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Residents Search For Response To ‘Malta-fication’ of Their Neighborhood
ROUND LAKE – To the east of the Northway’s Exit 11 sits a beloved historic village in the Town of Malta. Founded in 1867, lovingly maintained and treasured to this day by just over 600 residents and countless thousands of annual visitors alike.
Just west of this village is a modern vehicular / biker / pedestrian phenomenon: the roundabout. Only one exists here today, just east of the Northway and by all accounts it is serving its proper purpose, which is primarily to allow vehicles exiting the Northway to bypass the village and efficiently travel to routes 9 and 67 and the Luther Forest Tech Park.
But sometimes, too much of a “good thing” can work against the problems they were intended to solve, perhaps with dangerous consequences.
A good portion of village residents, as well as those living and running businesses around Round Lake Road believe this is what is about to happen to them, and they hope that they are not too late to stop it.
“I’m disgusted with the process,” said resident Elwood “Woody” Sloat, a long-time resident and a 25-year veteran of the New York State Police. In that capacity, Mr. Sloat has investigated traffic flow patterns and countless numbers of vehicle accidents. “The primary concern should be public safety in making decisions, and that is not what is happening here.”
At their last meeting of 2013, the Malta Town Board voted to go ahead with the construction of two more roundabouts along Round Lake Road –two points only about 1,500 feet apart on the west side of the Northway. Town Councilperson John Hartzell cast the lone vote against the measure and cited resident’s concerns for safety as the primary reason for his vote.
Mr. Sloat and I walked the two intersections / future roundabouts. He knew intimate details, the nooks and crannies of each. Later, area residents Kathleen Eitzman and Valerie Manley joined us. All three were vocally active against the roundabouts as the proper solution for these intersections.
They did all the right things. They made their feelings known at every possible meeting. They gathered over 250 signatures of area residents. Today, they felt that it apparently did no good.
“I feel we are being stepped on.” Sloat said, and the other two were quick to nod in agreement. “Only John Hartzell came down, met with us and looked at this area,” he continued. “I spent more than half my life investigating traffic and I am convinced it is the completely wrong solution (for these two intersections.) It is very likely to make a bad situation worse. A roundabout is not a turnkey solution to every problem.”
“The Town Board accepts an engineer’s report, and the people who live here have to live with the consequences. It’s as if the people directly affected had no weight.” Sloat concluded.
The two intersections each have their own properties, but there is little doubt that as they stand today they have multiple danger points that could use corrective action. Whether a roundabout is the best solution is certainly a matter of dispute.
The first, at the corner of Ruhle / Raylinksy Roads and Round Lake Road, is about 1,000 feet west of the Northway. At this point, it is a very busy two-lane intersection with no turn lanes and a traffic light with no turn arrows. At the northeast corner, there is a busy Stewarts Shop with two entry/exit points – one on Round Lake, one on Ruhle.
Further down on Ruhle, a pediatric medical practice has had to resort to homemade ‘slow’ and ‘stop’ signs (which are legal on private property) to handle the number of cars that pivot into the lot and turn around because they have no means of getting out of Stewarts and heading west on Round Lake Road. Across from this building is a marked crosswalk to a popular mini-golf course which many children and families use, but there is no stop sign.
Some brave drivers make a left turn out of the Stewarts lot at the Round Lake exit point to head east to the Northway, but this is a difficult maneuver at all times and nearly impossible during peak traffic periods. Making a left turn from Ruhle to head west is no bargain either. With no turn lanes or arrows, maybe one or two cars can get through this way per light change.
A roundabout would appear to address some of these problems, but the primary beneficiary would be to establish the primacy of east-west traffic flow along Round Lake Road. Yet a roundabout placed here would bring additional concerns, according to Sloat.
For one thing, the roundabout turnoff onto Ruhle will, by necessity, be perilously closer to the Stewarts entry/exit. Because the roundabout will also eliminate the Round Lake Road eastbound access point, more cars will likely be queued up to leave at the remaining one. Moving this entry/exit point further away from the turnoff is not feasible due to utility box placement and other factors according to the engineer’s report obtained by Saratoga TODAY.
Further, the consulting engineer’s (Creighton Manning) report said that a 36-foot ‘splitter island’ (a raised or painted traffic island that separates traffic) length would still be safe, though the report indicates that a minimum length of 50 feet is acceptable and 100 feet is desirable.
So imagine this: a vehicle heading west on Round Lake Road signals for a turnoff onto Ruhle. A driver who is looking to exit Stewarts, perhaps having already waited awhile to get clear sailing, sees the vehicle with it’s turn signal still on from the turnoff and wrongly assumes it is heading into the Stewarts lot, when it is planning to continue.
I must admit that I’m no engineer, but Mr. Sloat certainly appears to have a compelling argument that a roundabout is a more expensive and less effective solution as opposed to strategically placed turn lanes, traffic light arrows and stop signs around this intersection.
But about 1,500 feet to the west is another intersection where you don’t need an engineering degree to see that a roundabout is overkill, in the manner of shooting a hummingbird with a bazooka and claiming you deserve a marksman’s medal.
