As town and school boards meet, annoyed residents shout out for bigger meeting space
Inside, see 34 readers’ comments since April 13
Click “Read more” to see YouTube clips of Tuesday’s meeting
August 13, 2010
by Christine Yeres
About 25 spectators squeezed into conference room A-B for Tuesday night’s joint Town Board-School Board work session to discuss Chappaqua Crossing. At 7:00 p.m., with ten board members and their consultants in chairs around one large table and residents taking up every available space around them, Jules Buxbaum, a resident, burst into the room to complain hotly that there were people outside the doors who couldn’t fit into the room and wouldn’t be able to hear the public meeting. He asked that the meeting be moved to the larger hearing room across the hall. Other audience members in the conference room joined in, asking too that the meeting be moved to the larger assembly room.
At first, Supervisor Barbara Gerrard told Buxbaum that the meeting would take place “here or not at all.” Soon afterwards, perhaps realizing that by then 40 or more people were crowded at both doorways to the conference room, Gerrard asked Town Clerk Jill Shapiro to check to see whether the larger room could be made ready quickly enough for the boards to keep to their 8:00 p.m. stop time, since each board was scheduled to conduct its own, regular meeting after the joint session. The move was made, the assembly room filled up, and still residents spilled over into the outer hall. By then about 100 people were present.
Since the latest proposal from the developer of the Reader’s Digest site to construct fewer condominium units (199 rather than 278) and maintain more of the existing 700,000 square feet of office space (642,000 rather than 520,000) board of education members have worried publicly that the developer has interpreted the school district’s projected future decline in student enrollment as proof that the proposed condo development will have no adverse impact on the school district’s finances. The joint meeting was devoted to a tutorial by the town board on the status of the proposal for redevelopment of the site and to understand the differences in their views of the risks the proposed development poses to the school district.
NewCastleNOW.org filmed the 55-minute meeting, and has set up seven short consecutive YouTube links, between five and ten minutes in length, below.
Part 1 begins in the conference room and follows the meeting into the assembly room.
In Parts 2 and 3, the town board’s F.P. Clark planning consultant, Joanne Meder, gives a succinct summary of the five-year history of the application by developer Summit Greenfield to redevelop the Reader’s Digest property.
In Part 4 Janet Benton and Jeffrey Mester speak.
In Part 5 Gregg Bresner and Alyson Gardner Kiesel speak.
In Part 6 Randy Katchis speaks, then Clinton Smith in a discussion of tax revenues of the development
Part 7: A general discussion of the developer’s rights and the town board’s obligations as lead agency
Once settled, the discussion begins
Supervisor Barbara Gerrard reiterates the board’s intent to reject the proposal unless the developer makes the town houses, at least, (60 of them in the latest Modified Project, Alternative I) “fee simple,” that is, assessed at the same rate as single family houses. For the board, she said, “this is carved in stone, since town houses [by fitting more people and, presumably, children] would have more impact on the schools.”
Clinton Smith informed school board members that although town board members have seen the projected number of school children in the developer’s FEIS, the town board had by no means yet accepted those numbers. If board of education members had different numbers and calculations, Smith told them, “that’s the type of information the town board needs in order to evaluate the impacts of the project. Don’t keep your opinions secret.”
Board of Ed members weigh in
Although the meeting was designed so that the town board could inform the school board of their thinking on the project overall and, specifically, on the newest Modified Project revealed only three weeks ago today, board of ed members took the occasion to reveal some information of their own. Some had done mathematical analyses, others described a Big Picture in which more students issuing from low-taxed condominium dwellings could cost the district more to educate than it will ever see in revenue.
President Janet Benton
Board of education President Janet Benton spoke for first for her board. She listed two concerns: First, to understand how, by using the board of education’s BOCES report, the developer arrived at 58 as the projected number of children from the project; second, to learn more about how tax revenue from the project might help defray the cost of educating students, as well as how the units might be assessed and priced.
“That’s important to us, too,” responded Gerrard.
“I don’t really care how many students this project brings,” said Mester. “What matters is that the risk is being shifted from the developer to district taxpayers. I have a lot of concerns about the BOCES projections. My concern is that the revenue [from the project] does not exceed the cost of education, around $25,000 per student.”
Mester’s second point – one that he has made before as board president during the DEIS comment period last September LINK?—was that the district’s excess capacity, or predicted decrease in student population, “is an asset of the district that should not be given away. Assuming our expenses are variable, we can reduce our expenses as population goes down.” Another concern, stated Mester, “is traffic outside the high school.”
Mester was prepared, he said, to offer solutions to the risks he had described:
1. tax all units “fee simple;”
2. perform a town-wide revaluation and tax all dwellings at the same rate;
3. approve the commercial variance the developer is seeking and leave the residential as it is [26 single-family lots, zoned one-acre].
Mester later added a fourth solution: “Let the developer guarantee the risk to the school district by setting some amount of money in escrow for ten to 20 years.”
Gerrard picked up the subject of revaluation, telling members of both boards that on September 7 the town board was due to hear from its consultant on revaluation, Thomas Frey, on the cost-benefits and logistics of a town-wise revaluation. She admitted that the town board found it a difficult decision, since if the board were to decide to invoke a “Homestead Exemption” in the course of a revaluation, all dwellings within the town’s borders would be taxed at 100% of value. She was concerned that condominiums within New Castle would suffer by comparison with lower-taxed condos of neighboring towns that would, presumably, still be taxed as condos.
