At town board’s urging, planning board agrees to cut back on oversight authority
February 4, 2011
by Christine Yeres
In November 2010, the New Castle Town Board initiated discussion about changing the town code to allow multifamily dwellings units in buildings taller than two stories to share common hallways, stairs, elevators, exits and entrances to the outside.
At the time, Town Supervisor Barbara Gerrard expressed the view that the current law requiring separate entrances for all dwelling units was an impediment to building multistory apartment buildings. Separate entrances can be an expensive amenity for developers of affordable housing to provide.
As the law currently stands, every multifamily housing unit in New Castle has its own entrance/exit to the outdoors. The New Castle Planning Board, a volunteer advisory committee to the town board, must grant a waiver to allow a developer to construct a multifamily building with shared exits/entrances.
If the town board votes to adopt its proposed change to the law at next Tuesday’s town board meeting, then the three-story apartment buildings proposed for the East Village and the five-story buildings proposed for the North Village of Chappaqua Crossing would no longer require a special waiver from the planning board.
Planning board debates losing this oversight authority
On Monday night, January 24, the New Castle Planning Board met with Joanne Meder of F. P. Clarke Associates, planning consultants to the town board, and Les Steinman, counsel to the planning board and partner of Clinton Smith, counsel to the town board, to discuss the change proposed by the town board.
Susan Carpenter, chair of the planning board, was unable to attend the meeting, so Richard Brownell led the meeting as acting chair for the other planning board members, Sheila Crespi, Jerry Curran and Doug Schuerman.
Meder told planning board members, “The town board decided it might be appropriate to not require individual unit access for multistory buildings.” The change in law would leave the planning board with authority to waive the separate entrances requirement only in two-story buildings, giving three-or-more story buildings “an outright exemption,” according to Meder.
When Brownell asked Meder whether this change would affect the five-story affordable housing development proposed for Hunts Lane, she responded: “No. There was actually separate zoning designed for Hunts Lane. That issue was already addressed.” See “Town board eases the way for affordable housing in downtown,” NewCastleNOW.org, June 25, 2010.
Planning board member Sheila Crespi asked, “Which zoning districts allow residential of three stories or more?” Meder responded: “The MFPD [Multifamily planned development like Old Farm Lake] is one of them. All three types, MFPD, MFRM [Multifamily Residential Millwood like Pheasant Run] and MFRC [Multifamily Residential Chappaqua like Chappaqua Commons], allow it.”
Crespi: “And up till now almost all multifamily in New Castle has been two stories?”
Meder: “Yes. And all have been built in these three kinds of districts.”
Crespi: “So now, by codifying a new rule for three-story residential, are we inviting all future applications in MFPD zones to be three instead of two stories?”
Meder: “They’re allowed to be three stories now.”
Crespi: “But until today they are all two stories. So we’re looking at something that changes the texture of multifamily housing going forward.”
Brownell: “It’s a good point.”
Safety issues abated by common entrances for buildings over two stories
The reason the planning board has oversight when it comes to entrance/exit requirements is for safety reasons, specifically accessibility for fire, rescue and EMS services and quick exit for fire and other emergencies. If a developer wants to build more than two stories, then the town code’s requirement that there be separate entrances/exit becomes a hazard, argued Steinman, rather than a safety feature.
As Brownell noted, “The taller you get, the more safety concerns. You have to have elevators; you need a way to get to those upper levels quickly. So I think it’s sensible from a safety point of view [to exempt buildings greater than two stories from individual access requirements and allow shared hallways].
What, in fact, is the impact of requiring a waiver from the planning board?
Steinman explained: “You can view it in a number of ways: If [the planning board were to maintain waiver authority] for a legitimate safety reason, then that’s all right. On the other hand, it can be viewed as an impediment to multifamily housing.”
Crespi questioned whether the waiver requirement had in fact impeded proposals for multifamily housing greater than two stories. “So the existing code allows three-story residential without individual access. It currently allows it?”
Meder responded: “It allows it if the planning board waives the [individual access] requirement. There is no impediment to [three-story residential without individual access] now.”
Curran commented: “I like the fact that we have the ability to waive if we decide to.”
Crespi added: “But if this change in enacted it’s no longer discretionary. It will be code.
Meder responded: “It’s discretionary for two stories but not for three stories.”
Crespi asked: “One more question: Who, then, makes the decision if a project in a MFPD zone should be a two-story or three-story project or some combination perhaps?”
Brownell responded: “The applicant proposes and then we see if there are any issues with it.”
Curran noted, “Aren’t there also height restrictions?”
Crespi continued, “So there’s still some [planning board] discretion in deciding whether a development would go forward as two or three stories?”
Meder responded: “Within reason. If the applicant proposes three stories, you have to have very good reasons why three stories are not appropriate if the zoning allows it. You can talk about the normal [environmental] impacts, though.”
Brownell added: “And for three stories you would need more property because you’d have to have more parking, and wider setbacks because of the height-setback ratio that kicks in.”
In the end, the members of the planning board who attended this discussion agreed to accept the town board’s proposed change to the law, with one minor deletion noted in brackets below. The town board did not need the planning board’s approval. They are required to seek advice from the planning board and hold a public hearing, but beyond that, they have the power to change this law by simple majority vote.
The proposed new text, with additions in bold font
60-417.271. Individual unit access. In general, each individual dwelling unit within any building in a multifamily development that does not exceed two stories in height shall have its own separate entrance/exit leading directly to the outside. The Planning Board may waive this requirement as a part of site plan approval where said Board determines that the basic intent of this requirement in terms of safety and the avoidance of common hallway areas can be met through other elements of the building design.
Individual dwelling units within any building that exceeds two stories in height may share common stairways, hallways, elevators, entrances and exits to the outside; but if the building also is used for non residential purposes, then the portion of the building that is used for the residential purpose shall have an entrance that does not require access through the portion of the building that is used for non-residential purposes [and that is not located on the same side of the building as the location of a principal entrance to the non-residential portion of the building].
The public hearing on the change in code is scheduled to continue on Tuesday, February 8. If the town board votes to adopt the amended language, under the new code a three-or-more story apartment building will not require any waiver from the planning board. That board’s authority to waive the separate entrances requirement will remain only over buildings of two stories.
Below is the “Video-on-Demand” recording of the planning board meeting. The discussion of the individual access amendment begins at the 2 hour and 17 minute mark and runs until the 2 hour and 42 minute mark. If you allow the film a few minutes to load, you can then advance the film by the control strip at the bottom of the picture.