Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Curse and Growth of Spot Zoning

ABG has previously written about spot zoning and its perils. In Greenburgh, for instance, Mr Feiner and his Board cavalierly change zoning on his whim to satisfy his developer friends. There aren’t any developers, larger ones anyway, who fear submitting a proposal in Greenburgh as long as Mr Feiner is at the helm with a submissive Board in tow. In fact, smaller contractors and builders have been said to avoid doing business in Greenburgh due to excessive taxes also known as fees and permit costs and extended review processes. The people who suffer are the homeowners, of course, who want to add a bathroom, deck or dormer to their home. The approval process can take up to a year between the different departments, the various fees, meetings etc., only to be refused at any point and force a restart of the entire process.

There is even more going on around us in Greenburgh and elsewhere throughout the County. Here in Greenburgh, the Town Board follows Mr Feiner’s instructions and rubber stamps whatever project he favors. Several years ago he announced he was in favor of an eight story commercial entity being built in a residential neighborhood. He had had the opportunity to simply sell off the property but chose to politicize it and play games against the residents of the area. Is this what we elect our leadership to do? Hardly. Then there was the over-sized assisted living facility to be built on what amounted to a postage-stamp parcel of land in yet another residential neighborhood. While the residents, current taxpayers that government should be protecting from outside interests, strenuously objected to Mr Feiner and the Board, he laughed in their faces and not only approved every aspect of the proposal, but let the projects attorney’s write what would later become the zoning code for assisted living facilities!

Now that an approximately two-year old assisted living zoning code exists, Mr Feiner and his spineless Board are pushing to approve another inappropriate assisted living facility. To top it off, they seek to ignore this recently adopted zoning code to accommodate another developer! Interestingly, this time, while the immediate abutting property owners are against the project, some of the residents in the area have spoken in favor of this sale. We believe they are speaking less in favor of the mega-proposal and more in favor of trying to help the owners complete the sale for retirement income. Regardless of the reason, the facility does not meet the assisted living zoning code and requires variances to proceed.

Rather than wait and follow the process, we believe Mr Feiner instructed his Board to prematurely initiate and subsequently approve a SEQR study/report. This bastardization of “the process” belies the hollow words heard from the dais at various meetings by Mr Feiner and his Board. They parrot him by saying that they want, “the public to have faith in the process”, “that they’ll do their due diligence” and more. The list of hollow expressions is almost unlimited.

Beyond the lies from our own corner office comes a growing trend, an agenda if you will, with housing and spot zoning. Excuses in favor of it abound as developers push community leaders to covertly endorse spot zoning. In North Castle for example, JMF Properties of New Jersey, is seeking to construct 200 high-rental apartments on 22 (of 36)
acres on the North White Plains’ Jennie Clarkson school campus. Their argument they use for this is that there is an abundance of multi-family homes that already exist. Here’s their rub: empty nesters are looking to down size and young professionals – often referred to as millennials – don’t want to own a home yet. 60% of these proposed units would be two bedrooms and the remainder would be single bedroom, with twenty units set aside as affordable housing. The moniker might change but the only way to proceed is to pepper the proposal with enough buzzwords so politicians can jump on board: affordable, workforce, low income, welfare, senior, veterans, etc. The final nail in the coffin of the argument is that businesses are leaving the area because of a lack of housing for workers. Could it simply be they are leaving because they are overtaxed and over-regulated? Believe it.

The real issue here is that to build this huge facility would require several zoning changes. And, as luxury units priced at about $2,800 to $3,200, the affordability aspect seems a bit distant if not contradictory. These residents would have, according to one of the spokesman, “…fat wallets and they’re looking to spend in that local community.” That may appear to be justification to some, but to us it seems weak. It certainly does not qualify as a reason to spot zone an area, even if spot zoning is illegal. Using other words for it doesn't make it right.

Similarly, Purchase College, part of the State University of New York system, is proposing to build 385 units of housing for people ages 62 and older on 40 acres of its 500-acre campus. The proposed site — mostly weedy land that had previously been used as a dump for construction debris — is located south of the college's administration complex and west of Lincoln Avenue. The arguments for this project, while not as necessary because this is NY State property and not held to many of the same zoning and other standards as Towns and Villages, include 220 units of one and two-bedroom apartments in a four-story building and single-family, duplex and triplex homes; 36 beds for assisted living and 36 beds for memory care would be offered. The rest of what is being touted is merely window trimmings of sorts to increase the projects attractiveness.

In nearby Harrison, the Brightview “senior steamroller” received approval for their latest proposal for their contentious Brightview Senior Living facility. The necessary-to-proceed zoning amendment was passed by the Village Board, even though the Harrison mayor said, “…the zoning amendment passed Thursday did not constitute a fait accomplis.” He added, “It's all part of the process," he said. "We're not even at the 10-yard line. A lot can happen in 90 yards.” The project must now gain the planning board’s approval. The zoning amendment allows senior living facilities to be built in existing residential zones, with the planning board's approval. This move paves the way for any developer, but in this case, Brightview Senior Living, to build a four-story, Home Depot-sized senior living facility on the Lake Street Quarry site in West Harrison. The 7.3-acre project site is surrounded by a rural neighborhood of single-family homes. Once again residents in the neighborhood say the development would be too big and out of character for the area, comes too close to nearby homes and would cause traffic congestion on an already-busy street. And again, government is pursuing its agenda and ignoring the well-being of the existing taxpayers who have invested in the community from outsiders seeking to ravage it.

