Letter to the Editor: First plan, then develop
February 28, 2014
by Betty Weitz, Ph.D.
It’s a mistake to treat master planning and development proposals simultaneously.
In the Sunday Times Magazine on Jan. 26, 2014 there was an interesting article on Roger Ailes. It starts out, “The razing of New York’s Penn Station in 1963
still ranks as one of the city’s great architectural disasters. At the time the New York Times wrote, ‘We will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.’” Such razing can occur not only to material objects, such as buildings, but to the history and character, the very nature of a town, a town such as ours.
Interestingly, a week before, a review of a book by Gabriel Sherman on Roger Ailes entitled, The Loudest Voice in the Room, appeared in the NY Times’ Book Review. The review, by Jacob Weisberg, starts out: “Twenty years ago, my wife and I bought a weekend house in the town of Garrison, New York, in the lower Hudson Valley. We love the place for its scenic beauty, its peace and quiet, and its old-fashioned sense of community. For us it’s a refuge from the pace of city life, and a widely shared ethos about preserving what makes it special.” Sound familiar? He goes on to say that Ailes bought the local paper, surrounding property and built a bunker with six months of survival equipment and food. He started turning up at local meetings with lawyer and bodyguard in tow, demanding attention to his contentious opposition to a zoning plan intended to limit future development that had been designed to preserve the special nature of the town and its quality of life. He goes on to say that he threatened the well-liked local Supervisor, Richard Shea, “a born-and-bred local.” According to the author, Ailes told Shea “I will destroy your life.” It turns out that this local resident and Supervisor of his hometown proved impossible to intimidate.
What is significant here is the issue of conserving and protecting the character of towns such as ours against rapacious development which has become a widespread problem. We are not alone. In our case, there are developers, and others, who are bent on altering our unique community by turning it into, at best, a banal suburb, or even worse encouraging urban sprawl complete with a third hamlet chain store shopping center, a religious community center complex with school and meeting rooms as a headquarters for all of upper Westchester, a cell tower, and a resort/events/convention center/hotel complex with fifty condominiums in a currently zoned two acre residential neighborhood. And that is without mentioning an apartment building between railroad tracks and the Sawmill Parkway exit ramps on property formerly zoned for industrial use.
We all know the schools played a significant role in why most of us moved here. But there is something more about this town that has always made it so desirable. It is its open spaces, small town charm, and its pastoral character. And the beauty of it is that we are less than an hour commuting distance from Grand Central.
I have to wonder why those who would succumb to such inappropriate development moved her. Why are they so avid to “build out” our village, as they put it? The proposal incorporates a 400 car garage with an elevated turf field high on top, adjacent to Bell School (we should tell our kids not to breathe too deeply when engaged in athletic activities), multi-storied buildings on our playing fields closing off open vistas, and solid rows of chain stores compacted along our short one-street village. They could have had that type of town all over southern Westchester. There are good school systems in other communities that are even closer to New York City.
We have reached a point in the history of our town where there could be a sea change in the nature and character of our community. As Charlie Steinhorn said at a Town Board meeting: “This is not a do-over!” These developments will change the Town of New Castle forever, they are irreversible.
There has been much talk of formulating a new Master Plan. Yet, it seems to have some trouble getting traction. At the same time, the Town Board, at a work session, spoke of proceeding with a title search and appraisal in preparation for consideration of selling the town hall property and surrounding parking lot. At that Town Board work session, Jill Shapiro, new town administrator, spoke about spending $10,000 to survey the town hall property in readiness for its sale in order to develop that property for retail and residential use. This is before any new Master Plan formulation has even begun. What happened to, “Plan first, then develop,” the campaign slogan of our new Supervisor and Town Board members?
The Town Board, or two board members, had meetings with Summit Greenfield about a retail development at Chappaqua Crossing and, as has recently been revealed, about buying the Cupola Building and moving Town Hall and the Police Station there. This structure has proved to be a white elephant for Summit Greenfield. They have been unsuccessful, so far, in selling or leasing it. The Town Board has opened scoping proceedings for the proposed resort/hotel/events condo complex development off Armonk Road on the former Legionairies property. At the same time, they have been conducting meetings responding to an application for a cell tower by Homeland/Verizon. The religious center headquarters complex for upper Westchester, on the west end of town, is another issue on the table.
We do not have a new Master Plan and seem to have some difficulty getting it started. Meanwhile, the board is trying mightily to tackle disparate development applications piecemeal. A Master Plan offers a global town vision and guiding principles from which such development decisions should flow. Or, as our new Supervisor and board members stated time and again while campaigning: First plan, then develop.
