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What Happened to the Reservoir?

Perhaps you have noticed a large concrete circular structure under construction on Ardsley Road. What is it, and what was there before? According to, the site was previously home to the Metz Reservoir, which was an open reservoir, constructed in 1904.

The reservoir is part of the United Water New Rochelle, Inc. (UWNR) distribution system and is the primary source of water storage for 12 Westchester County municipalities, including several sections which are located in the Town of Greenburgh.

On January 5, 2006, the EPA enacted a rule to protect public health against Cryptosporidium bacteria, Guardia and other pathogenic microorganisms in drinking water from open reservoirs.

The rule requires public water systems that rely on open reservoirs to either enclose the reservoir or to treat the water being discharged to inactivate potential microorganisms. All public water systems were required to be in compliance by April 1, 2009 or to be on a schedule to meet the deadline. United Water’s decision to replace the open reservoir with a covered, ground level, water storage tank was made in response to safety issues and concerns from the Department of Homeland Security about open reservoirs in residential neighborhoods.

However, many zoning regulations were bypassed in the planning and construction of the “flying saucer”, as some neighbors call it.  Below find a letter from Edgemont resident Robert Bernstein outlining the process:

(From Robert Bernstein)

As a local civic leader, I have come across many outrageous situations involving the Town of Greenburgh, but none seems to be more exasperating than the current situation involving the federally required renovation of the four-acre Metz Reservoir site along Ardsley Road across from the Greenville Elementary School.

This past January, Town officials allowed United Water of New Rochelle, Inc., the utility which owns the reservoir, to replace it with a massive concrete-covered multimillion gallon storage tank. Such action was in direct violation of the Town’s zoning code requiring the utility to first obtain a Special Permit from the Town Board -- required for all construction projects by utilities in residential neighborhoods -- which not only requires notice to all property owners within 500 feet of the site, but a public hearing to consider imposing  “such conditions as the Town Board may deem appropriate” for the protection of adjoining properties and the character of the neighborhood.  

The Special Permit requirement is mandatory and may not be waived. So, the first thing Town officials did for United Water was strip the residents of their right to notice and a public hearing.  

In addition, Town officials waived site plan approval which allowed the utility to avoid having to present a site plan for approval by the Town’s planning board, which also would have required notice to the neighborhood.  The waiver required a written finding by the building inspector, the town engineer and the “planning board secretary” -- also known as the Commissioner of Community Development and Conservation -- that the structure being built will not “substantially modify the site” and “will not in any other way have a substantial impact on the character or environment of the surrounding area.”   

It’s not clear how such a finding could ever have been made. The project required the four-acre site to be removed of all trees and vegetation making it look like what residents there call a “lunar landscape,” a new covered structure was being built – residents told the town board it looked like a huge “flying saucer” -- and the installation of a new drainage system -- all changes which do “substantially modify the site.”   

And the clear-cutting of the four-acre lot obviously had a substantial impact upon the character and environment of the surrounding area. Just ask any of the neighbors in Edgemont who live there.  Or ask the kids who play in Greenville’s playgrounds and playing fields which overlook it. Or just drive by. The condition is plainly visible from the road.  

But it gets worse. Town officials also waived a steep slope permit. The Town Code requires planning board approval prior to disturbance of any excessively steep slopes, defined in the code as greater than 35 degrees.  A waiver may only be granted upon finding of an “emergency.”  The town code defines emergency as a “condition creating imminent danger to public safety.”  However, no such condition existed.  

Finally, the Town ignored tree permit requirements. The Town Code requires a permit to remove any trees of six inches of diameter or more on property of one acre or more, and further requires that notice with a right of appeal be given to adjoining property owners .  Here, the only notice residents received was the noise of all existing trees and vegetation being removed. 

Once construction began, neighbors objected to the huge eyesore that had been created in their backyards. Town Supervisor Paul Feiner was contacted; neighbors also contacted me as ECC president. 

