TB gives green light for next step in environmental review of “The Spa at New Castle”

RG
Town Board will hear application with open mind; nothing has been approved
January 26, 2014
by Christine Yeres

To acquaint new Town Board members with his proposal for “The Spa at New Castle”—a hotel, spa and condominium units on the 96-acre Legionaries property at 773 Armonk Road—Stephen Oder of Soder Real Estate Equities visited last week’s Town Board work session with his attorney, David Steinmetz of Zarin & Steinmetz. “​It took us a long time to get out of the starting box on this project,” said Steinmetz, “but we’re now excited to move forward.” Half a dozen neighbors of the property had come also, to assert that the project is inappropriate for the two-acre residential zone. The Town Board has scheduled a public scoping session to identify environmental issues on Tuesday, January 28, at town hall.

The Town Board is lead agency for the project, which would require a zoning change in the two-acre residential property—originally a private residence, subsequently, by special permit, used for religious purposes and therefore tax-exempt.  It last went up for sale in 2011.  [For a history of the property, a timeline of its uses, and photographs, click HERE.]

Oder does not yet own the property, but would purchase it once he has been granted site plan approval by the Planning Board. The two-acre residential zoning should be changed, Oder’s application suggests, to a floating zone called “Resort Lifestyle Complex.” With 84 residences as part of the project, Oder characterizes The Spa proposal as mainly residential.
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Feedback from previous Town Board

An earlier version of the project included 60 condominium units in four I-shaped buildings,“stepped” and staggered down the hill on the north side of the property, commanding its far-reaching views northward.  At the time, Town Board members were not pleased with the plan, questioning both the intrusion into the view-shed and the septic capacity of the property (there are no sewers, and surrounding residents use well water). 

previous plan
Previous plan, with condo buildings to the north (top of photo)

They were concerned too that parts of the proposed wing additions to the main mansion would, in effect, be five stories buildings even if they were to rise no higher than the main mansion, because the land falls away almost immediately from that highest point.

In the previous Board’s last meeting with Spa representatives, Supervisor Susan Carpenter was decidedly cool toward the project, telling Oder and Steinmetz that the hotel-spa-condo project the developer characterized as residential was actually, in her opinion, a commercial enterprise that would be problematic in an area zoned for two-acre residential.  (The square footage of the existing buildings is 70,000, Oder stated; the project would bring that to 250,000.)

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The current plan

current plan


Gone from the hill, the condos in the current plan have instead been placed in two new wings off the main mansion. 

Steinmetz reminded Board members that there had been “a lot of questions” in previous meetings “about whether the site could support 84 units [50 condos, 34 hotel suites], [but]our studies say it can.” 

“We need to get you out there,” Steinmetz told Board members.  “Views from the top of the property are magnificent.” The developer had designed the project, he said, “to preserve the overwhelming majority of the property.”

forever view
From top of the hill, looking north

Oder showed Board members photos of the existing buildings and drawings of the proposed project. While TB members Elise Mottel and Jason Chapin have heard a similar presentation before, the three new Board members had not. 

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Features of the proposed “Spa at New Castle”
~ taken from the draft scoping document submitted at the end of November 2012

back elevation
Back (north) elevation

• Zoning proposes a floating zone “Resort Lifestyle Complex”

•  Now a two-acre residential area

• “Resort Lifestyle Complex” with spa, restaurant, indoor-outdoor pool, six tennis courts, basketball court, state-of-the-art gym “and other recreational amenities and public spaces.”  Amenities: “juice bar, 75-seat theatre, hiking and walking trails”

• Theatre likely in basement of chapel; the chapel a “great room” or reading area.

• Spa and 150-seat restaurant (4,500 SF) would be open to the general public (also open to public are passive public spaces, but not pool and gym).

• 50 two-bedroom non-age-restricted condos (attached, multifamily condo units) of 2,500 SF each, located within new three-story residential east (29) and west (21) wings.

Condos’ square footage:
East wing: 81,010 SF
West wing: 65,380 SF
Total 146,390 SF

• 34 hotel suites (650-750 SF each), “a standard size hotel suite for a typical hotel and spa experience”

• Hotel: three floors of 10,000 SF each
      4 hotel suites on upper two floors of old building
      30 hotel suites in new 30,000 SF building south of the west wing

• 96 acres

• Bedford Central School District

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Neighbors ask “Why even consider this project?”