In Buchanan, the opposition to affordable housing for seniors was strong last fall. So much so that one of Westchester’s leading builders simply walked away, unwilling to invest any more time or money in pursuing his project. But now, seven months later, things have changed. The Buchanan Village Board, by a single vote, last week agreed to a zoning change that allows the 42-unit project, including 35 affordable units, to proceed for planning board review. Therein is part of the problem. When a developer wants a project to go through, they have resources and time that residents do not and can keep the onslaught going as long as they choose.

Finally, it must be mentioned that if the project is approved, it would help Westchester County meet its federal fair-housing goal. This is another part of the zoning change problem. Without reliving the entire Anti-Discrimination lawsuit against the County, the federal government and its housing monitor continue to insist that local zoning be changed to allow a whole host of zoning possibilities that frankly, zoning laws are designed protect communities from. If you need an example of imprecise zoning, simply look at the 9A corridor from I-287 northbound toward Mt Pleasant. Nothing matches, looks cohesive or has a flow of style that invites you to want to participate and even locate there. Zoning adjustments, such as changing a set back from 10 feet to 7 feet to allow a walkway or a deck to be built are certainly acceptable. Radical changes like the ones we’re being forced to accept because of political agendas, developer’s deep pockets, and a willfully ignorant electorate must stop – especially in Greenburgh. Only then will we get A Better Greenburgh.


  1. part the first
    ABG needs to hazard a second look at what it has penned. As it has adequately documented itself, disregard for or the interpretation of local zoning laws is not unique to Greenburgh. With this in mind, I urge ABG and its readers to desist from responding to the flavor (issue) of the day and instead focus on the underlying issue common to all the provocations that arise weekly: the Town government is legally installed. All these provocations are not the work of a dictatorship holding office "liked" by "developers" pulling hidden strings. It is "we the people" who have failed at the voting booth to form a "more perfect union".

    And as I have oft said, the problem is not just the media-wise Town Supervisor Paul Feiner. He has but one vote on the Town Board and his term of office is but two years while those holding Council seats are elected to four year terms. To pass any legislation, three votes out of five are needed. "Just three votes". So, despite the fact of Feiner's quarter century rule, there has been substantial turnover in the make-up of the Town Board: enough for checkmating the evil that is attributed solely or soullessly to Feiner -- if anyone cared other than a handful of residents whose words, not deeds, are seen on these pages and on other blogs or, in 3 and 5 minute soliloquies at Town meetings.

    Yet all these "activists" do is complain; the only instances of someone troubled enough to make a half-hearted run for office are those by Mr. Bernstein of Edgemont and Ms. Berger, chair of the local Democratic Party machine: both of whom (despite knowing the process) campaigned as though they had but recently arrived from their homes on Mars and Pluto and had never witnessed an actual election underway. One knew too much about Greenburgh; the other knew too little yet both avoided meeting the electorate as though it had the plague.

    Then there's the sad case of an incumbent Council member who hinted that she could upset the apple cart, had a file of names and dates a la J. McCarthy which she failed to produce and thus failed to get re-elected.

  2. part the second
    So I ask ABG and its handful of readers and I ask those "powerful" (In their minds only) Civic Associations and their umbrella organizations, how come you can't field electable candidates -- not for the highest position which is entrenched -- but for Town Council jobs which could tip the balance and in three years they could collectively send Feiner to the nearest solar-powered garbage can.

    Here's how it would work. Next election, elect both of the up for re-election two Council member slots. As insiders (or even one insider) with big mouths a seated on the dais, they can alert voters to how influence is being pedaled. If this is not enough challenge to the remaining Feiner majority (3), then in two years time the other two Council seats are up for re-election while the previous two seats remain in place for two more years. Elect but one and A Better Greenburgh is underway. With a three vote majority (remember, just three votes) Feiner's misdeeds and mismanagement are history and probably himself as well.

    Stop complaining; start electing. A Town Council position pays extremely well (currently around $40,000 with health benefits) and is eligible for NYS retirement benefits. And, that reward is for a part-time job! While the nation struggles to adopt a living wage of $15 an hour stat, do the math. Part time (20 hours a week) @ $15 an hour times 52 weeks = $15,600. Can not one of those bloggers with the loudest mouths find and convince a competent person and thereafter go "all-in" to support that person's run for office.

    Here's how the Help Wanted ad should read.
    Earn $40,000 vs. $15,600. Qualifications: None other than a commitment to serve the people; not the office. Experience: None (witness Feiner who has 6 months experience repeated 25 times. Full Compensation during on the job training. It only took Ken Jones, the newest nodding head, less than three months of absence, tardiness and inattention to learn the ropes; now in his second term the ropes take on the appearance of a noose.

    So if you really seek A Better Greenburgh and not just a snide pulpit (i.e. postage stamp sized plot), again, I remind you to stop preaching and start electing. Just three votes.