center only has an option to purchase the north half of the property, which has access from Route 5s.
One resident recalled the history of ownership of the property and then remarked that he had heard the property would be sold for several times the assessed value. He expressed disbelief that the center would be able to fund the purchase of the land and the cost of the entire development.
“Who’s getting rich? The doctor? The lawyer’s getting rich!” he concluded.
Another resident asked, “I’m just wondering what kind of precedent this is setting? If I can’t get my way I’m going to go to the city and say annex my property and I can have what I want?”
“What is going to happen around the city of Amsterdam if they keep annexing property just because somebody wants to do something?” she asked.
“This is a wonderful idea, this grand Indian museum. The bridge was a wonderful idea, getting busloads of people coming in all the time to walk over the bridge. I have yet to see it happen. The mall was a wonderful idea, where did that end up? I’m just worried about all the money that’s going to be put into this property. The town loses everything. They’re losing tax dollars. So who’s going to be making that up? The rest of the people that live in the town. I’m very concerned about that.”
The next speaker said he owns property in the same area, where the proposed casino project was going to go, and has worked with the town planning board “very well” over the years to discuss the use of the property, which is currently zoned agricultural, for new commercial projects.
“The town has consulted with an attorney and come up with a planned unit development (PUD) plan that they are working on now. It’s my understanding that should be done in very short order,” he said. “It’s my understanding that the Tribes Hill Heritage Center would be allowed to use that property under the PUD.”
“The work is in progress and is really close to fruition, that would allow this to be done while still being in the town and allow the city to provide water and sewer,” he said. “I can just see that this is something that can be accomplished without having to go through the annexation process if this PUD actually is developed and passed.”
After the meeting, Town Supervisor Mead confirmed that the town is working on a PUD that would update zoning for all properties in the town. He said that the plan could be finalized and approved by the town as early as December of this year.
Scott McKay, a member of the Town of Florida Zoning Board of Appeals, said annexation “really doesn’t make any sense.”
“Any services that the project would need can be provided by the town,” said McKay.
He said he has yet to see a completed application by the center to the planning board or town board, and that the zoning board had previously rejected an initial building permit application from the center.
After the meeting, McGuire, attorney for the center, said that the center has not submitted any further application to the town because the center’s option on the property is contingent on the zoning designation being changed first.
A resident who identified herself as a Town of Florida resident asked, “If this project were annexed to the city, and something went wrong with the project, where would that leave the project? The city would own this piece of property and be able to sell it to anyone they wanted for whatever purpose you wanted?”
She asked if there was any contingency in the event the project didn’t come to fruition, that the property would be returned to the town’s jurisdiction.
Mayor Villa said his understanding was that the property would remain as part of the city and any future use of the property would be subject to the city’s laws.
She concluded that she did not want to see the project leaving the town. “Why are we giving up something and getting absolutely nothing?”
Crowe, attorney for the town, then clarified, “the annexation doesn’t change the ownership of the land. So Dr. Choudry would still own the land, it would be within the city limits. The city would not take ownership of the land through the annexation process.”
Lorman, the city’s corporation counsel, said the meeting would remain “open” for the next ten days and that either the city or town would accept any written arguments about the issue. Residents should submit letters to the Town of Florida Clerk or to Lorman’s office at city hall.
According to New York State law, within ninety days of the public hearing, both the town board and city council are required to vote on whether the annexation should go forward, based on the information discussed at the hearing. If both governing bodies vote in agreement, the annexation will proceed. Otherwise, the city may apply to the New York State Appellate Division of the Supreme Court for a ruling.