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The Oswegatchie River meanders past a property on West Front Street in Rensselaer Falls. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

RENSSELAER FALLS — A proposed comprehensive plan that would allow some types of commercial development in a residential zone on the village’s West Front Street is drawing harsh criticism from some community members and also raising ethical questions.

The controversy is centered on whether the proposed Comprehensive Canton Plan will allow for the creation of a waterfront overlay district on a 4-acre parcel on West Front Street along the Oswegatchie River that’s near several single-family homes.

An overlay district would allow for commercial development that could include a cafe/bar, an outdoor public venue for things like weddings, concerts, festivals, a kayak/canoe launch site and other uses.

John Danis and his wife, Bonnie, reside at 101 West Front St., just outside the village limits, They’re leading the effort to get the overlay district removed from the proposed Canton Comprehensive Plan before it’s adopted by the three elected boards involved: the Canton Town Board, the Canton Village Board and the Rensselaer Falls Village Board.

They believe commercial development could destroy their quiet neighborhood and they also argue that their dead-end road is too narrow to accommodate traffic that could be created and would be difficult for fire and rescue vehicles to access.

Besides concerns about the impact, the couple are questioning why Rensselaer Falls Mayor Michael Hammond was directly involved in advocating for the overlay district.

Mr. Hammond’s parents, Steven and Lisa Hammond, purchased the property in November 2016, removed the existing house with a controlled burn and cleared the land.

Mrs. Hammond has served for many years as the clerk and tax collector for both the town of Canton and the village of Rensselaer Falls.

During a public hearing held Monday night in the Rensselaer Falls Library, Mr. Danis questioned Mr. Hammond’s role in creating the comprehensive plan which is supposed to serve as a road map for the future development of the town of Canton and the villages of Canton and Rensselaer Falls.

“In retrospect, this whole three-year progression appears to be carefully planned strategy to establish a commercial zone in a residential neighborhood for personal financial gain,” Mr. Danis said, reading from a prepared statement. “The principal architect of the West Front Street overlay district was the mayor of Rensselaer Falls. In fact, the mayor’s parents own the entire overlay district and the mayor was prominently involved in the creation and definition of the West Front Street Overlay District. I think there are important ethical questions that need to be addressed, at the very least, and very possibly serious legal questions to be answered beyond that.”

About 25 people attended the hearing, including several who asked questions related to the impact commercial development would have on their street.

“I have read through the comp plan online. It isn’t easy to read through,” said Mary LaMere, of 53 W. Front St. “People are saying don’t make a rumor. Well, if we were brought in and told what’s going on instead of little flashes on social media saying this is what we want to do for Rensselaer Falls. Businesses are closing in Rensselaer Falls. Let’s concentrate on the business areas and bringing people in, not trying to change the waterfront.”

Ms. LaMere said she doesn’t believe the river in that area is safe for inexperienced kayakers.

James T. Smith, a Canton town board member who co-chaired the Canton Comprehensive Plan Committee, said it would be unfortunate if one aspect of the plan derails the whole document from being adopted. Canton Village Trustee Carol S. Pynchon also co-chaired the comprehensive plan committee.

He would like the three elected government boards to discuss the issues that have been raised and reach a consensus so that the plan — with or without the overlay district — can move forward.

“I’ll support the plan if it’s in there and I’ll support it if it’s not,” Mr. Smith said. “I try to focus more on the big picture.”

The overlay district could be removed from the plan or revised in some way such as mandate that a special use permit be required for commercial projects.

Mr. Smith said he’s taking into consideration that the Rensselaer Falls Village Board continues to support keeping the overlay district in the plan.

Mr. Hammond said any commercial development in the proposed West Front Street overlay district would still have to be approved by the village’s planning board and the village board.

“It’s not about one parcel. There are other people on the riverbank who have other dreams and aspirations,” Mr. Hammond said.

Referring to the comprehensive plan, he said, “It’s been a two-year process of public input and we have our final product here.”

Last week, the county Planning Board reviewed the proposed waterfront overlay district and expressed some concerns.

“The board felt that allowing for a waterfront overlay zone where commercial activities could take place was incongruous with the intent of the current residential zoning designation, which is the most restrictive in allowing commercial development,” the Planning Board wrote. “The Board noted that a potential land use conflict could arise, should this overlay district be adopted as written in the draft comprehensive plan. It was further noted that there is not a consensus within the community on the placement of an overlay district along this part of West Front Street. The board recommended that the involved municipalities and the Comprehensive Plan Committee examine ways to resolve the potential conflict that could arise between the existing residential base zone and the proposed waterfront overlay.”

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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