In work session with comptroller, Town Board discusses town hall move, money, and Master Plan
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
by Christine Yeres
For new Town Board members, last Tuesday was their first experience of the quarterly report on the town’s finances from Town Comptroller Rob Deary. It was a sobering report mainly because the town—and Moody’s—would much rather see an amount in reserve funds equivalent to 15% of the entire town budget rather than the 8%—around $3 million—that coffers hold currently.
“Our demographics probably override everything, though,” explained Deary. “We have a strong tax base. We felt our pains when the economy went down, and we’ve weathered it well. A lot of towns have had to borrow to cover tax certioraris, or can’t make it to the end of the year and have to borrow money. We never have to do that.”
And while some unexpected expenditures—associated with the retirement of the town’s administrator and with legal fees for Chappaqua Crossing—caused some reworking of monies, there were several pleasant surprises Deary was able to report to Town Board members.
Did You Know?
The town operates on a budget of around $37 million, $20 million of it from taxes, $17 million from revenues; the average tax bill for residents is $2,400.
In last year’s budget Deary, who admits he budgets conservatively, anticipated mortgage tax revenues at $900,000. They ended up around $1,195,000. County sales tax, anticipated to come in at $2.15 million, turned out to be $2.45 million. And last year’s revenues from building permits rose from an anticipated $430,000 to an actual $1,062,000.
The town is in good health, with a Triple-A rating from Moody’s, and the Town Board intends to bond, at favorable rates, Deary explained, around $6.5 million in 2014 for capital improvements in 2015 to the town’s aged water and sewer lines that run mainly under South Greeley. Here, too Deary had good news: It looks as though some of the very robust reserve funds belonging to the town’s Water Department—reserves equivalent to nearly 100% of its $7.8 million budget—may be able to be applied to the infrastructure fix, since the water mains are directly related to the water delivery system.
Move town hall to Chappaqua Crossing?
About 80% of the cost of the $6.5 million project is underground, 20% overground, in enhancements to the “streetscape.” The Town Board hasn’t yet chosen a firm to do the work and is weighing whether to postpone at least the “streetscape” part of the project until more is known about a concept floated before by new Supervisor Rob Greenstein before his election: Sell the town hall and some portion of its surrounding property for development and move town hall to Chappaqua Crossing. The idea is tied to approving the grocery-retail zoning Summit Greenfield has proposed. Any risk to the hamlet in the creating a third retail center with a grocery and town hall at Chappaqua Crossing, the thinking goes, would be worth the game-changing opportunity for the hamlet to shake its doldrums through mixed-use development—both retail and residential—on the town hall property. (Proceeds from the sale of town property would go directly into the town’s reserve funds, Deary explained.)
So on Tuesday’s work session agenda was the question of whether to fund a title search and appraisal for the ten-acre, town-owned, town hall property. Phase One could cost $10,000; Phase Two, another $23,000, to “drill down” for a more detailed view of the site’s properties.
“Plan first, develop second”?
Town Board member Lisa Katz asked whether such an assessment wasn’t premature, though she later agreed that to proceed at least with Phase One was appropriate. And a resident, Betty Weitz, when invited to comment, asked “What about ‘Plan first, then develop’?” She noted that the “Spa at New Castle” proposal currently before the Town Board was another case of putting the cart before the horse,” ad hoc treatment of issues that should be decided according to a vision derived from a Master Plan.
Greenstein responded that there would be no point in talking about moving town hall to Chappaqua Crossing without knowing what the town hall property can and cannot support. The appraisal of the property, he said, was in any case necessary also for the Master Plan review, which typically examines and quantifies all of the town’s assets and resources.
Talk about “troubled rollouts”!
Aside from what form a review of the 1989 Master Plan should take, one of the questions right now is where to find money to fund it. The review has had real trouble getting started. In Town Board elections two years ago, all candidates cited it as a priority, yet two years later little has been done.
Little money set aside for Master Plan
Only once in office did it become clear to Greenstein that there was almost no money in the previous Town Board’s 2014 budget for the review. Over 2013 the five-member Steering Committee organizing the review with the help of the Town Planner, Sabrina Charney, has lost members, substituted others, and suffered several false starts.
