Town and school boards put their heads together to prepare for June 23 Chappaqua Crossing hearings


June 19, 2009
by Christine Yeres

Town board and school board members met Wednesday night in a work session to discuss the state of the zoning change application by Summit Greenfield, the owner of the former Reader’s Digest property, to develop that campus into a commercial and residential complex. The proposed project is expected to have a substantial effect on the Chappaqua schools, the area surrounding the campus and the financials of both the town and the schools.

The developer’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement has been declared complete by the town board. The next step is for the town to conduct public hearings on the DEIS. Those hearings are set to begin next Tuesday, June 23, at 7:00 p.m. at town hall.

The purpose of this joint meeting was for the town board to inform the school board of its thinking thus far on several issues raised by the developer’s proposal. Specifically, the town board described possible municipal uses of a small portion of the property suggested by the town board’s consultants Saccardi & Schiff.

The town board’s and the school board’s role in the DEIS hearings

Mester asked how board of education members could ask the town board further questions about the DEIS. As Clinton Smith, attorney for the town of New Castle, explained, now that the developer has presented the DEIS to the town, the school board can respond to the town board by letter or in person at the hearings with either an assertion of fact or an observation about the DEIS.  The school board will have time in the next few weeks, Smith continued, to gather information from the town’s consultants, as well as ample opportunity during the hearing process that begins June 23 to pose questions to the developer.

When Alyson Gardner Kiesel, the board of education’s newly elected member, raised her hand from her place in the audience of ten to ask a question, Jay Shapiro, out-going president of the school board, invited her to draw her chair to the table with the other board members. She asked whether the town board’s authority superseded those of the planning and zoning boards. Gerrard responded that the town board has the final say.

Gerrard told those assembled that “the real meat of the examination will start next week,” on June 23, and that “it would be very helpful” for the town board to receive board of education comments by the end of July. The board of education next meets on July 7, when Kiesel will begin her term.

Proposed municipal uses for a portion of the former Reader’s Digest property

The town’s consultants, Saccardi & Schiff, have proposed that an entrance into the Reader’s Digest property be created across from the high school entrance with a traffic light at that intersection, Gerrard explained. This new entrance would lead to field space and land set aside on which to build a recreation complex in the future. 

“Proximity to the high school makes it an ideal place to have a field. We know we need more fields and there aren’t that many pieces of property in town,” Gerrard said. School board member Jeffrey Mester, vice-president of the board, expressed discomfort at students crossing at that intersection, even with a light. 

Outgoing school board president Jay Shapiro asked whether the town had explored construction of a pool on the former Reader’s Digest property. Gerrard responded that the board had not gone very far down that avenue since learning that a pool would cost between $15 million and $20 million to build, require a much larger footprint than the proposed recreation complex and require $850,000 to $1 million annually to maintain, not including insurance and an additional diving pool.

Shapiro asked John Chow, the school district’s assistant superintendent of business, to research and report back to the boards, for comparison’s sake, the cost of the contract the board of education has entered into with SUNY Purchase to use its pool from August through December 2009. According to Chow, the contract with SUNY Purchase for that period during the last two years was $15,500 for 2007-08 and $17,400 for 2008-09.

Gerrard told members of the board of education that Saccardi & Schiff’s consulting architect had shown the town board that the Wallace Auditorium would be too costly to retrofit and renovate and the town board is no longer interested in acquiring it. 

Examining the project with and without enforcement of the 55 year old age restriction

According to Geoff Thompson of Thompson & Bender, publicists for the developer, of the 222 market rate condominiums, whose starting price would be in the high $600,000s, all would be restricted to residents 55 and older with no children under 18. Of the 56 affordable units, 24 would also be similarly age restricted, leaving 34 workforce units for families with children.

Our view of age restricted housing,” said Gerrard, “is that in developments across the country [age restriction] doesn’t seem to hold.”  She said that although legal initially, going forward – whether because sellers want to pass their property interest on to the next generation or because of market conditions – it is not uncommon for townships to change age restrictions. 

Incoming board of education president Jeffrey Mester asked, “If that’s the case, why are we even considering this proposal?”  Gerrard responded that “everyone on the town board realizes that 278 is way too many units, whether restricted or not.” She told school board members, “on June 23, public hearings open and there will be discussion back and forth about how many units we can accommodate. You’ll want to look at what the impacts to the school district are of 100, 150, 250 units [of housing].” 

Shapiro asked, “What’s supposed to happen next?”  Gerrard responded, “We open the public hearing. More people may want to speak than we’ll have time for in June. We’ll adjourn and continue at another point. There are residents that both support and challenge this development. The developer has been actively advertising the project – not necessarily to his benefit, but that’s what he’s doing – so we know that people will be coming not just from New Castle but from other districts as well. New Castle has been looking for affordable [housing opportunities], and 20% [of the developer’s 278] units would be affordable, so that’s something we’ll be looking at.”

