Reader’s Digest developer submits revised DEIS to New Castle

April 3, 2009
by Christine Yeres

New Castle Town Supervisor Barbara Gerrard last spoke at length about the board’s position on Summit Greenfield’s request for rezoning of the 118-acre Reader’s Digest property at a Roundtable hosted by the League of Women Voters on Thursday, March 26.

Gerrard told an audience of about 60 residents that Developer Summit Greenfield had returned with a second proposal for a mixture of commercial and residential use of the 118-acre property and was working to complete a draft environmental impact statement, since delivered in print form. Despite requests by the town board, the developer has refused to provide a disc or electronic version of the DEIS. 

“The applicant [developer Summit Greenfield] has never talked to us about anything,” Gerrard confided to her audience. “And it’s strange, because they can’t do what they want without a zoning change, which means talking to the town board. At some point they must come to us and say ‘OK, we want a zoning change; what do you want?’”

What the board does and doesn’t want

The town’s wish list includes some ball field space, the Wallace auditorium as performance space plus a new residence for NCCTV’s studios, which have always shared quarters with the high school video department. Whatever additional or expanded uses of the property, Gerrard’s preference is to make do with existing parking. Gerrard said that she has told the developer’s attorneys that New Castle doesn’t have gated communities and doesn’t want one. “We’re an open and accepting community,” she said, and [a development] with a guard does not suit us.” She said to the audience, “I would like to know from you what your thoughts are.” 

A member of the audience immediately asked, “Why do we have to accommodate [the developer] with a zoning change when they knew what they were getting [when they purchased the property]? Gerrard did not answer the question directly, but responded, “The number of units they’re asking for, they know that’s not going to happen. However,” she continued, “we do want workforce housing; [in the developer’s proposal] there’s very little of that, but [there are] lots of expensive condos.”  The supervisor had spelled out in a work session two weeks prior that the board would prefer to see a plan with more workforce and fewer market rate dwellings. 

Referring back to the town’s use of the property, a member of the audience suggested that, given the current economy, it would be unwise to take any property that generates taxes off the tax rolls by converting it to town ownership. 

Another person asked why the town should spend money on consultants to study the Digest property for municipal uses. Gerrard responded that whatever might happen with the property would have a great impact on the town. If the town’s only interest had been in generating tax revenue, the board might have accepted the developer’s original plan to build 348 condominium units on the property. 

Instead, Gerrard explained, the board wants to be proactive by coming up with a set of uses that will benefit the community, hence the consultants.  From the audience, Pam Thornton, director of the Chappaqua Library, told Gerrard, “We would love to keep the [Wallace] theatre open for library programs,” an interest Gerrard and the board share.

The four-tenant restriction

“To the extent that solid commercial use can be made of [the Reader’s Digest property], that’s good,” Gerrard said, adding that the board is questioning the feasibility of the four-tenant restriction on the developer. The zoning at the property has already been altered to permit four tenants in addition to Reader’s Digest, Summit’s largest tenant. The tenants – three in place, with one close to signing on – will max out the limit, but not occupy all the commercial space available. “The board is in favor of commercial development at that property,” she declared, “but if you cap them at four [tenants], they have a better chance of winning their [tax] certiorari.” 

That certiorari proceeding, currently pending, is the result of a tax grievance from June 2008 in which Summit Greenfield asked for a reduction in its assessed value from the current $11,132,800 to $4,839,000. The developer had been granted a reduction in a 2005 grievance and certiorari proceeding that brought its assessed value from $18,500,000 to the current $11,132,800. If the goal is to keep a healthy commercial tax base, it might be wiser, Gerrard suggested, for the board to think in terms of “how much use” rather than “how many tenants,” implying that the board has a flexible outlook on the developer’s request for removal of the cap.