another sneaky pylon ploy?

WHAT? Mohawk Harbor (Maxon Alco Holdings) is asking the Schenectady Planning Commission for permission to put up a 32′ by 14′ pylon (including an LED screen atop it 12′ by 6′ in size), and to construct a “monument sign” 40′ wide and 10′ high. WHERE? One on each side of the entryway of Mohawk Harbor, on Mohawk Harbor Way, at its intersection with Erie Boulevard. WHEN? On the Planning Commission Agenda, August 16, 2017, August 16, 2017, at 6:30 PM, in Room 110, City Hall, 105 Jay Street, Schenectady, NY 12305.

For Issues and Analysis, please see: “update on the proposed Mohawk Harbor signs” (Aug. 11, 2017)

 I spent the past few days trying to get a look at Mohawk Harbor’s new application to the City of Schenectady Planning Commission to put a pylon sign structure and a so-called monument sign at the Mohawk Harbor Way entrance from Erie Boulevard into Mohawk Harbor. Maxon Alco Holdings, which is part of the Galesi Group of companies, is the official owner of the land at Mohawk Harbor.  I started looking when I saw this agenda item on the Planning Commission’s Agenda for August 16, 2017:

B. MAXON ALCO HOLDINGS LLC requests a Special Use Permit and sign approval pursuant to Section 264-61 I and 264-89 D of a proposal to install a pylon style sign with an electronic message board at the entrance to Mohawk Harbor, tax parcel # 39.49-2-1.2 located in a “C-3” Waterfront Mixed Use District.

 Items are not supposed to be placed on the Commission agenda until staff determines that the application is complete. Therefore, I expected it to be easy to take a look at the Pylon Application. After being told for a couple days that, “of course” they had the submission since the item is on the Agend, but it could not be found, I learned today that the submission did not arrive until today, Friday, August 4. The applications — one for a “monument sign” and one for a pylon sign — were actually dated yesterday, August 3, including the technical drawings. And, in fact, late in the afternoon, a corrected replacement sketch of the pylon sign was submitted by Saxton SignCorp and Mohawk Harbor’s representative Paul Fallotti. The top portion of the pylon sign sketch was changed from an LED screen showing the casino floor to a screen merely saying “Mohawk Harbor.” (See image to the right of this paragraph.) I do not know if or how often the “branding sign” will vary its message or how animated its images will be.  The signage below the LED screen on the proposed pylon are panels with the names of business at MH and they will be lit. The LED screen will change message, advertising events and businesses within the MH complex.

  •  update (Aug. 11, 2017): Christine Primiano gave me some helpful information this morning about the applications and likely timing and process. See “update on the proposed Mohawk Harbor signs.” The Commission or its staff apparently concur with the arguments below about the need for variances due to the excessive size of the signs, and there will be no approval or denial of the applications at the August meeting. The Board of Zoning Appeals is expected to have needed variance requests on its October agenda.

Principal City Planner Christine Primiano, who would surely have explained the situation to me and others seeking to see the submission sooner if she were not on a much-needed vacation, wrote to submission seekers this afternoon, after being contacted by her staff. Christine explained that she had posted the Agenda before leaving on vacation rather than waiting until today, to get it up in a timely manner. However, Maxon Holding had not yet submitted its application, but promised to do so by Monday July 31, in her absence. Unfortunately, the Applicant took until today to finally submit an application (which I personally consider to be inadequate, for reasons given below). Christine does not plan to review it until back on Monday, August 7, and I hope she enjoys the weekend.

 . . . proposed pylon at entrance to Mohawk Harbor at Erie Blvd. and Mohawk Harbor Way. Dimensions: 32′ H and 14′ wide, with an LED screen 12′ wide by 6′ high. Click for the pylon portion of the Aug. 3, 2017 Application.