Greenstein asked the several neighbors who had come to the Work Session—some live above, some live below the property—to describe their problems with the project.  They listed the project’s incompatibility with the two-acre residential zoning, lighting, noise levels, traffic, and, most serious, septic capacity. The area is not served by municipal water or sewers.  Residents depend on well water.  One resident, Sharon Greene, said that the Department of Health had “nixed” a previous use that seemed to her the equivalent, in size, of the proposed project.

“It’s a massive addition,” she said.  “I think it’s a wonderful project for a commercial area.  But people have bought houses in a two-acre zoned area with the expectation that it was rural in character.”  Greene pointed out that the town’s Master Plan expressly states that the eastern part of town should remain less developed.  “It’s an inappropriate location, and,” Greene pointed out, “as everyone has said, ‘Planning should precede development.’ ” 

“People who are neighbors will be seeing traffic non-stop,” Greene​ continued​, “and with 50 housing units and 30 hotel rooms, restaurants, the theatre they didn’t mention, plus swimming pool and lawn watering, that amounts to the equivalent of what the Legionaries were proposing.  These private residences are three times the magnitude of what the Legionaries would have generated.” 

“We’re befuddled as to why this is even being entertained by the Board,” said Greene.  “The Town Board has the ability to nix this.  The special use permit for the Legionaries does not pass on to a new owner, and even that special use permit requires that any development be deemed no more offensive environmentally to the surrounding areas than the two-acre zoning.”

“There’s no question that this project will be more impactful than residential use,” said Green, noting that the property could possibly support 15 houses.

Another neighbor told Board members that he purchase his 2,500-square foot 1790s farmhouse in “one of the most magical spots in the New York City area.  To imagine something of that scale and use going into my backyard is shocking.” 

TB member Adam Brodsky said that Board members would come visit the property and homes to see for themselves where houses are positioned and what they would see of the project.

“I urge you,” said another neighbor, “to look at the records of other projects proposed that have not passed muster over the septic capacity.”

“I know the town’s eager to get the property back on the tax rolls [religious uses are untaxed],” said Greene, “and that might be a major motivation here,” but the town would, she said, essentially be creating a commercial zone where none belonged.

Residential mainly, or commercial?

Steinmetz noted that the same objections had come up previously.  “It’s not unusual,” he said, “for a use like this to be located in a residential area because it’s largely a residential use.  The bulk of this project is residential, condominium, empty-nester type units.  It’s not age-restricted, but that’s clearly the concept.  It’s also not unusual for a boutique-y type hotel-spa to be located in a non-commercial, more bucolic area.  So it suits itself very well, in my client’s vision and those that have looked at it, to be in an area like this.”

Applicant’s attorney describes a long and candid approach with the Town Board

Steinmetz said that he was “a little disappointed” that “Dr. Greene has said she’s ‘befuddled’ that we’re proposing this and that it’s been entertained, because we’ve spent 15 months discussing the concept with the Town Board and the Town Board understood that my client has a right to petition the government and ask for a zone change.”

“Jason [Chapin] and Elise [Mottel] were here on day one,” continued Steinmetz, “when I said, ‘It’s a great concept, but we can only do this, candidly, if it’s rezoned,’ and, Elise, you know I said, ‘If you guys don’t want us—as much fun as it is to come to New Castle and process land use applications—we don’t want to do it just for the fun.  So were very honest with officials and said ‘If you’re interested in studying the project and would like to explore the financial merits, even the use merits of something unique like this, then let’s do this.  If you’re not interested in this, there are lot of other ways to spend our time—and his [Oder’s] money—doing something else.”

“So after a lot of energy,” said Steinmetz, “and a fair amount of preliminary study we presented that to this town board and we were told, ‘Advance the project.’  We were told, ‘File your zoning petition. We will be lead agency, and let’s scope it and study it.’  So that’s why I don’t think anybody in the room should be befuddled.  It’s part of the process. Nobody’s voting yes, nobody’s voting no. It’s part of the process.”

“We’re here because there are three new Town Board members and new supervisor,” Steinmetz explained.  “We understand that.  We want to be open, honest and deliberate with this board—as we have been before.  I don’t want to step backward on this project, but if the Town Board no longer wants to entertain this project, we need to know that. [Battery change here; the following was dropped from the video:] The issues raised by the neighbors—noise, lighting, access, septic, community character—they all need study.  They’re matters the Town staff studied and will now be done next week in a scoping process, publicly in a scoping session.  Then we have to go through the SEQR [environmental review] process.” 

“We think it’s a great thing for the town,” Steinmetz continued, “perhaps $1 million in tax ratables for a property that’s been off your tax ratables for a very long time.  It’s 98 prime acres; someone will do something with it—it won’t stay vacant forever.  We think our project makes a lot of sense.”