On Tuesday, May 5, a meeting was held with town officials, residents and officials from United Water. The meeting was held at the Greenville School. Town officials present included Feiner and council members Francis Sheehan, Sonja Brown and Diana Juettner, as well as  Commissioner of Community Development and Conservation, Thomas Madden.  Town clerk Judith Beville was there as well, but even though this was an officially noticed town board meeting, she took no notes. Thus, no minutes were kept. 

At the meeting, neighbors wanted to know why they were never notified about the project, and Madden admitted that he had signed off on the waiver for site plan approval. However, he wouldn’t say why.  Nor would he agree to release the waiver or post it on the town’s website. 

Feiner then admitted to the residents that the Town had made a mistake, and asked them to “trust” him, town staff and United Water to make things right. A request to rescind the site plan waiver was rejected by Feiner and other town officials on the ground that if residents now insisted on the oversight to which they were entitled, United Water wouldn’t do any landscaping before the end of the planting season in June – which meant residents would have to live with the lunar landscape in their backyards until the next planting season.

In an email dated May 6, Feiner recommended to Madden that “we should obtain a binding agreement from United Water” for, among other things, tree plantings, a bond to guarantee replacement of trees if they die, an agreement to plant some trees on people’s properties if there are “holes in the landscaping plan,” and to hold off issuing a “Certificate of Occupancy” – his words -- until the town board signs off on the project, following a “walk through” with United Water, residents and the town board.  Residents were copied on the email. 

On Sunday evening, May 10, Feiner sent a further email to residents saying that Madden was working on “several documents” which would be ready to be shown to them on “Monday or Tuesday.”

On Tuesday, May 12, the Town responded to a FOIL request for a copy of the Site Plan Exemption. It included a single page site plan exemption form, dated January 26, 2009, signed by Madden, John Lucido, the building inspector, and Michael Lepre, the town engineer. However, it also included a 13-page memo, purportedly also dated “January 26, 2009,” which explained the reasons for the waiver and listed certain “conditions” which would have to be met before the Town would issue a “Certificate of Completion” for the project. 

If not for the date, the January 26 memo would appear to have been one of the documents created by Madden that weekend. Among other things, it included almost verbatim the various “recommendations” that Feiner had asked Madden to implement on May 6 as part of a new “binding agreement” with United Water. The memo also made representations about various engineering studies that were supposedly conducted, along with analyses of landscaping plans. 

Various engineering reviews and reviews of landscaping plans were mentioned in the “January 26” memo in order to show that efforts to mitigate the substantial environmental harm posed by the project were considered and implemented. However, it didn’t dawn on the authors of the “January 26” memo that if remedial measures were required, and they evidently were, then there was never any legitimate basis for granting the site plan waiver in the first place.  

The authors of the “January 26” memo also failed to take into account their collective failure to require United Water to get a Special Permit from the Town Board, as the zoning  code required.  They also overlooked that because a Special Permit was required, the three town officials who granted the waiver didn’t have the legal authority to do so – only the Town Board could do it. 

On Wednesday, May 13, Feiner issued a press release advising Edgemont residents that Madden had prepared a memo “answering questions” that residents may have about the Metz reservoir project. To get the memo, however, residents had to furnish Feiner their email address. The Town refused to post the memo on the Town’s website. Madden also refused to furnish a copy to me personally.

Madden’s May 12 question-and-answer document relied on his purported “January 26” memo, which was attached, along with the site plan waiver document.  Residents who saw the documents could easily see for themselves that content in the January 26, 2009 memo came out of their May 5 meeting with Town officials. Furthermore, no other documents that Madden supposedly was working on that weekend in response to residents concerns and Feiner’s email were ever sent to them.  

Depending on motive, falsifying town documents could be a crime under New York’s penal code prohibiting the falsification of business records.

Residents are now demanding an immediate independent engineering review of the entire site -- something they would have been entitled to had the special permit procedure been followed and site plan approval not been waived. There’s been no response so far from Town. 

