SARANAC LAKE - Some said the proposed 90-room, four-story hotel on Lake Flower could become a major tourism draw and a much-needed economic driver for the community.
Others called the nearly 60-foot-tall building a behemoth that would mar the view, worsen traffic congestion on Lake Flower Avenue and create pedestrian safety issues.
The village Planning Board hosted a public comment session Dec. 3 on the Lake Flower Lodging hotel project that drew a standing-room-only crowd of roughly 70 people in the village offices on the second floor of the Harrietstown Town Hall. It was the first, but by no means the last, opportunity for the public to formally weigh in on one of the biggest developments the village has seen in years.
While the public comment session was not required as part of the Planned Unit Development District law, which the project is being reviewed under, Planning Board Chairwoman Leslie Karasin said her board felt it was important to get some feedback at this stage. There will be three formal public hearings as the review process continues, she said.
The public comment session followed a presentation by hotel developer Chris LaBarge of Malone. Roughly a dozen people spoke, most of whom raised concerns about the project.
Slater Avenue resident Ginger Dora said the back of her property has beautiful, year-round views of the lake that would be blocked by the Lake Flower Avenue hotel, which would be built on the site of three existing motels.
"I'm concerned as a property owner in the value of my property decreasing," she said. "We also, right now, have a lot of problems getting off our streets, off Pontiac onto Lake Flower Avenue and onto River Street from NBT. If this hotel is built as designed, it will greatly add to the congestion in that area and make it very difficult for us to leave the neighborhood."
Dora also said she was worried about pedestrian safety on River Street, where LaBarge has proposed off-site parking for the hotel.
Phil Gallos called the hotel project a great opportunity for Saranac Lake, but he asked the board to be mindful of the hotel's potential visual impacts. He noted that the three motels on the site now are very low-profile.
"No matter how appealing what you put there may be, it's going to have an enormous visual impact," Gallos said. "That vista is one of our keys to what draws people to this community and what makes people who live here, especially near the core of the village, feel good about where they live."
Gallos also said he was concerned about replacing less costly motel rooms with high-end hotel rooms that may not be affordable to many people. He said the change could sacrifice Saranac Lake's reputation "as a location alternative to Lake Placid, where people of modest means can come and have a nice vacation."
Dick Beamish also raised concerns about the size and scale of the project.
"It's just enormous," he said. "A 60-foot-high wall 90-feet long is going to dominate this end of Lake Flower. It's going to change the character of the community."
Alan Brown compared the building's height to the walls of the state prison in Dannemora. He suggested a smaller building with less rooms that wouldn't require off-site parking.
Mark Wilson said any decision on the project should wait until the state Department of Environmental Conservation has completed a study of potential environmental contamination in Pontiac Bay from a former coal gasification plant on Payeville Lane.
Supporters of the project included Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce Board President Tim Hesseltine.
"Saranac Lake deserves this project," he said. "This project will bring a great economic benefit to this town. There's people who want to stay here, and we need the jobs. The planning board really needs to take into consideration the impact and the watershed moment that this will give Saranac Lake."
Frank Brownell, who said he just moved to the village in February, said the community needs an economic boost. In response to concerns about the hotel's height, he noted there are other, much taller buildings, in the village, including the DeChantal and Lake Flower high-rises and the Hotel Saranac.
"How much space do you need on the lake to see? You've got lake all around," Brownell said. "There's 6 million acres of woods here. I don't think this building is massive. I think it's overdue. There's nothing here, nothing driving the economy."
Karasin said most of the issues raised by the public were ones the board has been thinking about. She asked LaBarge to respond to questions about the size and scale of the hotel.
He talked about the economics associated with the project, including the cost of waterfront property and purchasing the three motels.
"We're trying to create an iconic destination resort in Saranac Lake," LaBarge said. "To be able to do that, you have to offer a certain amount of amenities ... the meeting space and banquet facility that are needed in the community, the spa that people desire, public accessibility to the property through a detached restaurant, docks and viewing deck. ... Our goal is to deliver a four-diamond resort in Saranac Lake. You can't do that without all the amenities."
The first phase of the PUDD process involves submission and review of a sketch plan. The planning board agreed that LaBarge had submitted all the necessary information for the sketch plan to be considered complete. It also reviewed, added to and approved a report, to be delivered to the village board, that outlines the project and describes any issues that will need more study.
The next step in the process is for the village board to schedule a joint meeting with the planning board, then a public hearing.