Gerrard remained firm in her demand to the developer that the 60 townhouses of the new Modified Project be taxed “fee simple.”
Next, board of education member Gregg Bresner offered his analysis of enrollment projections and tax projections. “I come up with a shortfall initially of $6.4 million, and the present value of that in perpetuity, because these things grow, is between $320 million and $640 million. That’s what we’re talking about. This could be the most important issue this town has ever faced. I think it’s imperative, to help you [town board members], that the school board retain its own consultant, an expert.”
“No disrespect to BOCES [which did the enrollment projections for the board of education],” continued Bresner, “but BOCES is a non-profit organization that figures out how to share services among school districts. Three-quarters of their analysis is null, because they assumed age restriction [which the newest proposal, Modified Project does not]. But when you look at their numbers, between the number of people moving into Chappaqua Crossing and the number of people moving out of houses to move into Chappaqua Crossing, my analysis of BOCES report shows 261 school children, a $5.5 million shortfall, with a $500 million present value.” Bresner concluded, “As a school board, we need to give you a better analysis [than the BOCES report].”
Clinton Smith interjected, “The consultant the town board acquired [for the DEIS] was the school board’s consultant [BOCES] hired by the school board to do its enrollment projections, was it not? But the more information, the better.”
Bresner responded that BOCES simply measures the districts’ enrollment capacity for the purpose of advising school districts on whether they need to construct additional school buildings. But even that information, Bresner explained, had a 4% standard of error and was valid over only five years.
Alyson Gardner Kiesel
Describing herself as a 40-year resident of the town, Alyson Gardner Kiesel read a prepared statement. She noted that while the district spends $26,000 per student, the anticipated tax revenue from each unit is around $4,600, “and current taxpayers will be asked to make up the difference.” The board’s options, she continued, will be to raise taxes or alter programs and cut services, “and sacrifice the quality of education we currently provide.”
“Over the past few years,” Gardner Kiesel said, “American taxpayers have been asked to fund the bailout of unprofitable automakers, reckless insurance companies, and banks that took excessive risks. Are you now going to tell the New Castle taxpayer that they need to bail out a developer whose property investment has not achieved the profitability they desired?”
“I’m sure every member of this community has something that they bought or invested in five years ago that is worth less than they expected it to be,” said Gardner-Kiesel. “The economic reality is that no matter how much research you do or projections you analyze, not all investments work out. It is not the responsibility of this community to take on unknowable risk to accommodate the profit-and-loss of a real estate developer.”
“Hiding behind ‘available physical capacity’ is an obfuscation of the real issue,” said Gardner Kiesel. The developer might have chosen to approach the school district to work with the board, she commented, but instead had “shown little or no concern for this school system that has been the hallmark of this community for decades.”
“We teach our students,” concluded Gardner Kiesel, “that bullying is not tolerated in our schools; if we do not protect our taxpayers and students, then we are allowing ourselves to be bullied. As it stands, this project is completely one-sided: they get what they want, and we bear an unquantifiable risk. I believe there is a way for this project to meet both the goals of the developer while insulating our taxpayers from undue risk. This proposal does not accomplish this.”
“Having been in the business for some time,” said Katchis, “I can see with present financial conditions there’s clearly a flight to value, and we’re blessed in that this town has tremendous value, that our school system and community have tremendous value. But with things like affordable housing that are dictated by federal government and the state, that will need to be put in typically in the form of apartments or condominiums, with the existing condominiums that Barbara [Gerrard] mentioned—and there are quite a few of them—and that the density of children there is fairly low, it could be that a revaluation drives 50 or 60 percent of our empty nesters out of those and brings in potential new students, ‘helping’ with our capacity issue.”
“I think there’s just tremendous risk out there,” continued Katchis, “in terms of exposure on non-fee-simple-taxed units. I understand the developer wants to make money, I understand he’s in business to be profitable. But to put additional risk on the present system we have is just not responsible. We’re smarter than that; we’re a better community than that. We need to buckle down, get the work done and find a solution.”
From NCNOW’s archives: For coverage of Chappaqua Crossing from June 2010 to present, with commentary from readers, click HERE.
For NCNOW’s complete coverage of Chappaqua Crossing, dating from 2007, click HERE.
Part 1 begins in the conference room and follows the meeting into the assembly room:
Part 2: The town board’s F.P. Clark planning consultant, Joanne Meder, gives a succinct summary of the five-year history of the application by developer Summit Greenfield to redevelop the Reader’s Digest property (first half):
Part 3: The town board’s F.P. Clark planning consultant, Joanne Meder, gives a succinct summary of the five-year history of the application by developer Summit Greenfield to redevelop the Reader’s Digest property (second half):
Part 4: Janet Benton and Jeffrey Mester speak:
Part 5: Gregg Bresner and Alyson Gardner Kiesel speak:
Part 6: Randy Katchis speaks, then Clinton Smith in a discussion of projected tax revenues from the development:
Part 7: A general discussion of the developer’s rights and the town board’s obligations as lead agency: