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Land Use Committee Discusses BAR Reviews and Zoning Requirements

27VanderbiltRoadOn Tuesday October 23 the Scarsdale Land Use Committee met to review “priority” issues, including how best to assist the Scarsdale Board of Architectural Review (BAR) in preserving the character of Scarsdale and how to address the “bulky house issue.”

First, Scarsdale Building Inspector Frank Diodati discussed ways in which the building department may be able to help the BAR in handling the 15 to 20 applications it considers during each of its meetings. Diodati reviewed numerous BAR applications to determine challenging issues brought before the board, and matters that may be settled through building codes/requirements, rather than aesthetics or neighbors’ concerns.

Diodati suggested that some specific structures can be considered less aesthetic in nature, and could be handled by his department, including 1) fences placed in front yards; 2) porch enclosures; 3) rear decks and deck enlargements; 4) sheds; 5) dormers; and 6) pergolas, gazebos and trellises.

Jessica Kourakos, BAR chair, cautioned Diodati that these structures often aren’t easily viewed in terms of building codes. Many residents have opinions about where they’re placed, how they’ll be used, and the noise they may generate, among other issues. Rather, she suggested that simpler projects that meet basic guidelines should go to the building department and more complex construction should require BAR review. The building department, with input from the BAR, would establish those guidelines.

A prime example is solar panels. “Solar panels are a hot topic, “ Diodati said, acknowledging the need to balance Scarsdale’s interest in promoting renewable energy and considering solar panels’ general appearance. He stated that solar energy systems and residents’ use of green technology must be encouraged, and the BAR should develop a checklist of aesthetic requirements (coatings, hardware, etc.) for residents to review when considering the panels. Once the checklist was satisfied, the building department could then ensure proper installation. However, Kourakos pointed out that solar panels still should require residents’ input, as they affect sightlines and views from neighboring properties.

BAR Member Daniel Finger added, “Solar panels should be added to the building department’s responsibility; it is clear that residents want them, but there’s nothing aesthetically pleasing about them. You need to get past appearance and (focus on) a policy of green awareness.”

Kourakos then said, “If things are taken away from the BAR, such as solar panels, you should allow neighbors to comment.” She suggested that “The village should develop clear guidelines with an emphasis on aesthetics” to provide clarification and make the process less contentious. She explained that the BAR has referred to existing guidelines for solar panels (e.g., use of black grids vs. more obvious white grids) and often received technical responses affecting aesthetics that aren’t addressed by existing standards (e.g., which color panels are more efficient).

Since the technology continues to evolve and more attractive options may be available, Ron Schulhof, Scarsdale Conservation Advisory Council chair, offered to review Scarsdale’s guidelines, which are two years old. “The CAC can help update them based on the technology available today.” Diodati also reminded BAR members that they should consult the village when faced with any such technical issues they feels they can’t address, such as lot coverage, storm water and FAR.

Diodati continued by mentioning another possible means to ease the BAR’s workload – limiting BAR review to new homes, major additions and developments in the commercial district. Alternatively, the village could limit the BAR to considering only projects that are visible from the public street, on the front elevation of a home, to protect the interest of the community at large.

Kourakos responded that she appreciated the efforts to make the application review process more efficient, but the village should not limit the opportunity for neighbors to be heard. “Neighbors must be able to voice their concerns on any project if the village takes over these reviews.” In addition, she mentioned that, based on the BAR’s experience, a major renovation may not be contentious and a smaller renovation may be.

Scarsdale Trustee Jane Veron, then wrapped up the discussion by saying that the land use committee will continue to seek board members’ input on changes that may clarify land use issues and improve the application process for all involved. “Our ultimate goal is to strike the right balance between preserving individual property rights as well as protecting and preserving what is uniquely characteristic of (Scarsdale)… (We also want to) equip our land use board members with the tools they need for effective decision making.”

Planning Weighs In
To further assist the village and BAR in addressing aesthetic concerns and neighborhood character, Scarsdale Village Planner Elizabeth Marrinan and Assistant Village Manager Shelby Miller provided a comparison of Scarsdale zoning requirements and those in neighboring communities (Bronxville, Harrison, Hastings, Larchmont, Mamaroneck Town, Mamaroneck Village, Pelham Manor, Rye). Marrinan began with the caveat, “Zoning techniques rely on quantifiable criteria, not perception,” and that aesthetic issues such as “bulky houses” are difficult to regulate.

In general, Scarsdale is generally comparable to or more restrictive than other communities with regard to setbacks, height, and lot development/building coverage. In addition, Scarsdale utilizes all common zoning tools in regulating development, while other communities use some, but not all. Marrinan pointed out that while “zoning codes differ in many ways… and zoning tools are modified to reflect each community’s historical development,” her department’s report provides useful in providing context for the tools Scarsdale uses to protect neighborhood character.

For instance, with regard to front yard setbacks, which allow for light and air between structures, all municipalities measured the setback from the front property line, but only Scarsdale, Larchmont and Pelham used “front yard averaging,” which limits setbacks to the average distances of neighboring houses (to ensure a balanced streetscape). Further, Scarsdale is the only municipality that requires a greater rear yard setback for two-story structures than for one-story structures.

Scarsdale also places emphasis on side yard setbacks, requiring a minimum side yard setback for each side of a structure; Bronxville and Pelham Manor have the same requirement. Other municipalities require a minimum side yard setback for just one side and minimum total for the two sides added together. Scarsdale and Larchmont also link additional floor area to increased side yard setbacks (greater than the minimum required). In addition, in Scarsdale, FAR regulations reward developers who increase side yard setbacks by permitting additional floor area.

All surveyed municipalities regulate the maximum permitted height of single-family homes, but the method of measuring height differs. In Scarsdale, it’s more restrictive, measured from the average existing or final grade (whichever is lower) to the midpoint of the roof. Lot and building coverage requirements vary also, with municipalities relying on differing definitions of lot and coverage. Scarsdale regulates both lot and building coverage and also has more restrictive lot coverage requirements for wetlands.

While the analysis was informative, size and height continue to be important issues for Scarsdale. Marrinan reported that Scarsdale has been able to slow the number of enormous houses in Scarsdale through more restrictive zoning requirements but, “with every regulation you employ, it becomes the max,” and builders and property owners tend to use all square footage allowed, with little emphasis on open space in their designs. She also pointed out that “FAR is not a good way to regulate bulk or character. Large homes are camouflaged with good design and good landscaping.”

The land use committee and Scarsdale Mayor Dan Hochvert appreciated the analysis and, perhaps, were gratified to see that Scarsdale’s zoning standards were vigorous compared to its neighbors. However, Hochvert added, that while the report provided good food for thought, “…comparisons don’t help. We need to look at tools and develop changes to attack bulk and height.”

Laura Halligan is a local writer, editor and marketing consultant. She is principal of Pinch Hit Prose and provides communications services to entrepreneurs, small businesses and nonprofits.

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