The intersection of Chango Drive and Round Lake Road is a three-way intersection without a traffic light or stop sign. It does have a painted crosswalk across Round Lake Road, which an able-bodied person would have to be brave to cross.
On the south side of Round Lake Road is a major shopping plaza with the area’s primary supermarket (Hannaford) and Ms. Manley's salon. On the other side, a semi-assisted living facility for seniors. Behind the plaza is Chango Elementary School, where many children could be walking to school.
As currently constituted: a recipe for disaster. But is a roundabout likely to improve anything? Sloat makes a case that it could be even worse.
“Pedestrians crossing roundabouts are never desirable. These structures are designed to establish the primacy of vehicle traffic flow, in this case east-west along Round Lake Road.” He notes.
“Would you want a loved one, a senior, a child crossing a roundabout?” Sloat concludes, “they have no right of way and in many cases drivers have less reaction time.”
Kathy Eitzman has a double-whammy against her at this intersection. In addition to safety and quality of life concerns for the area her family has in lived for years, her home sits adjacent to this intersection.
She’s also an associate real estate broker, so when she asks:
“When was the last time you heard of a home on a roundabout being desirable? When has it ever increased a residential property’s value?”
You get the feeling she already knows the answer.
But the answer to “what’s next?” for these three citizens who have spent their whole lives working through the system is unclear at this point. It’s hard to imagine them lying down in front of the bulldozers in protest, yet it’s hard to imaging them take the Malta Town Board’s decision lying down.
The two roundabouts are projected to be completed sometime in the fall of this year. This is the epitome of a developing story and we’ll report on those developments as events unfold.
MALTA – The monthly Malta town board meeting on Wednesday, November 6 was moved back because of Election Day.
An extra hour was added for some anticipated public comment about the town’s 2014 budget, which turned out to be minimal. Later in the meeting, the town council passed a $9,521,866 budget for 2014 by a 5-0 vote, with Councilperson Tara Thomas needing to officially abstain from two payroll line items. The budget anticipated two percent sales tax growth from 2013 and estimates that $456,000 will be needed to be drawn from the reserve fund to balance 2014 expenses.
The major items on the agenda centered on the subject of ethics, in light of the town’s ethics committee recently citing Town Clerk Flo Sickels (who was at her seat during this meeting). Thomas, who is Sickels’ daughter, recused herself during this portion of the meeting and left the room.
A discussion about the merits of the ethics committee’s findings were handled in executive session and has not been made public at this time.
The public did hear a discussion led by Supervisor Paul Sausville as to other recommendations by the ethics committee which could be regarded as procedural.
The town council did reaffirm that attorney Christine Karsky of Saratoga Springs would continue to advise the ethics committee for the balance of 2013 as needed. Carsky was referred to the committee during its most recent deliberations.
The ethics committee made several recommendations arising out of that complaint filing, which ranged from making procedures for filing complaints clearer and less ambiguous, to recommending ethics training, to an examination and perhaps an overhaul of either the ethics section of the employee manual, or revise the entire manual. The committee also recommended an examination of how town employees report their work on behalf of not-for-profit (NFP) organizations, though it was unclear to many on the town board whether the committee was referring to those NFP’s that were doing business with the town, or any NFP.
Many of these recommendations were strongly objected to by town councilpersons Paul Hartzell and Maggi Ruisi, whose remarks indicated that they felt the town council was over-genuflecting in response to one incident, in the manner of using a bazooka to slay a hummingbird.
“A waste of time,” was Ruisi’s response to some of the committee’s recommendations.
Hartzell was even more strident in his objections, noting that the town had just completed an extensive review of its 100 plus page employee manual. Both of them said they thought that complaint procedures were clear at the present time
Hartzell also felt that the committee should make a list of specific items in the manual that might be worth examining and said that a list could be generated of NFP’s that did business with the town, which would be small and procedures developed around that limited universe.
In the end, the town board agreed to have Sausville draft a memo back to the ethics committee asking for specificity about areas in the employee manual they found troubling and to pay an outside consultant $300 for a general overlook of it.
MALTA – “The town clerk solicited, on multiple occasions, employees to make a political contribution, through time, effort, endorsement or signature.”
So stated a report issued by the Town of Malta Ethics Committee in recommending by a unanimous 7-0 vote that Town Clerk Flo Sickels be censured for both conducting herself, or ordering employees she supervised to conduct political activities on town property during work hours.
Sickels has been Malta’s town clerk for 22 years and is running for her twelfth 2-year term in the next election on November 5. She has been endorsed by the Republican and Conservative parties.
The Malta town board has up to 45 days to act upon the ethics committee’s findings. They can accept, modify or reject the findings. A special ethics committee meeting has been scheduled for November 4 at 6:30 p.m. The meeting will be held at the David R. Meager Community Center, Room 106, One Bayberry Drive, Malta. The next town board meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, November 6, which is the day after Election Day.
The ethics committee began investigating Sickels’ actions after receiving a written complaint from Tax Collector Linda Bablin regarding Sickels’ directing employees in the town clerk office to engage in activities on behalf of the Malta Republican Committee.