When the November elections brought a change in the composition of the Town Board, the charge of the Steering Committee—which under the previous Board had been to accomplish its review without considering Chappaqua Crossing—was reversed, putting Chappaqua Crossing “back on the table.”
The Planning Board master-plans by nature
In the meantime, the Planning Board’s required review of the proposed grocery-retail zone at Chappaqua Crossing—non-binding advice the Town Board was obliged by law to seek from its Planning Board—had morphed from emumerating the deficiencies of the proposal into an expression of what principles should guide development not only at Chappaqua Crossing but in the town overall. In its critique of the Chappaqua Crossing proposal for the Town Board, the Planning Board endorsed the concept of “traditional neighborhood design”—walkable, mixed-use development, wherever and whenever development is considered.
Talks with Summit Greenfield
Post-election, Greenstein announced even before taking office that he had begun talks with Summit Greenfield and intended to find a “win-win” solution for the town and property owner, now almost in his tenth year of trying to develop it. Greenstein took with him Tom Curley, a member of the Planning Board who is an experienced architect. Emphasizing that it should not be taken as approval of any particular development proposal at Chappaqua Crossing, Planning Board members sent Curley off with a hearty endorsement to advocate for the Planning Board’s “traditional neighborhood design” development principles.
Sketching out a “new neighborhood”
In the two months since, Curley and Town Planner Sabrina Charney have met long hours with Summit Greenfield and its development team to reconfigure the puzzle-pieces of office, residential and retail uses. Last Tuesday Curley and Charney presented the latest drawings in a videotaped Planning Board work session. See Tom Curley shows PB latest drawings of “new neighborhood” at Chappaqua Crossing, NCNOW.org, 2/10/14.
Agnostic as to approval
“As to the retail portion, I think we’re there,” Curley told Planning Board colleagues. “We’re still having a conversation [with Summit Greenfield] about the residential part of it.” And reminding listeners that both he and the Planning Board are agnostic as to whether the Town Board should approve any proposed development at Chappaqua Crossing, Curley noted, “This isn’t necessarily part of this particular retail zoning application. We’ve always seen it as a master plan for the whole property. If the town is going to grant zoning approval, it should grant it in a way which makes the whole thing better.”
Did he say “Master Plan”?
So back to the Master Plan effort. As reported above, there are already “masterplannish” actions afoot—focused, for example, around appraising town hall property and picturing what development that comports with the Planning Board’s principles for development might look like at Chappaqua Crossing. Although the elements of a whole-town Master Plan review are still being figured out, Greenstein said in Tuesday’s work session that he has, in fact, come up with funds to undertake the community outreach portion of the Master Plan review—to hire an consultant to gather input from residents by various means, including community meetings.
An update of the Master Plan, not a re-creation from scratch
“I think it’s important to remember that we’re updating our Master Plan, said Greenstein, reached later in the week. “It’s not a brand new plan. It’s a review of the existing plan, with updating where needed. This doesn’t have to be a half-million dollar project. The main thing is to get up-to-date information in terms of demographics and population, and to figure out the ways we use the town now and how it will be used in the future. And that comes down to the hamlets and the infrastructure. That’s the material that needs to be updated. Feedback is key. Once we have the background information, we’ll have community discussions and say to residents, ‘OK, on this issue we have two, three, four options. What do we all think?’”
There is money
As to any funds the Steering Committee might need, Deary said, “Give me a budget. If it’s $10,000 they need, it’s easier to move money around and find it. If it’s $50,000, then we need to get more creative. And if it’s $125,000, then the Board has to make a decision on where to get that from. When they come to me we’ll sit down and figure out a way to get it done.”
And there is time
The Master Plan Steering Committee is undergoing some recomposition and both Greenstein and Sabrina Charney have emphasized that Summit Greenfield is not pressing for any deadline. Curley, too, says neither he nor the other Planning Board members are in a hurry to push the Chappaqua Crossing application forward. The Planning Board is scheduled to discuss the residential part of Curley’s redesign in its next meeting, on February 18.