SARANAC LAKE - The needle of public opinion on the proposed Lake Flower Spa and Resort hasn't moved much in the past nine months.
The village Planning Board held an informal public comment session Tuesday, Aug. 19 on a zoning change for the controversial 93-room hotel, proposed by Lake Flower Lodging LLC. The meeting drew a crowd of nearly 100 people to the Harrietstown Town Hall auditorium.
The proposed hotel is in the town of North Elba portion of the village, in Essex County, near the border with the Franklin County town of Harrietstown.
The audience was split on the project, as was the case at the board's last public comment session in December. Supporters said it would bring tourism, jobs and prosperity to the village. Others said the hotel was still too big for its three-acre lakefront site and would create traffic and pedestrian safety issues.
Each faction in the audience applauded their respective speakers' remarks, even after board Chairwoman Leslie Karasin asked them not to.
Shawn Boyer called the project a good step forward for the community.
"We really need to get the tax base back," he said. "That's probably the most important thing, and bringing people here. I really think this will help spur some things into Saranac Lake."
John Barge, a Saranac Lake resident who works for the Adirondack Park Agency, said the waterfront location will make the hotel a great attraction.
"If not here, where would we put a hotel that could take advantage of those miles and miles of water, beautiful recreational assets we have?" he asked. "I think this is the ideal site."
While the height and size of the building has been a concern, Bill Plumb said the village has had many large hotels during its history. The community needs more hotel room capacity if it's going to bring more tourists to the area, he said.
"I think we ought to look very carefully at refusing the kind of money this hotel could bring," Plumb said.
Paul Sorgule, a former dean of culinary arts at Paul Smith's College, said the village needs something that will bring young families to the area and create jobs. Citing his experience in the hospitality industry, he said reducing the size of the project is not an option.
"In a seasonal area, there are certain times of the year when you're busy and certain times of the year when you're not," Sorgule said. "When you're busy, you've got to make hay when the sun shines, and you gotta have the rooms to be able to support that."
"In the hospitality industry, there is a point at which if you go under the number of rooms, then it's not feasible," added Helene Gibbens. "We have this opportunity for this town to grow, to draw new people to our community, and they will spend money in our town, and it will ripple out."
Dick Beamish said he supports the idea of putting an upscale resort on the three motel properties along the lake, but he said the proposed hotel is too big for where it's located.
"I would strongly recommend the size of it be reduced to something that's appropriate for the site, so it doesn't dominate this end of Lake Flower and change its character," Beamish said.
Frannie Preston referenced the view of the building visitors would have as they travel into the village on Lake Flower Avenue.
"What I see is a gigantic wall," she said. "I understand there were things done to make it a more interesting facade, but what I'm still seeing is a hulking, great building on a very small lot with no room for expansion."
Curt Stiles, a former state APA chairman, acknowledged the desire to grow the village's economy and create more jobs, but he cautioned that "projects like this can kill the golden goose, not make it alive.
"This waterfront is a major asset. Do not destroy it," Stiles said. "This is like putting 10 pounds of something in a five pound bag. We're trying to make it fit for the wrong reasons. Make it fit for the right reasons, which means develop it in a way that benefits the village of Saranac Lake and the surrounding area."
Speakers on both sides of the project seemed to agree on one thing - the intersection of Lake Flower Avenue, Brandy Brook Avenue and River Street is confusing and dangerous for vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians, and it could be made worse by a plan to provide off-site parking for the hotel on two River Street properties.
Steve Sonnenberg asked the board to require a full traffic study and a proposal, approved by the state Department of Transportation, that will ensure the intersection is safe.
"Without such a plan, the application for a planned unit development district should be dead in the water," he said.
In response to concerns about the size and magnitude of the project, developer Chris LaBarge said the hotel's 93-room capacity is "critical" to its viability.
"If you get the project too small, you don't have an opportunity to create enough revenue to offset the cost of the taxes and the other things to survive the rest of the year," he said.
As for the intersection, LaBarge's partner, Jacob Wright said he understands it's an issue but he said it's the state's problem to resolve.
"It's not something we can affect directly," he said.
LaBarge asked what issues would preclude the board from issuing an advisory opinion on the zoning change to the village board, which will make the final decision.
Board member Scott Stoddard said an "underlying issue" has been the lack of any alternative plans to deal with the flow of pedestrians between the hotel and the off-site parking on River Street.
LaBarge said he'd be willing to forego one of the two off-site parking areas, at the North Elba Town House, except for 10 employee parking spaces there. The board liked the idea. LaBarge also said he is working with North Country Community College on a plan to use its parking lots for hotel events.
Stoddard and board member David Trudeau said they're still concerned with the view of the building's south side from Lake Flower Avenue. They asked LaBarge to break up that facade. Board member Molly Hann said she thought that was an issue that could be dealt with during the site plan review process.
LaBarge said he was "not going to make further changes to the design" but would consider "incremental" changes if the zoning change is approved by the village board.
The board's next meeting is Sept. 2. Karasin said she didn't think the board would be ready to issue an advisory opinion at that point but she didn't rule it out.
The board has 60 days to make its determination from the date Lake Flower Lodging's PUDD application was deemed complete, which was last Friday.