Monday, Feb 26th

Board Enacts Six Month Building Moratorium in Scarsdale

architectsplansAfter much debate, discussion and two public hearings the Scarsdale Board of Trustees passed a resolution calling for a six-month building moratorium at their meeting on January 9, 2024. The moratorium calls for modest reductions in the allowable floor area ratio (FAR) of homes, building coverage and lot coverage and bars whole home demolitions during the six-month period. It continues to allow renovations that do not exceed the maximum size and coverage regulations and subdivisions that meet the temporary guidelines.

The original resolution, calling for a more complete halt to applications, was modified after the Board received feedback from the community. The approved version permits renovations and subdivisions but cuts back the size of homes, requiring a 5% cut in the floor area ratio, a 5% cut in building coverage and a 10% cut in total lot coverage.

During this time, the Village will consider amendments to Village land use code and processes to address home bulk, neighborhood character, flooding and tree removal. At the December 26, 2023 meeting, the Board retained BFG Planning to review the Village’s zoning code and make recommendations.

Explaining his vote in support of the moratorium, Deputy Mayor Randy Whitestone summarized many of the concerns that led the Village to this moment. He said:

“I don’t approach this vote lightly. I have spent time thinking about the impact that a temporary moratorium will have on the community – as well as the impact of not having a moratorium.

For me, the key considerations are:

-What is the most effective way to ensure that any code changes and adjustments to our land use procedures are the product of careful objectives-based analysis and subject-matter expertise. We’ve enacted various code changes in recent years, but they haven’t addressed the issues we’re discussing – and trying to solve for – in a holistic way.

-How can we ensure that our housing stock continues going forward to meet the needs of our families in ways that account for the needs of neighbors and the broad community and the character that has long defined our village in a park.

-How can we make sure village staff have the right tools at their disposal to deal with the amount and pace of development and the resulting impacts on our infrastructure.

-How do we ensure that our land use boards have the necessary interconnectivity, training, and division of responsibilities – avoiding loopholes that advantage one group over another -- to deal with the at times rapid-fire pace of applications.

Finally, what approach to local land use regulation best serves the most people, because my dedicated colleagues and I serve the interests of the entire community not any specific group, or ourselves.

Change is a constant, and Scarsdale through the years has proved adaptable, vibrant, and dynamic; just look at the rebound from Covid! But our village has also always tried to be the best version of itself, defined by a community mindset and sense of public spirit. In line with this, I believe a brief and somewhat limited “time out” – importantly, both finite in terms of time and limited in scope – gives us a chance to undertake bringing our long-run code in line with real-world outcomes and best practices to ensure that they align with the community's long-term vision. The larger point is that this is not about standing still, this is about moving forward in a thoughtful way.”

The call for a moratorium originated with Edgewood resident Jim Detmer who fought the demolition of a treasured home in “The Woods” section of Scarsdale and the plan to subdivide the property. He rallied neighbors to object and also posted a petition calling for a reconsideration of Village policy.

Commenting on the Board’s 6-1 vote to approve the moratorium Detmer said, “The moratorium allows the BOT, with the help of consultants and the community, the space and time to effectively address important local land use and building code issues. It is critical that the Board discuss, draft and enact changes in zoning and land use that reflect the values of the citizens of Scarsdale. The amended moratorium that was approved last night is an important initial compromise. Neither side got everything they wanted. Obviously, there is a lot of work to be done and a tight timeline to consider. We would do well to help and assist the Board in their effort to evaluate these problems, working towards meaningful long-term solutions that reflect the principles and values of Scarsdalians.”

The resolution was highly controversial. The Scarsdale Planning Board issued a memo against it, and builders, architects, realtors and tradesmen fought hard to prevent its passage.

The development community argued that the move would hurt Scarsdale’s economy, reduce property values, impact earnings for the construction industry, realtors and tradesmen and deter buyers and sellers. About flooding, they said that the Village’s aging infrastructure, not new construction, was the issue and that the Village should invest in upgrading the drainage.

Residents who supported the moratorium asked trustees to examine ways to limit the bulk of new homes, prevent the teardown of neighborhood homes, save trees and address flooding. Susan Douglass, a former president of the Scarsdale Forum called in to the meeting and said, “I am dismayed by the huge, oversized homes being built. A thoughtful pause on what we are trying to achieve would be helpful. I think there is a silent majority of people who want the board to take a pause to think about our infrastructure and how can we support more homes, larger homes and protect our trees. Let’s just be careful – once everything is gone we can’t put it back. Be mindful and listen and take care of our valuable resources before they are gone.”

Rain and winds may have deterred some from coming to Village Hall for the hearing, but there was a sizable contingent of builders, architects, realtors and an engineer at Village Hall and more commented via Zoom. Many echoed what they said at the December 19 hearing, but here is a sampling of their remarks. You can watch a recording of the entire hearing at Scarsdale.com.

Rob Frangione an engineer from CT said, “(The moratorium) will do nothing to stop the flooding in town. Some are blaming rapid overdevelopment. In Scarsdale all runoff needs to be considered. After development there is less runoff than before. I believe it’s a problem with the Village’s drainage system – the Village needs to invest in its drainage infrastructure. It is easy to blame the drainage woes on development.”

