Planning Board hosts Q & A regarding Reader’s Digest property development

By Ann Marie Fallon
November 23, 2007

Tuesday night, November 20, the town of New Castle Planning Board meeting at Town Hall was packed.

The planning board has pending before it the application of Summit Greenfield, owners of the former Reader’s Digest property, for a zoning change that would allow the developers unrestricted use of the commercial space on the property and permit expanded residential use. Robert Anesi, chairman of the planning board, stated at the onset of Tuesday’s meeting that the board’s role at this point in the application process is to consider the project and make recommendations or comments about the proposal to the town board. The meeting followed a question and answer format.

Prior to the meeting, both Summit Greenfield and the community organization, which opposes the developers proposal for the site, had sent out e-mails encouraging attendance at this meeting. Over 60 people answered the call to action. In addition, Summit Greenfield contacted in person or made presentations to several organizations in town, including the ambulance corps, the library and its board members and the Chappaqua Fire Department. 

Meet and greet by Summit Greenfield

Greg O’Brien, an associate with Summit Greenfield, greeted many attendees as they entered the second floor entrance to town hall. He explained that Summit Greenfield wanted to keep people updated on the project and asked if they wanted to supply their name and telephone number to receive such information from the developer. He stated that the project was a good one, and that it was the desire of the company to answer questions as they come up.

The attendees represented both sides of the issue. Peter and Chris Milano of Bedford came because “we have been following this project since we became aware of it in 2006.  We wanted to come and hear what was going to be said. We live in a very large home, and would consider moving into a new residence [at Chappaqua Crossing] if we thought it would meet our needs.”

Vera Bruno, a New Castle resident and the owner of Howe and Sibley Real Estate in Chappaqua, stated “the developers bought it as a commercial property and it should remain a commercial property.”

Questions from planning board

Chairman Anesi asked the applicants if the development was in reasonable proximity to community services and shopping. He compared it with the North Greeley project, Chestnut Oaks. Andy Tung, engineer for the project, admitted that the Chappaqua Crossing development was not within walking distance of the town. However, he pointed out, it technically meets the letter of the law by being within one half mile of an existing business district—the business district on the Reader’s Digest property. In addition, he believes it satisfies the spirit of the law by being within reasonable proximity to the downtown business district through driving and a jitney service.

Next the chairman asked whether protection of nearby neighborhoods from the proposed development had been sufficiently considered. Tung answered that the residential development would not exceed the height of the residences that it would neighbor. The three story structures would be built in a sloped area so their height would not exceed that of the two-story residences on Cowdin Lane.

Planning Board member Laurie Droughton Matthews asked what the risks were if the proposed plan did not receive approval, and what alternatives the developers had.  Stephen Kass, Summit Greenfield’s New York legal counsel from Carter, Ledyard & Millburn, stated that the site plan takes the zoning as it is written and argued that no board can override “as of right” density.

Board member Susan Carpenter asked Kass: “Wouldn’t [the developer] have to go to the zoning board who could impose conditions on approval of additional tenants and one of the conditions of that approval could be no expansion?”  Kass insisted that “ ‘as of right’ Summit Greenfield could expand the commercial space by 300,000 to 400,000 square feet.”  Kass further opined that he does not believe the four tenant restriction would survive review. Kass explained that the developer would like to make the property work for the community with a mix of commercial and residential use that would increase tax revenue, have minimal demand on services, in particular the schools, and deal with traffic concerns.

Traffic questions with no real answers

Traffic congestion was another issue discussed at length by both the board and attendees. New Castle resident Larry Ackman stated that this project is a potential disaster with no limit on the number of people traveling to the site. Currently, he pointed out, there is more than a half mile of traffic on Bedford Road waiting to make a left turn onto Roaring Brook.
The developers responded that they do not have a magic bullet for the traffic problem. Kass explained that they intended to do a large number of traffic impact studies not limited to the immediate site. The studies will analyze not only peak a.m. and p.m. traffic but Saturday traffic as well. Kass represented that Summit Greenfield is prepared to utilize their own property to create a right turn lane from the southbound lane of Bedford Road onto Roaring Brook Road and create a left turn lane into the high school. The Summit Greenfield team suggested a jitney service as a possible mitigation to traffic, however they were not able to cite any other similar residential developments with that service to judge its functionality. 

Pricing of housing units

The housing units, which would be available three to four years from now under the best case scenario, would cost $700K for a condo unit, and town houses would run in excess of $1 million. The workforce affordable housing units, 34 of the 278 units proposed, would each cost approximately $234K, and senior affordable units would be priced at $181K. These units would require that applicants meet Westchester County income guidelines, which at present provide for a cap of $62K in annual income for two people and $77K in annual income for a family of four.

Enforceability of the over 55 age restriction

The enforceability of the over 55 age restriction was a question asked repeatedly throughout the evening. Local counsel to Summit Greenfield,  John Marwell of Mt. Kisco’s Shamberg, Marwell Davis & Hollis, stated that he and Kass had submitted legal memorandum to the town board and its attorneys on this question and they “are confident in their basis.”  He noted, there are sometimes small “wrinkles” in how things work out under Housing and Urban Development procedures following the death of a deed holder, but added that there are many facilities around the country that are structured this way.  Since the restriction would be not only on the deed of the property but also on the certificate of occupancy, enforcement of this issue would fall on the homeowners’ association, as well as on the town. Some in attendance questioned the feasibility of this enforcement and the cost to the town to enforce such a restriction.

Attempts to market the commercial property as currently zoned

When the board asked if the developer has been actively been searching for tenants to fill the commercial space as it is presently zoned for four commercial tenants, Kass reported that they have employed the services of Cushman Wakefield to aggressively market the vacant commercial space. He mentioned that the office campus model, which was popular years ago, has changed. It is for this reason that they are seeking relief from the four tenant restriction. They would like to be able to offer tenants smaller spaces of 5000-10,000 square feet. Robert Lewis, a Chappaqua resident, asked if there were specifics tenants that they were looking to secure, to which they replied, no.

Kass, on behalf of his client, argued in summation that the proposal is an economically productive plan for the town because it will double the tax revenue coming to the town from the Reader’s Digest property and achieve this without increasing school enrollment in any substantial way. In addition, the plan will provide affordable senior and workforce housing.

Summit Greenfield estimates that the property will generate an additional $1.4 million in tax revenue. However, when asked by a reporter what assessed value the developer had placed on the property to arrive at that number, Kass responded that the revenue was a conservative estimate and that he could not provide the actual assessed value assigned to the property for that calculation.