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Village Considers Best Diet to Reduce Bulk

BriteAvenueEvery day, more residents are becoming concerned with increased bulk in Scarsdale. No, it’s not the kind that an Equinox membership can fix; it’s the ever-expanding crop of new single-family homes and major additions that are making residents feel crowded. And, like that unwanted weight gain, it’ll take a while to shed the excess mass. The question is, how to pare down?

Several years ago, the village held land use committee meetings to address various issues, notably the appearance of bulk related to new construction. Since then, staff have researched what Scarsdale could and should consider in curbing the size of so-called McMansions, and have surveyed other municipalities to learn more about best practices. When comparing the village zoning code to its peer communities’ regulations, staff confirmed that Scarsdale already was utilizing all tools available to address the issue, and that it was comparable to or a bit more restrictive in its zoning requirements.

So, how to address the public’s concerns? Fast forward to the establishment of the Scarsdale Bulk Review Subcommittee, which was asked to dive deeper and consider how to limit the size of homes being built throughout this “village in a park.” Comprised of members of the planning board, zoning board of appeals, and board of architectural review (BAR) – the committee offers insights and experience of volunteers who routinely deal with the issue when working with builders and property owners.

On Tuesday, the village trustees listened to the subcommittee’s recommendations. Scarsdale Village Planner Liz Marrinan began the discussion by stating, “The bulk issue has been around in this village for decades… In 2000, we adopted a map change… to make the zoning requirements a little more restrictive and help prevent subdivisions... In 2002… we (adopted) FAR regulations for single family homes… for those who do not know, it’s the ratio of the floor area of your structure to your lot size.” She continued, “In 2007… we found that, while it hadn’t totally limited large houses from being built, it brought down the trend of ever, ever, ever expanding (structures). It did… level things out. “

Marrinan went on to say that the village has continued to review and tweak village regulations to control bulk, but that it “is very difficult to define. It’s often in the eye of the beholder… When we did the initial FAR study, we were surprised to find that big wasn’t necessarily bad. Large houses with a lot of FAR (often appeared smaller) from the street (due to) the design or the landscaping, or what have you. What was important was design, function, and those sorts of things to help mask it.” She asserted, “That is the issue with using a zoning tool based on quantitative data to address a qualitative issue.”

In introducing the committee’s recommendations, Marrinan explained that the group examined incremental changes that would result in a gradual reduction in bulk. “I can pretty much guarantee, as a planner, that if you make any of these changes tomorrow… you’re not going to see any difference… You’re still going to get complaints about bulk,” she said. “But, over time, as more homes and additions are built, you will see a gradual reduction.”

Scarsdale Zoning Board of Appeals Chairman Jeffrey Watiker, who also serves on the bulk subcommittee, then reviewed the five suggested zoning techniques that may mitigate bulk. “One of the things we tried to do, in addition to being incremental, (was) to focus on the land use controls that directly address the problem that’s being looked at. So, if the buildings seem too high, let’s look at the height requirement. If the buildings look like they’re too bulky, we have a rule that’s written to address bulk; let’s look at that.” He continued, “I think you’ll find that the recommendations are targeted not only to be incremental, but they’re targeted at precisely what we’re trying to fix.”

Specifically, the committee proposes:

• Reduce the roof height limit from 35 feet to 32 feet (as measured from middle of roofline) to address perception that homes are “getting too tall.” Since the measure is taken at the middle of the roofline (an industry standard) a structure may have sections that rise higher than 32 feet, but the committee believes that, in theory, the highest houses would be pulled down a bit.

• Lower the FAR by 5 percent by reducing the side yard setback bonus by 30 percent to address bulk. This approach is tailored to those homes that would qualify for the setback bonus -- typically the largest new-construction homes on the largest lots (e.g., many houses in Edgewood are on much smaller lots that do not qualify for the side yard setback bonus).

• Improve the FAR law to allow additions to an existing home in a location other than the back of the structure. Currently, additions must be built in the back of houses to limit a bulky appearance from the street. However, if there’s not sufficient space in the backyard to accommodate an addition, a homeowner may opt to knock down the structure and build a new, larger home. By providing more flexibility for updates and modifications, the committee hopes to discourage teardowns (and bulky new builds) throughout the village.

• Amend the “garage rule” to limit the garage exemption to the ground floor of the structure, excluding any space above. The tweak would allow for any living space on the second floor to be properly considered with regard to FAR, thereby reducing space elsewhere on the property.

• Require homeowners who wish to build very large homes (more than 15,000 square feet) on the largest lots (greater than 1.5 acres) to file a site plan review with the village planning board. Currently, homeowners typically deal with the zoning board of appeals, which is not positioned to perform thorough reviews.

Other methods considered but ultimately rejected by the committee for implementation at this time were:

• Limiting house size by linking height to setback, which would be difficult to implement due to numerous possible variances;

• Increasing the reduction of FAR, which would increase the number of nonconforming properties throughout the village, and, possibly, adversely affect the marketability of homes or practical needs of homeowners; and

• Eliminating the garage setback, which could be seen as a penalty for owning cars and/or needing extra storage space.

Looks Often Are Everything
Members of the BAR often look beyond regulations and code to simple aesthetics of a property. There are practical ways to mask bulk, namely design and landscaping.

A significant problem is clear cutting that often accompanies new construction. In addition to the negative environmental impact of eliminating mature trees and other plantings, replanting efforts typically don’t match or effectively replace landscaping that has been razed. And, in the absence of large trees, bulk is painfully visible.

While the BAR often effectively collaborates with homeowners to improve the appearance of new homes and additions, and reduce the appearance of bulk, the rules by which the board operates are “fairly loose.” Dan Steinberg, one of its members, suggested that the village “explore ways of giving greater structure to the BAR, which would allow it to be more forceful in controlling bulk.” He also noted that the committee looked at how Scarsdale calculates lot coverage and how it affects the appearance of various homes. Because some underground items are not included in FAR, they may be included in new construction more often and will affect what can be planted above ground. This restricts replanting and overall appearance of the property.

“We also talked about the possibility of financial incentives or tax abatements to discourage the tear down of older homes in some of our older sections of the community,” Finger added. “Generally, we discovered that, to be able to provide some kind of tax abatement to encourage builders to renovate… would require legislation in Albany… We also (discussed) the possibility of an historic landmark district. It would apply to older section of the community and impose restrictions on the ability to replace older homes. Again, it has its advantages and disadvantages.”

For now, the committee recommends those steps that can be taken today that can make a difference, albeit slowly. For more details, including a discussion of village concerns versus property owners’ rights, as well as the trustees’ reaction to the committee’s recommendations, you may view a recording of the meeting online here

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