Architect Roz Young said she “supports code review but not a moratorium.” She asked a series of questions about which rules would apply to which projects and was told that an FAQ from the Building Department would be posted to answer those questions.
Bana Choura, also a local architect, said, “I still object to the moratorium.” She said that the “5% reduction in the FAR could mean the loss of 200 square feet, or an extra bedroom on homes on smaller lots.”

Boning Liu of 45 Jefferson who is an engineer said, “Halting development alone may not address flooding. We need a comprehensive drainage plan to address climate change. Consider the bigger picture.”

Raj Krishnan, a local developer and physician said, “My wife and I have grown to be aware of socially conscious building. We are builders and Scarsdale has offered a wonderful opportunity to do this. We are subdividing to enhance the texture and diversity of Scarsdale. We all live in a subdivision. The moratorium is a penalty against builders and the public and those who want to move here. People want to come here and live in new houses. It would be a travesty to stop development in Scarsdale. These new houses increase the revenues. Let’s take those funds and put them into infrastructure improvements.”

Lee Handler, a builder who now lives at 17 Morris Lane said, “I used to live at 14 Lebanon Road and I had a sump pump. I got a violation notice from the Village – I put in a dry well and nothing was wet after that. It solved my water problem. I understand that people don’t want to spend money on things you can’t see. There is no water issue in the homes that I build. If your house doesn’t have an adequate draining system you are going to have a water problem.If you implement the 5% reduction you are going to devastate Edgewood. The housing values are going down. I think the Village should offer incentives to put in drainage.”

Builder Eilon Amidor said, “It is a bad mistake to vote on the moratorium. Most of the speakers who came today were mostly against the moratorium. A moratorium can devastate the Scarsdale real estate. Why don’t we make a referendum. It is a big change to just be voted on by the Trustees. You are talking about losing half a billion in real estate. This needs to be voted on by the whole Village of Scarsdale. Only 100 people started the movement. Make it to the entire Village and I am sure you are going to find out that people want not to lose money. Every new construction takes care of water. If you deem a house is historical you can allow people to build it the same way – the same material. No reason to cause more economical hardship. People who want to sell their houses are going to have a hard time selling it.”

Speaking in support of the moratorium Maura Lee said, “I think there is a strong majority who are not speaking because it’s not in their backyard. Many are dismayed by the building that is going on. The green space that we’re taking away, cannot be good. I have lived in Scarsdale my whole life. We are knocking down Scarsdale and building many of the same homes and I do support the moratorium.”

Jeff Wang of Ferncliff Road said, “In the past few years three new houses were built around my house. One is elevated. A huge house replaced a small house. They pump water out of their basement, down their driveway to a small drain on my street and flooded the street and my basement. Everybody is a victim.The building department did not make sure that the water was properly drained.”

Anne Hintermeister felt that the resolution did not go far enough. She said, “Subdivision applications were wisely included in the initial moratorium resolution. “Rampant subdividing,” to quote the Scarsdale Inquirer editorial supporting the first draft, was among the concerns that led to the proposed moratorium. Building two houses in a lot previously occupied by a single house could double the negative “pervasive adverse impacts” described in the moratorium resolution—specifically large-scale tree removal, elimination of permeable surfaces, bulk, and loss of neighborhood character.

So I was surprised to see that the moratorium was revised to allow subdivision applications to continue subject only to the new FAR and coverage haircuts devised by the Board on each of the new houses in the subdivided property.

Even if the FAR and coverage “haircuts” in the new draft are sufficient to protect the community from pervasive adverse impacts from new and remodeled houses generally, why would you assume that replacing a home with two compliant houses will have no greater negative impact on stormwater, on tree removal, on neighborhood character?

The stakes are high. Pausing subdivision applications does not inconvenience residents. Pause them while the Board and the land use officials and the consultant devise a carefully considered plan to address them, including possible changes to the multiple board review process that the land use Chairs discussed at a work session last month.”

Ultimately, the resolution passed, with six trustees in favor and one opposed.

Trustee Ken Mazer said, "The first draft of the proposal limited all construction for six months. After back and forth with residents and people in the industry I believe a reasonable compromise has been reached to give us space to craft a land use policy that reflects current land use needs."

Explaining her vote, Trustee Dara Gruenberg said, "We are not going to make everyone happy. But I think ultimately we have found something that I feel comfortable voting in support of that is balanaced. I do feel comfortable because we have worked with land use experts and our village professionals on this moratorium proposal and we have a land use consultant lined up who is already working."

Trustee Karen Brew said, "This has been a difficult debate. I do think that as trustees we represent the entire community. And we have to vote in their interest. I think there are economic consequences that everyone suffers. I think a six month pause on the rapid building will allow us to make some modifications to do what’s best for the entire community so that the residents don’t bear the cost for development."

Trustee Jeremy Gans was the sole no vote and explained, “I agree a review is needed but I don’t support a moratorium. Our job is to set policy. In the past we have relied on consultants and land use board and staff. We have not engaged with staff on these questions. The outside consultant has not weighed in. Our planning board advised against it. Our zoning board chair wrote a memo advising against it. No board has been asked to comment. This is temporary it is not permanent. During the six-month period we will hear from consultants and land use boards and I wish that had happened before.”

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