But all this begs the questions:  why would the Town grant these exemptions in the first place, violate the town code requiring town board approval, and then, when called on it, instead of simply apologizing for a mistake, appear to have deliberately falsified town records to make it appear as if substantial mitigating issues were considered when they weren’t considered -- and if they had been considered, there would have been no legal basis for an exemption.

Tax Grievances Up 165% Over Last Year

In 2008, 227 Scarsdale residents filed property assessment grievances with Village Hall. This year, more than twice that many homeowners lodged complaints about their taxes. Home values have declined in Scarsdale in the last year, by an average of 15 percent. At the same time, real estate taxes have gone up. That’s why 596 homeowners asked the Village this year to reassess the market values of their homes, a 163 percent increase over the number of requests made last year.

Only about 10 percent of grievances resulted in decreased assessments, said Al Gatta, the Village Manager. As a result, Scarsdale has lost $250,000 in assessed value. But because the Village taxes property at a rate of $204.92 per $1,000 of assessed value, the reductions only yielded a loss of $51,000 in tax revenue for next year.  On average, residents who were successful in their appeals will save about $1,000 per year.

In light of the $29 million collected last year in property taxes, $51,000 is a negligible setback. But as more grievances are filed — as Gatta said he expects in the coming year — the Village will be left with a tough choice.

“You have to increase the tax rate or cut services,” said Gatta.

Those filing grievances may face an obstacle in a New York State legislation that allows the village to use home valuations from June, 2008, prior to the market decline, so that current valuations are based on last year’s inflated values.  Inconsistencies between seemingly similar houses also abound. Because there has not been a Village-wide reevaluation in over 30 years, some homes are grandfathered at very low market values. But for comparable houses that have undergone construction, or seen new owners, rates are far higher.

Annual tax rates are determined by the Village based on the full market value of the home, a fixed percentage provided by the state, and the village tax rate.  A home worth $1.5 million, for instance, would be multiplied by the state’s equalization rate of 1.58 percent to yield an assessed value of $24,600. At an overall tax rate of 1210 per $1,000, that amounts to a property tax of $29,766 for village, county and school taxes.

Homeowners can grieve only the full market value — in the example above, $1.5 million — that appears on Village records. One local attorney reports that he handled 28% more grievances compared to the same period last year. Valuations are available at the assessors office in the Village Hall, where homeowners can check neighboring or comparable houses before filing grievances.

Though Gatta said that residents are “very emotional” and that the assessors office is “very busy,” tax collections remain robust in Scarsdale. So far, over 99 percent of revenue has been collected.

Too Smart to Fail

Scarsdale’s own journalist and author Andrew Ross Sorkin returned to town last night and was welcomed by an overflowing crowd at the Scarsdale Library.  Sorkin was invited by the Friends of the Library to discuss his best-selling book, “Too Big To Fail” which chronicles the events and the players in the financial crisis that hit the news in September 2008. He greeted the community as well as Peter Haupt, his fifth grade teacher from the Fox Meadow School, and David Greene, who served as his Senior Options Advisor at SHS in 1995.  He credited Mr. Greene with getting him started on his successful career by helping him to strategize on how he could get a spot at the NY Times for his Senior Option. Those five weeks shaped his life as he ultimately worked at the Times after college and is now their Mergers and Acquisitions Reporter as well as the Editor of the Time’s online financial blog, DealBook.  He had just come from a taping of an interview with Jon Stewart at the Daily Show.  Stewart opened by asking the youthful Sorkin his age and when Sorkin told him he was 32, Stewart said, “where do you keep yourself? In a vegetable crisper?”  At 624 pages, Stewart also claimed the book should be called “Too Big To Read,” so fortunately for us, Sorkin was on hand to give us the highlights. Watch the Stewart spot here.

