Common Council expands oversight of demolitions, imposes moratorium

Section: Capital Region,  Page: B1

Date: Tuesday, November 17, 2009

ALBANY -- City lawmakers boosted oversight over demolition of most buildings Monday night, and, in the process, may have set the course for yet another legal battle with one of Albany's most august organizations.

The council passed an ordinance that requires the city's Planning Board to review applications for demolition permits for every building that is not an imminent threat to public safety or in a historic district.

Eleven council members voted for the measure, despite warnings from a Fort Orange Club attorney that the ordinance is "illegal, hastily prepared, and ill-advised."

One member voted no, another voted present, citing potential technical problems with the measure. The 129-year-old private club has already asked a state judge to force the city to issue a demolition permit for two neighboring buildings at 118-120 Washington Ave. that it hopes to raze to make up for parking lost during an expansion of its athletic facilities.

A similar proposal angered neighborhood groups and preservationists last summer, prompting the club to temporarily withdraw. The club renewed that request Nov. 6, after the proposed ordinance was introduced. The city referred the club's application to the Planning Board, prompting a lawsuit pending before state Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi.

The measure also imposes a moratorium on demolitions in the city until it takes effect 30 days after Mayor Jerry Jennings signs it. That may yet prompt a other legal battle.

Bob Sweeney, an attorney representing the club, said no decision has been made on whether to sue.

Daniel Curtis, president of the Pine HIlls Neighborhood Association, essentially dared the club to do so.

"I don't think we need state lobbyists telling us what the authority of this Common Council is," Curtis said, referring to the club's attorney.

James Flaherty, the club's general manager condemned the tone of class warfare that he said has seeped into the debate. He said the Fort Orange Club has been unfairly portrayed as a cold, exclusive organization. The Historic Albany Foundation has asked the judge to halt the demolitions, citing the history of the 19th-century structures. The club contends they have little to no historic value, citing many changes to them over the years.

"This is not about class or elitism or anything like that," said Councilman Richard Conti, the measure's sponsor. "It ensures that that demolitions of major structures are considered in the context of the impact on the community."

Councilman Michael O'Brien said he supported the measure in principle but could not take a position on it because lingering legal and procedural questions.

"I think we're going to be doing a redo on this if we vote on it as is" O'Brien said.

In other news, the council also approved a law that requires city department heads to live inside city limits. Lawmakers also adopted the 2010 budget. The $163 million spending plan is only $150,000 more than Jennings' initial proposal. The extra money will pay for increased plastics recycling.

The budget does not raise the tax levy, but homeowners will end up paying about five percent more next year because of a decline in commercial property values.