School population projections

Gerrard confirmed for Shapiro that the board of education would be able to submit comments on the developer’s proposal through the end of the public hearing, when the record closes. The town board’s counsel, Clinton Smith, pointed out that the developer’s DEIS contained “a good bit of material on the likely production of school children from the project.”

The developer’s DEIS estimates 11 school children would live in the affordable-for-families units with age restriction in place, 66 school children would live in the entire development with no age restriction, and a one-time bulge of 92 school children would move in as people from houses in New Castle move into new units at Chappaqua Crossing, opening the homes they sell to new families with school children. “So you’re looking,” said Smith, “at 100 to 150 students at some point.”

Smith suggested to board of education members that they were better equipped to analyze student population projections contained in the developer’s DEIS than the town board and determine what that means for the school budget. Shapiro noted that although the developer’s DEIS suggests that the school district had physical capacity for additional school children, the cost of staffing for additional students was another matter, with additional costs attached.

School board member Gregg Bresner told board colleagues that the marginal cost analysis in the developer’s DEIS shows no additional fixed costs added by additional students, and uses a per-pupil cost of $16,000 rather than the district’s nearly $26,000 per-pupil cost for the existing student population. 

Shapiro told board members that the school board had provided answers to the developer’s consultants on the subject of physical space, not staffing, which could have given a wrong impression, he feared. Board of education member Janet Benton suggested that it was time to “take those projections and figure out what they mean – what grade, how many students per grade – basically construct a fantasy situation about what [the school population] might look like.” 

Bresner quipped, “Nothing could be a bigger fantasy than [the developer’s] numbers.”

School Superintendent David Fleishman added that to project “the next five years is not that hard. But long term demographics, in terms of who’s born, is more difficult. In the late 80’s the entire society thought the boom in school population was over and shut down schools.”

When Gerrard suggested that the infusion of students into one elementary, Grafflin, might be problematic, Benton responded, “demographics in town change and redistricting is possible. I’m not so concerned about that.”

Mester asked whether the board was expected to consider several proposals based on differing numbers of residential units. Smith answered that although the town board has asked for different proposals, the developer’s DEIS features the 278 units in all of the proposals and only considers the alternatives based on whether the age restriction is enforced. “There’s the original proposal, with a certain number of units for over-55 with no school children, one with the complete residential portion age-restricted, and we have asked them to examine ‘What if no age restriction at all?’”  Shapiro interjected, “Realistically, we have to operate with the last one.”

Noting that the school district has a very high student retention rate, Benton suggested that the board of education should look at whether data shows a lower retention rate of students from entry level housing than from single family houses. 

Benton asked whether traffic generated by the plan proposed by Saccardi & Schiff for a recreation complex across from the high school had been factored into the DEIS traffic studies. Smith responded that it had not. He added that the developer asserts in his DEIS that a reduction in the amount of office space from the current 700,000 square feet to 520,000 square feet he proposes if he is allowed 278 condominium units would result in a decrease in traffic. 

Shapiro added that when the board of education had written to the town about the traffic impacts of the proposed development, board of education members had not considered traffic in light of 158 additional school age children, and resolved to do so now, since “there is a tendency,” he said, “for people to drive their kids to school.” 

Bresner added,  “And if you look at a model of how the economics of this project works out, the developer factors in no administrative support for an increased school population, no capital improvements, as though you can add bodies without adding infrastructure.”

“We should also get back to you,” said Bresner, “with the expected increase in school population based on the conversion factor,” a calculation of both how many new students enter from newly constructed housing as well as how many new students move into single family houses that are vacated by couples whose children are grown and who might move to condo units at Chappaqua Crossing.

The possibility of additional development

Bresner asked whether the developer’s application to construct 278 residential units would make more likely a second application for an increase in the number of units.  Smith answered that although the developer says that density bonuses entitle him to 100% increase in the number of units, “they haven’t asked for it – and it wouldn’t fit on the property.” 

Bresner sought clarification on that point by asking, “So if market conditions change and they apply for [more than the 278 units], there would have to be a whole new DEIS? If [the developers] get residential zoning and then come back [asking for more], is their hand stronger?”

Town board member Michael Wolfensohn rephrased Bresner’s question, “If we say ‘Yes’ to residential now, can they ask again, and does the standard of review change once they have acquired the initial residential zoning?”  Both Smith and Gerrard assured their colleagues that the site was so challenged by the impediments of wetlands, steep slopes and the consequent high costs of construction that the developer would be very limited. Smith added, “And after they leave us [the town board], they go to the planning board,” which must approve the developers site plans. 


Public comment on the DEIS and on Summit Greenfield’s proposal for rezoning begins on Tuesday, June 23, 7:00 p.m. at town hall. The town board has mounted the DEIS and related documents on a dedicated website:

http://chappaquacrossingreview.mynewcastle.org/

and has set up an email address to receive comments from the community at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

For a complete listing of NewCastleNOW.org’s previous articles and letters to the editor on Reader’s Digest, click here.

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