Readers of this weblog might recall that its proprietor has not been pleased over the past couple years with the handling of the casino pylon issue at Mohawk Harbor by the Galesi Group and the Casino Gang at Rush Street, nor by the Planning Commission and City Council. So, I started out a bit doubtful when I heard of a new pylon submission, having predicted in March 2016 that we had not seen the end of the zombie pylon at Mohawk Harbor. But, the tardy submission of the application materials is not the real problem here, as I see it, except that it continues to show that Galesi Group seems to get special treatment by the Planning Office. Why the “rush” again? There is no “deadline” of any sort any different than that facing any business wanting to put up new signage. More important, it seems yet again clear that the Galesi Group/Maxon Alco Holding does not give sufficient respect to the responsibilities of the Planning Office and the rights of the public.

Sched1SignReg The more substantive issue raised by the application for a pylon sign and a monument sign (click for that application) is symbolized by the last-minute correction to the LED screen at the top of the pylon: This is not a casino-related set of signage applications. Therefore, although it is within the C-3 Waterfront Mixed-Use District, it does not benefit from the exemption to Article IX of the Schenectady zoning code (Chapter 264), which sets forth signage regulations for all (non-casino) Schenectady businesses, including specifications for allowed signage in the various zoning districts, in §264-61(K), Schedule I. Click on the thumbnail image at the left of this paragraph to see Schedule I.

 In 2015, Galesi Group and Rush Street Gaming, led by Galesi CEO David Buicko, pressured City Hall to eviscerate its Waterfront C-3 zoning. A major component of the nearly-felonious amendments (which stole the public’s guarantee of access to and enjoyment of the riverbank) was the granting of signage amounts, including the height of pylon signs, far greater than the original C-3 limits, and the exclusion of “a casino gaming facility and ancillary uses” from application of Article IX’s signage regulation.  Here’s the actual wording (as seen also in the Code section printed above), with emphases added:

C-3 Waterfront Mixed-Use District (as amended 2/2015)

http://www.ecode360.com/documents/SC0901/source/LF957479.pdf

H. Supplemental C- 3 Regulations.

 Notwithstanding anything contained within this Zoning Chapter to the contrary, Article IX – Signs shall not be applicable to a casino gaming facility and ancillary uses. 

1) Maximum allowable signage shall be 19,000 square feet for a casino gaming facility and its ancillary facilities, attached hotel, parking garage and pylon signs. Signage for a casino gaming facility and related uses within the C- 3 District shall be reviewed and approved by the Planning Commission as part of the Site Plan Approval process. Multi – sided pylon signs shall be permitted, with a height not to exceed 80 feet. Square footage for a multi -sided pylon sign shall be the square footage of its single largest side. Signage on any one side of a pylon sign may not exceed 70% of the face of the pylon sign, on that same side. 

This means that even in the C-3 zoning district, non-casino-related signs must comply with the requirements, definitions, and restrictions of Article IX, including the specifications in Schedule I. Mohawk Harbor signage has limits similar to businesses throughout the City that do not happen to be in the Favored Casino Business. This detail from Schedule I shows the most relevant portion:

ScheduleI-detail

That means, for example, that the following definitions apply to the Mohawk Harbor signage applications now before the Planning Commission:

Schenectady Code §264-60 Definitions http://www.ecode360.com/8692182#8692226

FREESTANDING SIGN — A self-supporting sign standing alone on its own foundation.

MONUMENT SIGN — A freestanding sign attached to a brick, stone, or masonry wall or structure that forms a supporting base for the sign display.

PYLON SIGN — A sign that has a base that is a minimum of three feet wide and a maximum of five feet wide. At no time can the message portion exceed eight feet wide.

SHOPPING CENTER — A group of three or more retail and commercial units on a single site, constructed and managed as a total entity, sharing a common on-site parking area.

[Editor’s note: “Pylon signs” and “monument sign” are considered “Freestanding Signs” in the sign industry (examples here and there) and fit into the definition of that term in the Schenectady Code.]

