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SARANAC LAKE — The village is scheduling another public information session on its plans to build an emergency services building at 33 Petrova Ave. and is currently collecting questions and comments from locals to be addressed by engineers and village officials at that meeting, which will be scheduled sometime in January.

This planned project to retrofit the former St. Pius X High School into a combined building for the fire, police and rescue services has been controversial among some neighbors of the project, some village board members and others within the community. They have a number of concerns — noise, traffic near schools and further proximity from town — and some believe the property could have better uses for the village.

For several village board members, this site is the only way they see forward to build up-to-date facilities for Saranac Lake’s emergency services.

To submit questions or comments, email the village clerk at [email protected]. The village plans to post these online and then have engineering firm Wendel Five Bugles Design’s Director of Emergency Services Rob Kryzanowski come in to address them.

Controversy

Village Mayor Jimmy Williams said the village needs another public information session to get concrete answers and get rid of misconceptions. In recent village board meetings community members have been speaking with the board more in-depth on this topic.

Most members of the public who spoke have opposed the 33 Petrova Ave. location for the village Police Department, Saranac Lake Volunteer Rescue Squad and Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department building and have been advocating for months for the village to study the feasibility of keeping the fire department and rescue squad in new buildings at their 100 Broadway location and the police department at an updated location at its current headquarters at 1-3 Main St.

The village is still waiting to close on the sale of the 33 Petrova Ave. property. The 21.363-acre parcel of land is currently owned by Citizen Advocates, which operates an outpatient mental health and addiction clinic on the land. Last month, the Adirondack Park Agency approved a subdivision permit to split the land into two parcels. This was a major step toward completing the sale.

Citizen Advocates retains a 6.274-acre parcel to continue its services, while the other 15.089-acre parcel containing the former St. Pius X High School is under contract to be sold to the village. In late February, the village board voted to approve the purchase of the subdivided 15-acre parcel for $350,000.

Ever since the plans were announced in March, a contingent of neighbors have attended nearly every village board meeting to ask questions about the project and advocate for alternative solutions. They have not been getting all the answers they want, and Trustee Kelly Brunette said while they are far from having all the information, she feels the village should address concerns as soon as they can.

Feasibility study

The $40,000 feasibility study the village commissioned on the Pius X building was completed last month, but did not change much for the opponents of the plans. After getting time to read the report the reviews from the public are in — they’re disappointed.

They had been expecting the study would also look at possibly keeping the emergency services in their current locations at 100 Broadway and 1-3 Main St. What they got was a handful of pages with little details on that plan.

Trustee Rich Shapiro expressed his disappointment in the reports’ lack of focus on the community’s suggestion in an email he sent to the board.

“Several months ago, during an executive session, the board directed you to request that Wendel evaluate the feasibility of having just the SLVFD and Rescue Squad at the current location using all of the available properties,” the email reads. “This is something that our constituents have been asking for. I read through the 256 page report that you sent to us. In that, there are only three pages referencing the above scenario. Pages 11, 12, 89, 93. They obviously did not do a diligent analysis of this possibility. This is an incomplete report and does not fulfill the need for us to have all the requisite information to make an informed decision.”

Williams said even though the village purchased more property at the Broadway site in the year before he was elected, based on that site’s square footage, it would not solve all their problems, and they did not want to spend more time and money looking into it. Williams said the fire department has been looking for a new home since 1971 and the police department building fails every inspection it gets.

Shapiro said he was not convinced. With only three pages on the idea, he felt there was not enough evidence or research done.

Trustee Matt Scollin pointed out that that area of downtown is getting congested with several developments kicking off there soon and it is not safe for emergency vehicles to be driving around.

Also, Williams said the cost is very different. The study estimates Pius X as costing $27.5 million to retrofit. Retrofitting the existing emergency services buildings was estimated at costing $43 million.

He said Pius X is a “blank slate” — easy to develop with no weight-bearing walls.

The feasibility study can be found at tinyurl.com/2p6y9h7z in nine parts under “October 11, 2023.”

Williams said the people complaining about the study are the ones who have had problems since day one and believes they do not represent the majority of the public. Several of them share property lines with the project.

“The three people who have spoke out against this in any facet they can think of,” Williams said.

An Enterprise straw poll in April gauging public opinion on the project at the time was largely negative, with 50% of the total 458 voters saying they disagreed with the proposed plans, 32% saying they supported it, 10% undecided and 8% saying the supported the plans with changes. This poll was not scientific and its results represented only the opinions of internet users who chose to participate.

Shapiro said 33 Petrova seems “overkill” to him for their needs.

Williams said the size of the building is big because most of it is the existing Pius X building and that can’t be changed.

He said the emergency services departments support the plan, these departments need more space for their operations than ever, and might need more with the future. He’s been talking about this building being a “100-year solution” for the village.

Housing

Village resident Doug Haney has consistently asked why the village Housing Task Force didn’t look at using 33 Petrova for housing, saying it is one of largest developable areas in the village. Williams said there are not 15 developable acres on the property.

He said the village has many other options for the housing issue and not many for the emergency services building issue.

Scollin said the task force is assuming that property will be used for the EMS building and have been focusing on other projects.

Access, access, access

Vehicle access in and out of the property is a major sticking point in the village’s plans. The designs in the feasibility study show an new access road which would be built to connect the property directly to state Route 3. But this would cross wetlands, which means it would need a permit from the Adirondack Park Agency allowing the construction in an environmentally sensitive area.

Some members of the public have pointed out that they feel this could constitute a conflict of interest for the village and the state. Since the APA has plans to move into the 1-3 Main St. building after the police department moves out, they have said it could be a quid pro quo situation.

“We’re trying to examine any opportunity to avoid a … permit from the APA,” Williams told the Enterprise. “There’s a lot of folks who are calling foul and trying to say that there’s a conflict of interest, which there is not, or any unethical behavior. … The easiest way to remove that thought from the conversation is to avoid needing a permit entirely.”

The report states its goal is to avoid an APA wetlands permit. But the primary access road in the blueprints still crosses wetlands to get to state Route 3. Otherwise, the fire trucks would need to take roads through the neighborhood nearby, which includes Petrova Elementary School. This route is something residents there greatly oppose.

“Are you taking that entrance … off the table entirely?” resident Mark Wilson asked.

Williams said they were looking at “all options” to avoid the wetlands, partially because people like Wilson suggested this would be improper to deal with the APA. But he wouldn’t guarantee they wouldn’t seek a permit from the APA.

Wilson said if that road is off the table, though, then all the plans at that site are invalidated.

“It is an infeasibility study,” he said.

Neither the village nor Wendel have proposed any potential alternatives. Williams said the village would need to conduct a traffic study.

With a high concentration of children walking and biking to the nearby Petrova Elementary School, Saranac Lake Middle High School and their associated athletic fields, resident Jessica Ackerson said emergency vehicles would have difficulty navigating the neighborhood and worried about school childrens’ safety.

“They don’t always know or obey traffic laws,” she said. “I see the need, though, so I’m not saying ‘Not in my neighborhood.’ But I will say that it had better be a damn good design.”

The current study does not address the access issue, she said.

“It falls short of being comprehensive,” Ackerson said.

She said the village and engineers need to address these concerns before going forward.



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