As Sheila Crespi, Planning Board member, in a joint meeting with the Town Board observed, since “something like this [Hotel/Spa/Restaurant and condo development] has never been conceived of before,” the Town Board “might have to go back to the Master Plan update process first.”
We need to consult a Master Plan in order to proceed in an orderly way to recognize the interrelationship between these projects and how it affects the immediate neighborhood and the town as a whole, now and in the future. But, wait, we do have a current Master Plan that prescribes and proscribes the zoning of all properties in the town including those in the applications that the board is now entertaining. Until we have a new Master Plan, the current one should be governing our development decisions.
It seems to me, when we hear that we must use these development projects currently before the board to guide us in formulating the new Master Plan, that we are fashioning the new Master Plan to accommodate or fit these developments rather than the other way around. Are we cutting the cloth of the Master Plan to fit the developments, or setting town policy that determines the character of the town to which all developments must conform? That is why the campaign mantra of the new board members “First plan, then develop” made so much sense. And that is why their current amnesia or reversal does not.
Why are we violating our own zoning laws? As Sharon Greene, a Tripp Street resident who lives in the environs of the proposed Events Center/Condo Complex development pointed out at the February 11, 2014 Town Board meeting, and as our Town Counsel acknowledged, we do not have to entertain or embark on scoping or the SEQR process at all. We are within our legal rights to enforce our municipal zoning laws. We have no obligation to nullify them. Developers have to adhere to the same laws as other citizens of the town. No one is exempt. Indeed, in his decision in the Summit Greenfield lawsuit, on Monday, October 1, 2012, State Supreme Court Judge George Loehr dismissed Summit Greenfield’s lawsuit. Judge Loehr said: “When [Summit Greenfield] acquired the Property, . . . it knew how the Property was zoned and therefore the uses to which it could be legally put.” It might very well be that by embarking on the SEQR process, the town is more likely to invite litigation and make us more vulnerable to lawsuits. Developers are investing large sums of money and time in a prolonged process that tends to generate certain expectations. When those expectations are not fully met, resentment and antagonism ensues.
Another speaker at the February 11 Town Board meeting posed an interesting question. What zoning protection can new purchasers of homes expect in the Town of New Castle? And that is precisely the reason we have and should be enforcing zoning codes. According to social contract theory, elected representatives have an implicit contractual obligation to protect the property interests, including quality of life, by enforcing the enacted laws of the town. We, in turn, have the contractual obligation to abide by those same municipal laws.
What if the town could come together, east and west, Chappaqua Crossing, the Events Center Complex, Verizon/Homeland cell tower and Mosque/School/Community Center/Complex, to insist that the boards institute a global perspective and policy from which to operate? All these concerned citizens are confronting the same issue of questionable development. Why not join forces and speak with a unified voice?
Furthermore, wherever there is development, the type of development that occurs will not just affect the immediate neighborhood, but the character of the town as a whole. New Castle is facing the greatest sea change in its history. Again, as Charlie Steinhorn so wisely admonished, at a recent Town Board meeting, this is not a “do-over”; we have to get it right the first time.
That was the realization of another town that was facing the same predicament. There is a town, much like our town, with some differences and significant similarities. They confronted the same situation. In 2009, they formulated a Master Plan with an overall vision that grounded their objectives and from which development decisions flowed. Their process may serve as a paradigm for us.
It is the Town of Rhinebeck.
They formulated their Master Plan in 2009. They took great care with research encompassing over 100 sources.
They have determined that the implementation of their Town Plan “will instill and nurture a sense of stewardship for the gifts nature and time have bestowed upon our fortunate community.”
They start out with a “Community Vision” statement that says: “Protect the scenic character of the community and its rural, natural, and historic elements.” And they define their community character as follows. “Our guiding principle is that Rhinebeck is an exceptional place because of its desirable rural attributes, outstanding scenic, natural, and historic resources.”
On a pragmatic note they state: “Studies show that real estate values remain stable in communities with high quality open spaces, protected scenic sheds and intact historic resources. In fact, protected open space, beautiful vistas, and remnants of our collective history increase the attractiveness of adjacent properties which in turn increases the tax base. Preserving open space, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas is one of the basic principles of smart growth.”
They are concerned that the wrong development would forever change their uniquely pastoral landscape into a banal suburban one.
Do we not share the same concern? Is this not true to some extent of the nature of our town and one of the reasons our corner of the world is so desirable? They go on to describe the pattern of compact hamlets, the spread of their population and the esthetic of open spaces.