[Video back on:]

Informing the public

“The public was not brought into this,” countered Greene, “until well after these discussions happened behind closed doors.  Maybe the town gave them the go-ahead on this, but if the public had been brought into this in advance they would have seen that this is not something the public wants around there.  Number two, the Town Board can legally deny an application for a change in zoning.  It’s not like they’re obliged to entertain it.  And had the Board come to ask for public input, they might have heard it sooner.  That’s not the public’s fault.”

All meetings are open; none are “behind closed doors”

Chapin noted that there had been several public presentations attended by Greene and her neighbors.  He pointed out the formal SEQR process involved more public input and public hearings, so “there have been opportunities to speak and if this goes forward there will be additional opportunities and all that will go on the record and we’ll follow State law.”  Chapin added that the Board’s meetings are never “behind closed doors.”

“You say you came in 2012,” Greene said to Steinmetz. “But I didn’t know anything about it until middle of last year.” 

“We’re going to come out and see the property and do a lot of listening,” said Brodsky, “so no decision’s going to be made for a long time.”

Whether to re-engage F.P. Clark as consultants for the town

“I know that F.P. Clark was involved in the prior application,” said Greenstein.  “What’s your opinion about bringing them back on for the review of this one?” he asked Steinmetz.

“This is a completely different project for the property,” Steinmetz replied, adding that he had already reviewed F. P. Clark materials from former applications—“some of which form the predicate for the current draft scoping document we submitted to the town—then your town staff [Town Planner Sabrina Charney] met with us, as they’re supposed to under SEQR, and gave us a host of comments, and we probably grew the scoping document from 20 pages to 32 pages as a result.”

“In terms of who the consultant is,” Steinmetz continued, “my answer, Mr. Supervisor, is that this is an important, significant project.  You clearly need professional assistance, whether it’s F.P. Clark or any number of other consulting firms, I’m confident that your professionals and your Board members can share with you [whom to choose].  You need professional assistance.  You’ve hear that the neighbors are concerned about the septic.  No question—they should be.  That’s why Steve [Oder] went out [very early on and hired an engineering firm to determine whether the septic would work].”

Next step: Environmental review begins with the scoping session

Mottel asked the Town’s counsel to describe, for the benefit of the public, the next steps in the process.

The NY State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) process

Town Counsel Nick Ward-Willis, Keane & Bean, explained that at the finish of next week’s scoping session, the Town Board may choose to close public comment or hold open the comment period.  If it closes comment, it may decide to hold open a written comment period for another ten days.

At some point the scoping document will be adopted by the town board and the applicant will go forth and carry out its studies.  The scoping document and its responses will eventually become the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. 

Once the Town Board judges it to be complete (that is, all the environmental questions and issues have been adequately addressed by the applicant), the Town Board will hold another public hearing to receive comments from the public and agencies involved in the review.

The Town Board will issue a “Findings Statement,” setting out all the potential environmental impacts of the project and the ways in which they might be mitigated.

The Town Board (lead agency) will make a decision to deny or accept the application.

Scoping session for identifying environmental issues, not for opinions on the merit of the project

The proper and best use of the scoping session, Ward-Willis explained to Geene and other residents, is to point out specific environmental issues that have gone unmentioned or seem insufficiently analyzed—not to describe the undesirability of the project.  He said that neighbors might, for example, say, “The scoping document should include the on-site laundry and swimming pool in the scope. We want to make sure it doesn’t impact us.”  Lighting, view-shed, noise—“these are issues that should be put on the table,” Ward-Willis said, “not whether the project is good or bad.”

“The public will be helping us to formulate the issues we should be looking at,” added Mottel.

“I think it’s fair to say we’re going to consider the application,” said Supervisor Rob Greenstein, “rather than dismiss it.  The applicant has the right to submit an application and go through the process.”

“And we’ll go through a process,” said Mottel, “as we do for every application, and we’ll listen with an open mind.  Even though as part of the prior board Jason and I have said ‘Let’s go ahead with the project,’ we haven’t approved the project, but are listening.”
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Related: Prospective buyer pitches spa-hotel-condo complex at Legionaries 98-acre property, NCNOW.org, 9/7/12

98-acre Legionaries of Christ property on the Armonk Road is up for sale, NCNOW.org, 10/7/11—with slideshow of the property.

Video of the Work Session:

Town of New Castle Board Work Session 1/22/14 from New Castle Media Center on Vimeo.

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