The ethics committee reported that Deputy Clerk Jennifer Lanahan was directed by Sickels to prepare the Republican committee minutes “on at least one occasion, on town property, during normal business hours, while they were being paid for their time” by the Town of Malta. This was found by the ethics committee to be a violation of section 11-12A of the Town of Malta Code of Ethics, regarding use of municipal resources:
The report also states that Lanahan and former Deputy Town Clerk Linda Deprey were asked to contribute to Sickel’s political campaign in the form of signing petitions, getting signatures on petitions, writing letters of support and campaigning door-to-door.
The ethics committee found these actions to be in violation of sections 11-15a of the ethics code, regarding political solicitation.
The ethics committee also reported that more than one town employee described specific examples of behavior on Sickels’ behalf that they believed were retaliatory against people who objected or did not comply with her requests.
The report also included a third complaint, alleging that Sickels handled matters related to her role on behalf of the Eastline Romp and Play dog park, a not-for-profit organization during her workday as town clerk.
In this case the ethics committee was “not able to find evidence significant enough to either prove or disprove that allegation.”
Few Disagreements among Rivals at Malta Candidate Forum
MALTA – The League of Women Voters (LWV) candidate forum for the Town of Malta’s upcoming local races took place at the Malta Community Center on Tuesday, October 8.
The questions from the audience centered on issues that appeared to potentially be fertile ground for candidates to stress their point(s) of difference. Surprisingly, there was near-universal agreement between all, save for some minor nuance. In some cases, this left many questioners and audience members unsatisfied.
Moderator Francine Rodger began by explaining the ground rules, after which those candidates who were unopposed (Highway Superintendent Roger Crandall and Town Clerk Florence Sickels) made short statements.
Two Town Justice candidates, Steve Gottman (R, I) and Ellwood Sloat, Jr. (C) made statements to the audience. Because of judicial decorum, the two candidates did not engage each other or take questions from the audience.
Gottman’s background includes 15 years as an attorney and is the president of the Malta Business and Professional Association. Sloat’s background is in law enforcement, reaching the rank of major for the New York State Police Department before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 60.
Complete biographies, links of websites and other information on every candidate can be accessed at the LWV website. Visit www.LWVsaratoga.org.
The three candidates for town council (two of which will be elected) are incumbents John Hartzell and Maggi Ruisi (both R, C, I) and Carol Henry (D). The two candidates for the town/county supervisor seat are incumbent Paul Sausville (R, I) and challenger Cynthia Young (D, WF).
As noted above, Ellwood Sloat, Jr. is a town justice candidate. Yet, it his capacity of long-time town resident (‘Woody’ Sloat) he felt compelled to ask both the town council and supervisor candidates what their position was to stimulate retail occupancy at the Ellsworth Commons complex (an issue that he as town justice would not be ruling on incidentally).
While Ruisi did express optimism about the recent prospects for a yogurt shop and doctor’s office, she and the other candidates, while saying that the town’s role is to be supportive, believed that it was the developer’s obligation to fill vacancies. None of them put forth any concrete ideas.
These responses did not please Sloat at all. “We have a healthy and vibrant town, but unfortunately Ellsworth Commons is an eyesore reminiscent of a ghost town,” he said. “This unsightly condition should not be ignored as it doesn't represent the true vitality of Malta.”
“I feel economic development does fall within the responsibilities of the town supervisor and town council,” Sloat continued. “The questions I posed to these candidates regarding plans to correct this situation were answered without any substance. It left me with a feeling that this situation was not a priority.”
Another issue of concern among questioners was the Round Lake corridor and the possibility that roundabouts would be part of a traffic solution. The candidates for town council acknowledged that the concerns of residents should be taken into account. Hartzell said that he was continuing to ask hard questions about the subject before deciding; Ruisi said she stood behind the original engineering study on traffic safety. She was awaiting the results of a more detailed study and reminded the audience that the roundabouts contemplated were smaller than the double lane ones that are on routes 9 and 67. Henry said she was keeping an open mind and that driver education and traffic safety were important considerations to balance against Round Lake residents’ concerns.
This did not come close to satisfying Murray Eitzmann, who lives on Round Lake Road.
“I’m afraid that the primary concern will be to provide the quickest access to the Northway without delay.” Eitzmann said. “Round Lake is a thriving hamlet. This area and around exit 11 have residences, senior housing, an elementary school and a great mix of thriving businesses. Why would they even think of anything that might compromise this?”
“A petition of almost 300 citizen signatures was submitted to the town board that opposed the roundabouts.” Eitzmann stated. “The candidate that takes a courageous stand against some engineer’s Cadillac solution is whom I’m voting for. I’m not sure I saw that person tonight.”
Indeed, the Malta candidate forum deserves high marks for the civility all candidates showed towards each other. But afterwards many in the audience were heard to express surprise that the candidates, particularly challengers, did not go to any length to lay out bold distinctions between themselves and their opponents. It remains to be seen if these points of difference emerge between now and November 5.