They are concerned about economic development and how it will affect their current merchants and the hamlet of Rhinecliff and the town of Rhinebeck. (Rhinecliff is a 17th century hamlet one mile west of the Town of Rhinebeck). They determine to “preserve the history and integrity of the hamlet of Rhinecliff” and that they will ensure “the viability of existing locally owned businesses in Rhinebeck and preserve and protect the village commercial center.” Therefore, they will “prohibit franchise, big box, and formula businesses and adopt an alternative development plan to proactively attract small-scale local businesses, among others, that will serve their town’s needs while maintaining Rhinebeck’s character.”
They are further concerned about the viability of existing locally owned businesses in Rhinebeck and assert strongly that the village commercial center should be preserved and protected. They see the connection between retail businesses and their town: “Locally owned businesses help provide Rhinebeck with its local character.”
“The Town recognizes the function of the Village of Rhinebeck as a commercial center and wishes to limit new commercial development that may compete with the village.”
Yet, our town board is speaking to Summit Greenfield about a third hamlet retail center at Chappaqua Crossing in spite of the fact that Supervisor Greenstein informed us, before his election, that his research had revealed the fact that third hamlets are not considered desirable in small towns countrywide. And a third hamlet shopping center will compete with our current two hamlets, Chappaqua and Millwood.
Another “Objective,” generated by Rhinebeck’s “Town Vision,” addresses town zoning: “The town’s local zoning, subdivision, environmental regulation, and site plan, and subdivision review practices should be modified to better maintain and enhance the quiet rural character of the town to avert traffic congestion and sprawl.”
They strive to, “Adapt innovative solutions to preserve open space and rural landscape.” They recognize that all change is not necessarily good change as they innovate to enhance the positive attributes of their town; those that serve the quality of life of their residents and protect property values in line with smart growth. Some err in supposing that any and all change is necessarily progressive. Unfortunately, there is deleterious change, too.
They are respectful of the wishes of residents and so they state that: “The overwhelming belief about maintaining rural character by the Town’s full and part-time residents requires serious consideration by all town officials.”
They see resident participation as a practical matter. “. . . citizen participation builds support of community goals and in the long run saves time and money because local decision-makers are assured that they are following the wishes of residents.”
They did a public survey, not just a “public outreach,” the two are not identical, before formulating or amending their Master Plan. They did not confuse a simultaneous process with that of a sequential one.
In contrast and in spite of campaign rhetoric to the contrary, our new Town Board has issued the following proclamation by our new Supervisor:
“To that end, we have asked Summit Greenfield to take part in a public outreach process which will pre-empt the [citizen] work group activity of the Master Plan Update. ”
It seems our Master Plan citizen committees have been “pre-empted” in favor of a developer.
On the question of roads and traffic Rhinebeck is equally explicit. A street with homes on it, such as our Roaring Brook Road, is to be considered more than an artery for traffic.
In their view, taking a residential street, such as Roaring Brook, which, in addition, serves Greeley High School, and using it as a commercial traffic artery for delivery trucks and a steady stream of shoppers is incompatible to its role as a country road.
To sum up in their words: local streets should;
a) Discourage excessive speed
b) Provide a visual setting for the homes there
c) Be [safely] traversable
d) Be tree lined and preserved as a country road in consonance with the character of the town.
We have talked of eliminating the median on Roaring Brook Road.
They resolved to: “Reverse the town policy to remove trees and widen remaining town roads involving local residents and businesses.” We have had much discussion about widening Route 117 and Roaring Brook Road.
On a pragmatic note, we hear much talk of revenue. But when we examine the numbers they are not significant. In fact, the point that Rhinebeck makes is well taken. Their research reveals that if the quality of life and atmosphere of a town deteriorates as developers build out a small town, home values decrease and consequently so does the tax base.
There are those who would argue with the example rather than the issue. Even so, though Rhinebeck is larger in geography and smaller in population, they have confronted the same question of a type of development that is in conflict with the character of their town and the quality of life of their residents, a type of development which also impacts negatively upon property values. We have all the more reason to be concerned because of our more limited open spaces. Since we have fewer open spaces and a greater density of population, we have a greater impetus to be even more cautious about development.
They did what our new town board members said they would do when they were campaigning. They planned first and then considered development. Rhinebeck brought a sense of vision that encompassed the past as well as the future. These good people served their own interests and beyond, the present and the future, with a sense of responsibility for the stewardship of their town for posterity. Vision presupposes foresight beyond twenty years.
Betty Weitz, Ph.D.