Topics of discussion at joint town board and planning board meeting

March 6, 2009
by Christine Yeres

In its joint work session with the planning board on Tuesday, March 3, the town board announced that it has hired the White Plains firm of Saccardi & Schiff as planning and development consultants to conduct a study of possible town uses of the Reader’s Digest property at a cost of $125,000. The firm will examine possible preservation of the Wallace auditorium, recreation field space and a place for NCCTV.

Town Board Member Robin Stout was first to speak. “No one should expect conditions [on the property] to remain the same,” he told the other board members. He characterized the commercial office space as underutilized and the developer’s proposal for residential use too dense. The issue of enforceability of age restrictions had come up several times over the last few years, he noted. “I was concerned before this economic climate and I’m even more concerned now.” He told the board that in his opinion the board ought to assume that the age restriction is not enforceable and, in that light, examine “the impact on the school system and other town services” of unrestricted residence. 

Town Supervisor Barbara Gerrard informed Stout and the board that she had asked for a legal memorandum on the subject of the enforceability of the age restriction. She encouraged other members to weigh in on the uses of the property they could imagine.

Gerrard emphasized the town board’s interest in affordable housing for volunteer workers, police, town and school employees, telling board members, “they [Summit Greenfield] should look at that more seriously.” She said she believed that age restrictions won’t hold and that market rate units would be difficult to market. She repeated that “the town would benefit tremendously” from an increase in the number of workforce and a decrease in the number of market rate units.

Town Planner Lincoln Daley suggested that development of concepts for alternative uses of the property would require modification of the draft environmental impact statement.  Gerrard agreed, “Yes, the SEQR [State Environmental Quality Review Act] process will do that. The environmental impact statement is the town’s, not Summit Greenfield’s.”

Shifting smaller matters to in-house town planner

Members of both boards discussed the possibility of shifting some planning board chores to in-house town planner Lincoln Daley to free up the planning board for more complex and “big picture” work. This shift, members of the town board suggested, might make minor alterations easier and cheaper for residents. The planning board would be free to consider what to do regarding the development of the parking lot across from Susan Lawrence and commence a comprehensive review of the town plan.

Town Supervisor Barbara Gerrard led the two boards in a discussion of whether to allow some of the planning board’s more straightforward duties to be undertaken by town staff with various kinds of expertise, especially now that the town has its own town planner, Lincoln Daley, to coordinate the work. In off-loading these duties, Gerrard told the board, she hoped to make time for the planning board to commence a long-overdue review of the town’s comprehensive plan and to consider what the town might do with the parking lot across from Susan Lawrence, much of which is town-owned property. In addition, the planning board would be free to add some duties such as reviewing tear-downs of existing houses and subsequent rebuilding that are not within the planning board’s purview now.

Gerrard used her own neighborhood, a conservation subdivision in which houses are clustered so as to leave as much continuous open space as possible, as an example of the type of case that in-house staff could handle easily. Built in a one-acre zone, her house sits on a half-acre, clustered with others homes on half-acres. Her “other half-acre” is left to stand with other undeveloped half-acres. At the birth of the conservation subdivision, strict oversight by the planning board was part of the deal. When homeowners within a conservation subdivision wish to alter their houses, said Gerrard, even, for example, by adding a simple portico or bay window or extending a deck, they must pass through planning board hands.

By shifting this and similar duties, like minor lot line adjustments and sign plan permits, away from the planning board and to the desk of Town Planner Lincoln Daley and in-house staff, the town board hopes to make it easier for residents to make such minor alterations. A cost savings to residents would result, she said, since the fee structure for in-house staff, based on their hourly salary plus a percentage to account for benefits, is less expensive than the fees passed on to applicants by the planning board’s outside legal and planning consultants.

Lester Steinman, outside counsel to the planning board, weighed in on the concept of giving over some planning board duties to in-house staff. He wondered whether shifting matters to the town staff would result in “a loss of public process, without support of counsel, and concentrate decisions in the hands of one or two people [on the town staff].” June Blanc, a member of the planning board, asked whether, if staff were to be given such powers, the planning board could be a kind of court of appeal.

What to do with parking lot across from Susan Lawrence?

A little less than a year ago, the town board invited planning board members to put their minds to development concepts for the parking lot across from Susan Lawrence. See “Town boards share responsibilities for improving downtown Chappaqua,, March 14, 2008.

The planning board liked the idea, and since then has waited for data from town staff about who owns what part of the lot. Town Administrator Gennaro Faiella told the board Tuesday night that the town owns the majority of the lot and that since the town board floated the idea to the planning board, a downtown steering committee member – aware that the town has limited funds – had suggested that the town issue a request for development, an invitation for developers to propose visions for the site that would make it less of a retail no-man’s-land.

Gerrard suggested to the planning board that they might identify desirable concepts or characteristics to put into the request for development. Planning Board Member Laurie Droughton-Matthews reminded the town board that the loss of parking space that might be associated with development of the lot would be a serious issue to address. Lincoln Daley responded that the town was looking at developing access to parking in the area behind Susan Lawrence. Blanc responded to Daley’s statement, saying that the scope of the planning board’s concern was greater than parking alone. Daley agreed that the planning board’s role is to develop broad guidelines.

Is the floor area ratio too liberal?

Planning board member Susan Carpenter told the group that she believed there was a disparity between the floor area ratio regulations and the town’s building coverage regulations. She feared that the attempt to define the floor area ratio footage requirements so that existing large houses would not be thrown into non-conformity had resulted in allowing too large houses to be constructed on too small lots.

She suggested that the relative size of surrounding houses should be taken into account when deciding how big a dwelling to permit an applicant to build. Strict dependence on the floor area ratio might lead to construction of too large a house compared to its neighbors. She posited that under current floor area ratio regulations, a 2500 square foot center hall Colonial could be torn down and replaced with a 6000 square foot center hall Colonial.

Planning Board Member Droughton Matthews responded that she believed that the planning board’s jurisdiction over site plan approval ensured against such anomalies. Gerrard suggested that lot coverage and setback regulations were additional tools in the board’s tool box that help to moderate development.

Planning Board Member Blanc reminded board members that homeowners need flexibility. “Families change,” she said, “and need more room. We don’t want to make neighborhoods static.”