{mosimage}Sorkin explained that the book was based on over 200 interviews and 800 hours of conversations with bank CEO’s, government officials, and regulators.  Modeled on the movie “Crash”, he develops individual story lines simultaneously and has the plot lines converge in the end.  Rather than pass judgment on people or events, he has chronicled what happened and leaves the reader to decide who are the heroes and who are the villains. Though he began his research by asking for traditional interviews, he quickly realized that in order to get the real story he would have to permit the bankers to speak off the record. And once he did, vivid, detailed stories of the crisis and bailout emerged.  Those involved were eager to reconstruct the events as they felt these historic times should be studied and remembered.

Sorkin revealed a few surprises uncovered during his research.  Though the public first heard of the impending crisis in September 2008, conversations with bankers showed that they knew of the impending collapse as early as the previous spring and indeed the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) plan had been drafted in April, 2008.  Though the government was not sounding alarms at the time, the crisis was quietly emerging.  

Was the bailout necessary? According to Sorkin, after the collapse of Lehmann Brothers Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and General Electric were at risk of failing within days. The government bailed out AIG because they had insured many of the banks on their investment in toxic assets, and with that bailout money AIG was able to make good on these claims, helping the bank counterparties, which in turn helped to shore up stability and confidence.  If General Electric defaulted, Sorkin told the audience the crisis would have moved from Wall Street to Main Street as smaller companies would not have been able to meet their payrolls.  Who was at fault? According to Sorkin though we blame the players on Wall Street for creating the crisis, these are the same people who in the end saved the country from financial collapse.

Has anything changed? Unfortunately not. In his opinion, new regulations have not been passed and the banks are back to their old ways.  Sorkin suggests that the banks are now paying back the bailout funds they received, not because it is the best move for the financial system, but simply because it will allow them to pay out bigger bonuses to valued employees.  Sorkin feels that one way to prevent a reoccurrence of the crisis would be to raise capital requirements and require banks to hold larger reserve funds. Though this would create greater stability and reduce the risk of their default, it would prevent them from distributing big bonuses and limit their ability to make loans.

Are we out of the woods? Unfortunately the answer to that question was “no” again.  He told the audience that he watches a key employment statistic as a bell weather and notes that the “average hours worked per week” in the U.S. now stands at only 33 hours.   Before companies will hire, he believes they will increase the hours of current employees and right now the picture looks grim.

Sorkin has written a book that it is sophisticated enough for his Dad, an anti-trust lawyer, but accessible to his Mother who is a playwright. Though it deals with complex financial terminology, the book also delves into the lives of high-flying bankers, exploring their lifestyles, motivations, petty jealousies and personal relationships that influenced their actions.

An impressive, confident well-versed speaker, Sorkin claimed that he was only a “meager journalist.” But his performance last night displayed his brilliant insights into extremely complex issues.  If he is the product of a Scarsdale education, we can all feel good about what our schools have to offer.

Breakfast with Santa

The Scarsdale Village Recreation Department and the Chamber of Commerce sponsored breakfast with Santa on Saturday morning December 11th, and fun was had by all. Over 130 children signed up to come to Scarsdale High School to meet Santa and have their photos taken with him.  Also on hand was Lange’s with a complimentary pancake breakfast and coffee. Children were kept busy creating gingerbread houses with crafts projects supplied by the Recreation Department.

Thanks to Dan Walczewski at the Recreation Department, Langes and the Chamber of Commerce for hosting a successful event.





Noreen Fisher and Helene Orce Honored

Two outstanding volunteers were honored by the Scarsdale Teen Center on Sunday December 6, 2009. The Scarsdale High School cafeteria was packed with well-wishers, on hand to celebrate Noreen Fisher and Helene Orce. Proclamations by State and Village officials were made and family members shared perspectives on contributions made to the community by Noreen and Helene. Two members of the Teen Board presented plaques to the honorees. Delicious food and beautiful decorations donated by local merchants helped make the event a wonderful opportunity to acknowledge the contributions of Noreen and Helene.