Watkins Glen votes against variance
SCHUYLER COUNTY--Plans to build a three-story, 41-room Best Western hotel in Watkins Glen were dealt a major setback Sept. 14 when the Schuyler County Planning Commission voted 10-2 against a set of requested zoning variances crucial to the project.
The new chain hotel was to have replaced the 16-room Seneca Clipper Inn at the intersection of S. Franklin Street (Route 14) and South Avenue.
The commission refused to approve variances from local zoning law sought by Bharat Patel for building height, required parking and setbacks from streets and adjoining properties.
Patel, owner and operator of the Seneca Clipper, and his wife, Neela Patel, expressed surprise and vented anger at commission members and to a reporter immediately after the vote.
They scoffed at a resident's suggestion that they might as an alternative consider remodeling and modestly expanding the Seneca Clipper while keeping its 1950s retro style.
"They say they want to leave it an antique town, but our tourists are running away to other towns," Neela Patel said in an interview shortly after the vote. "(Tourists) are just coming here to visit the State Park and then they're running away. Even the racers ...."
The Patels said most visitors want the sort of amenities provided by the Harbor Hotel or a modern hotel chain like Best Western, not quaint throwbacks that may be more pleasing to local residents. When Gov. Cuomo recently awarded the village of Watkins Glen a $10 million grant for revitalization he intended for developers to look forward, not backward, they insisted.
"Cuomo gave us $10 million to do what, get more buggies or get more limousines?" said Neela Patel.
But Sandra Bartone, who lives in a home adjacent to the Seneca Clipper, said the Planning Commission had correctly upheld local zoning law, which strives to preserve the character of neighborhoods and maintain public safety.
"It's written so that residents take precedence over developers ... to protect residents," Bartone said in an interview.
On July 27, the village zoning board of appeals voted to approve most of Patel's requests for variances related to building height, required parking and setbacks from neighbors. Bartone and other members of the public were not allowed to speak, but board members were presented a letter from Bartone's attorney that argued that the proposed variances were improper and that the process was legally flawed.
Those ZBA decisions were soon thrown out. On Aug. 11, the village's code enforcement officer, Greg Lanard, sent a memo to village officials annulling the ZBA's July 27 decisions "on advice from (Schuyler County Planning Director) Kristin VanHorn and the Southern Tier Central Regional Planning and Development Board."
Lanard's memo said: "These steps are ... forced upon us by New York State Law. I apologize for the mishandling for the ZBA process."
But Bartone was already in the process of drafting a lawsuit against those ZBA decisions, and she filed it in Schuyler County Supreme Court Aug. 17. Named as defendants are the village, Lanard, Bharat Patel and Kishan Hospitality LLC, the corporate entity under which Patel owns the Seneca Clipper.
At some point during these developments in August, the ZBA chairman who had presided over its July 27 meeting, Mark Stephany, resigned, apparently for personal reasons.
After the village's erasure of the ZBA's rulings, the Patel requests for zoning variances were sent before the Schuyler County Planning Commission at its Sept. 14 meeting.
During the public comment period that evening, Philly DeSarno of Watkins Glen urged Patel to consider expanding the Seneca Clipper slightly while maintaining its quaint 1950s character.
"Mr. Patel, Mrs. Patel, don't buzz down our little '50s motel for a few more rooms," said DeSarno, who recently announced her retirement as Ithaca's Deputy Director of Economic Development. "Make it beautiful. You could do a lot with it.
"Don't sell Watkins Glen out. Make everything you do in our town fabulous. And ask for the best materials, the most landscaping, the best product you can put on that street. That's what I ask of you."
After the public comment period and discussion among the commissioners, Ed Gates made a motion to approve the requested variances, which was seconded by Jenna Wilkens. When the vote was called, only Gates and Wilkens stood in favor of the variances, while 10 other commissioners voted "No."
Afterward, Patel said he was very surprised and speculated that the commissioners may have been influenced by the Bartone lawsuit.
"Now any construction going in Watkins Glen I can oppose, right, if I have a lawyer?" he said shortly after the 10-2 vote. "I want to 1950s-type the whole town. I don't want to grow, period. Everybody put out the lights."
The Patels said they were not sure what their next step would be.
Their request for variances for the Best Western project was scheduled to return to the village zoning board.
Peter Mantius is a Watkins Glen journalist who publishes at blog at https://waterfrontonline.blog.