Therefore, a non-casino pylon sign may have a base with a maximum width of five feet and its message portion may not be more than 8 feet wide. The requested special use permit for a 32′ by 14′ pylon structure, with its LED screen of 12′ by 6′, must therefore be rejected by this Commission, as inconsistent with the zoning code. An “area variance” is needed before a special use permit may be granted. Under NYS GCT Law §81-b, an Area Variance is “the authorization by the zoning board of appeals for the use of land in a manner which is not allowed by the dimensional or physical requirements of the applicable zoning regulations.” For the factors to be considered before granting an area variance, see the quotes and discussion at the foot of this posting.*

  • red check It is the Zoning Board of Appeals, not the Planning Commission, which is authorized to hear a request for an area variance. This same Area Variance requirement also applies to the Monument Sign application. Click here to see the Area Variance Application form at Schenectady’s Zoning Board of Appeals.

  . . . proposed “monument sign” for the entryway to Mohawk Harbor Way; click to see the Application.

As for the Monument Sign proposed by Maxon Alco Holdings, at 40′ W and 10′ H, it exceeds the 7′ maximum for a freestanding sign in the C-3 district, and with its great width, also greatly exceeds the maximum square footage permitted in Schedule I. As such, the application belongs before the Zoning Board of Appeals, not the Planning Commission.

As always, I hope the Planning Commission and the Planning Office will step up and enforce the Schenectady Zoning Code in a manner that preserves public safety, aesthetics, and the general public interest.  A casino may be a special kind of business that arguably needs extra hoopla and lights and action, or City Hall might have felt two years ago that it must do everything asked of it by the Mohawk Harbor/Casino Gang. But, there is nothing about condos, office buildings and regular retail and bars that calls for allowing signs multiples larger than other businesses are permitted.

Nor should the Commission ignore the public safety aspects of placing an often-changing LED screen in a place where it can be a distraction or cause glare for drivers or residents. The special findings required before an electric message sign is permitted everywhere else in the City, therefore, must also be applied to the current application:

§264-61(I)(2). A special use permit must be approved upon a showing by the applicant at a public hearing of the City Planning Commission that the proposed electronic message board shall not substantially impact upon the nature and character of the surrounding neighborhood, upon traffic conditions and any other matters affecting the health, safety and general welfare of the public.

For a discussion of “Variables for evaluating the safety of electronic message displays along urban roadways” see my posting at  tinyurl.com/electronicdisplayfactors

We will keep you apprised as the applications proceed in the Planning Commission, or perhaps Board of Zoning Appeals, process. For example, see “update on the proposed Mohawk Harbor signs” (August 11, 2017).

_______________________________________________

*Factors for Granting an Area Variance, per NYS GCT Law §81-b:

“In making its determination, the zoning board of appeals shall take into consideration the benefit to the applicant if the variance is granted, as weighed against the detriment to the health, safety and welfare of the neighborhood or community by such grant.”

In making such determination the board shall also consider:

(i) whether an undesirable change will be produced in the character of the neighborhood or a detriment to nearby properties will be created by the granting of the area variance;

(ii) whether the benefit sought by the applicant can be achieved by some method feasible for the applicant to pursue, other than an area variance;

(iii) whether the requested area variance is substantial;

(iv) whether the proposed variance will have an adverse effect or impact on the physical or environmental conditions in the neighborhood or district;  and

(v) whether the alleged difficulty was self-created, which consideration shall be relevant to the decision of the board of appeals, but shall not necessarily preclude the granting of the area variance.

(c) The board of appeals, in the granting of area variances, shall grant the minimum variance that it shall deem necessary and adequate and at the same time preserve and protect the character of the neighborhood and the health, safety and welfare of the community.

 

5. Imposition of conditions.  The board of appeals shall, in the granting of both use variances and area variances, have the authority to impose such reasonable conditions and restrictions as are directly related to and incidental to the proposed use of the property.  Such conditions shall be consistent with the spirit and intent of the zoning ordinance or local law, and shall be imposed for the purpose of minimizing any adverse impact such variance may have on the neighborhood or community.

[emphases added]

An “alleged difficulty” is “self-created” if the zoning restrictions being contested were in existence at the time the applicant acquired the property. The non-casino signage restriction in zoning district C-3 have been in existence since the Waterfront Mixed Use district was created a decade ago.

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