Tensions rise at Potsdam rezoning hearing

Officials at Canton-Potsdam Hospital are hoping to get a section of Waverly Street rezoned to facilitate the building of a new tower. Watertown Daily Times

POTSDAM — The village held a contentious public hearing Tuesday night seeking public comments on a request to rezone Waverly Street so as to facilitate the construction of a new hospital bed tower.

Brent Bishop, vice president of business development at Canton-Potsdam Hospital, presented the reasoning behind the new bed tower and some details as to its potential construction.

“The hospital over the course of time has continued considerable growth,” he said.

As a result, Mr. Bishop explained, there has arisen the need to expand the emergency department as well as the in-patient unit. This, he said, will require a roughly 60,000-square-foot expansion, including three stories devoted to the forenamed services.

“This expansion gives us a chance to have some truly state-of-the-art facilities that will keep and draw people to Potsdam,” Mr. Bishop said.

In order to proceed with construction, the hospital has asked the board to rezone Waverly Street to an H1 zone, which would allow for ample parking space for the new tower. The consequence is that at least three houses in Waverly Street would likely be demolished to make room.

“We understand with this rezoning, there are three houses proposed to come down, which allows us to continue expansion,” Mr. Bishop said.

“With that in mind,” he said, “We are doing our best to be good neighbors. We know we are in the middle of a community.”

He noted that the hospital is working with an architecture firm out of Rochester to beautify the affected area, as amends for the new tower’s encroachments.

Multiple members of the public expressed opposition to the plans to rezone Waverly Street and raze three of its houses.

Monique Tirion was concerned that the rezoning would further stress the already-squeezed property-tax paying base.

“The village’s total fiscal appropriation in 2018 was $10.5 million,” she said.

“Over 62 percent of that income comes from property taxes, yet 69 percent of the village-assessed property is tax exempt, from the two universities to the hospital to the churches.”

“I already pay a property tax rate of 5.1 percent, which is insanely high. With the houses rezoned, we would have a property tax deficit of around $45,000 per year, so we need to make sure that we are protecting what we need, and that we don’t watch the village bleed out and go away and lose what I think is a very nice home here,” she said.

Gina Hazen questioned whether industrial growth would ever cease to usurp residential neighborhoods.

“I’m not sure the new tower fits here. We’ve already got Cottage, Grove, Leroy and now Waverly Street gone, and I don’t see where it’s gonna end,” she said.

These concerns were echoed by others.

“One of the things we need to think about is maintaining the neighborhood feel and the character of Waverly Street. You don’t really want to look across your street and see a three-story building,” Tom Baker said.

Kathleen O’Rourke said “The reason why I purchased a home on Waverly was for the feel of a neighborhood, and I really believe that expanding into the street will change its integrity.”

Others concurred, adding that the board seemed to lack transparency on request.

“The board is voting on this in less than two weeks, so it seems rushed,” Will Pena said.

At one point, tensions rose when multiple members of the public — including Ms. Tirion, Ms. O’Rourke, Mr. Pena, and Danny Ben-Abraham — lamented the lack of information and visibility from the board on this matter and others.

Trustee Stephen J. Warr received an earful after suggesting that they might be better informed had they bothered to show up to previous board meetings.

Many people in the audience replied that the board needs to do a better job of advertising important meetings and their contents to the public, and that the village website is a woefully inadequate source of information.

The board of trustees will vote to decide whether the rezoning will go forward on Sept. 20.

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