Letters to the Editor:  Reader’s Digest Property

January 11, 2008
Where is the benefit to New Castle?
David C. Djaha

Town board, just say no!
Robert Ladd

Where is the benefit to New Castle?

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I have been a resident of the Seven Bridges neighborhood of New Castle for almost 10 years. I have watched the character of our town change from a somewhat uncrowded hamlet to one that I believe is on the brink of a disastrous misstep. One only has to make the trip down Roaring Brook Road during the morning rush or attempt to drive downtown on a Saturday morning to understand. The trip from the back lot of the train station to the traffic light on Route 120 can often take more than 15 minutes between 6:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

What will happen when an additional 278 families (and possibly 556 or more cars) at the Summit Greenfield development are added to our roads? Add the additional traffic from the Summit Greenfield’s proposed expansion of the office/commercial tenant base and the scene is catastrophic. The enormous burden to our town’s infrastructure as well as our town’s services is readily apparent to me . . . but the benefit?

Zoning restrictions well known to Summit Greenfield

I have been a commercial real estate lawyer for more than 19 years. I have represented developers on multitudes of transactions involving the acquisition of land intended for development. In each transaction, significant amounts of time and money were expended prior to the acquisition to understand the zoning of each parcel, the development restrictions burdening each parcel and whether the intended development would comply with such regulations and restrictions. Are we to believe that Summit Greenfield approached the Reader’s Digest site differently? The unequivocal answer in my mind is that they approached this development as every other developer in the country does: with full and extensive due diligence. Summit Greenfield was fully apprised of the zoning restrictions imposed on the Reader’s Digest site prior to its acquisition.

Zoning change was like handing a bag of money to Summit Greenfield

Armed with this information, Summit Greenfield nonetheless decided to purchase the site. They then proceeded to pressure our town into considering a variety of proposals; one worse than the next. Our town board already provided Summit Greenfield with a post-acquisition change to the zoning allowing for an addition three commercial tenants. This zoning change was akin to handing Summit Greenfield a bag of money. What did the town receive in return? The answer is absolutely nothing. While I do not dispute the wisdom of granting the zoning modification, and do believe that such change, while extremely benevolent, provided Summit Greenfield with an enormous gift to ensure the viability of the Reader’s Digest site, I remain mystified as to why Summit Greenfield remains unsatisfied. Could it be that Summit Greenfield never had any intention to develop the site if a multi-family mixed use high density project was not viable? The answer seems blatantly obvious.

Summit Greenfield’s most recent proposal is no better than the one offered a year ago. One need not analyze the details of the proposal and the glossy mailings or listen to the rhetoric and scare tactics offered by Summit Greenfield in order to understand the facts. The area surrounding the Reader’s Digest site is zoned for single family one acre lots. The site itself is presently zoned for a few one acre single family houses. No one is denying Summit Greenfield the right to fully develop the site as it bargained and paid for in its negotiations with Reader’s Digest.

Why shouldn’t everyone in the Reader’s Digest area get to create mixed use properties?

Similarly, no one is denying Summit Greenfield the right to take advantage of the generous gift already granted by the town to adapt the existing buildings for multi-tenant use. But allowing Summit Greenfield to create a high density condominium mixed use development in the center of a single family neighborhood will have a devastating impact on the value of the homes surrounding the Summit Greenfield property. If taken to the logical conclusion, each of the affected neighbors should be allowed to create mixed-use properties on their lots.

Devastating impact on town character, environment, daily lives, and for what?

The inevitable impact on the environment, our daily lives and the town character as a whole is astounding to me. And for what? The additional tax revenue is negligible and when the additional expenses to the town are considered, is there a net gain? I implore you to view this as a business transaction: plain and simple. Summit Greenfield paid market value for the site. In its negotiations with Reader’s Digest, the burdens and restrictions were most certainly discussed and accounted for in the price. Why should we, as a community, hand a total stranger a windfall when the effects are so potentially devastating to us?

I remain appreciative of your diligence in the analysis of each of the Summit Greenfield proposals.

Best regards,

David C. Djaha

Editor’s note: This letter was submitted to the New Castle Town board on January 6, 2008, with a copy to NewCastleNOW.org

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Town board, just say no!

To the Board of the Town of New Castle,
I am writing as a very concerned citizen regarding the development plan proposed by Summit Greenfield for the Reader’s Digest property.
Having lived in Chappaqua for over ten years, I have been very impressed by the controlled development of the town during a period of a red-hot residential real estate market. Indeed, the past restriction on supply will manifest itself positively as we enter this period of stable to falling prices. In my opinion, allowing for a massive increase in housing at this time will severely and permanently damage our reputation as one of the best communities in the New York metropolitan market. Nothing less is at stake.

No material benefits to the community

To our credit, we have an intelligent and motivated community that will not be misled by developers, and have a town board that will not be bought off.  The argument against this project is compelling in its simplicity: there are no material benefits to those of us that live here and own property here. A right-hand turn lane on Route 117 South and a re-lined Roaring Brook Road. Is that some sort of joke? Or providing condos for our parents to live in, or for us to speculate in buying/selling? That’s not a community-wide benefit. Or how about the claimed large tax revenue possibilities? That argument is so condescending, as if we don’t understand basic finance. The percentage gross impact is paltry on a tax base of our size; moreover the net impact, adjusting for additional services, is potentially negative.
No, there is only one single reason to grant the variance: to enrich the speculators that bought the property from Reader’s Digest. As far as I understand, a town is not obliged to a property owner to change zoning. For example, I would love to sub-divide my property, build another home, sell it, and pocket potentially a $500,000 profit or more. Or even just re-zone my land and I can sell the building lot outright. My new neighbors will also contribute $30,000 in taxes. What a deal. Unfortunately, they might have kids in the school system someday, but we can worry about that later.. Besides, the $25,000 spent per student is not necessarily marginal. Absurd? Of course, but how is the Chappaqua Crossing situation different?

Reader’s Digest entitled to additional payment if property is rezoned

The details of Summit Greenfield’s purchase contract were filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission when Reader’s Digest was still public. The deal provided that in the event of a rezoning, Reader’s Digest would receive a further contingency payment. Clearly both parties thought that might be achievable, and a reason why the sale price was what it was. The potential benefits to Summit Greenfield are undeniably enormous, not only to justify its purchase price, but to reap huge short-term profits. By my estimates, a rezoning will allow the developer to net a minimum of $35 million (present value) through the housing profits and business rents.

The property sold for what it did because of its approved current and historical zoned use. There was a clear risk to the sophisticated buyer that a large single tenant office building could be worth less. Hence the risk mitigation provided by the leaseback from Reader’s Digest. The accommodation for a variance to four tenants was a neighborly thing to do, in my opinion, and should have satisfied Summit Greenfield. But granting the current application for rezoning is tantamount to giving an economic windfall to this company with no offsetting benefits.

Why don’t we just say no to Summit Greenfield now?

Every time I see the yellow “No to Re-Zoning” signs, I keep wondering why we, as citizens, or our elected government officials, need to spend time, effort and money to preserve the status quo. Can’t we just say no? Or will the town be sued? If there is a sincere feeling that somehow this development will indeed benefit us, and we should listen, then please tell us what that benefit is. I want to hear from my town board why we are making this kind of effort to benefit one landowner in our town. I believe I would be summarily dismissed if I asked for re-zoning or tax relief, so why is Summit Greenfield being accorded such a hearing?
My opinion is to just end it. There should be no zoning change. Period. There will be lawsuits either way I am certain, so why not protect our town and stop going through this charade of scoping meetings, etc. Face the facts: we could not agree to install a traffic light in our town, even when someone was killed. How is the world can we expect to reach a conclusion, let alone a consensus on a project like Chappaqua Crossing? Or do I misunderstand the situation?

Chappaqua Crossing: no positives, all negatives
Let’s see . . . a traffic light. Positives: improve safety and traffic flow. Also, it’s reversible for a predictable amount of money. Negatives: changes the quaint nature of our downtown.
Chappaqua Crossing: Positives: None to the community as a whole. Negatives: Irreversible, unquantifiable, worsen traffic and safety.
Does the town need a reason to not grant a zoning application? I can see how changing an existing approval may result in harm to a landowner, as in confiscation. But is there a duty for a government to maximize the value of someone’s property, just because the owner thinks there is a higher and better use?
If Summit Greenfield wants to give each family of Chappaqua $3,500 for its proportionate piece of the profit from the rezoning, then that is an equation that each of us can vote on. Is that money enough for the added population? The controversy is nothing more or less than that.
In closing, after two years of this debate, I have yet to see any support for the Summit Greenfield plan, except from the developer itself. That alone must be telling. We are a small and vocal enough community that if there was some tangible benefit to this project, I would have heard about it from someone—anyone. Personally I view the Chappaqua Crossing plan as posing an immense risk to congestion, safety and property values. Please advise me of anything I am missing.
Thank you,
Robert Ladd

Robert Ladd has lived in Chappaqua for almost 11 years near the Mt. Kisco Country Club.