Commentary: The Form Based Code in New Castle: There’s a Better Way Forward

By Lisa Katz, Tara Kassal, Andrea Sanseverino Galan and Victoria Bayard Tipp

The Town of New Castle is at a significant crossroads. As the community grapples with the need to create a sustainable vision for our town, revitalize our hamlets and address questions of social equity and housing affordability, a misguided Form-Based Code (FBC) has been proposed as the best zoning mechanism for future development of the 72-acre Chappaqua hamlet.

This FBC is not the answer to tackling those fundamental issues. It is ill-conceived, the result of a flawed process that prioritized input by for-profit developers, denied residents a consensus-building charrette through open debate and dialogue, ignored key stakeholders, including the Chappaqua Central School District, and failed to conduct any economic analysis for the town or tax implications for residents. It also ignores the longer-term impacts of the global pandemic, which we are just beginning to understand.

The proposed FBC serves New Castle up on a silver platter to developers, and relinquishes resident, Town Board and Planning Board control over the future of our community. The proposal would enable private for-profit developers to build up to 1,000 units of primarily luxury apartments in four-story buildings over 50 feet in height “by right” with minimal input from residents or the Planning Board. That’s 40 percent higher than our highest existing downtown building under our current zoning code.

Development under the proposed FBC could result in the displacement of the most socioeconomically diverse and vulnerable residents in the available multifamily housing currently in the Chappaqua hamlet.

It limits the affordable housing requirement to 10 percent of units across the board, hindering future Town Boards from collaborating with developers to secure diverse and increased affordable housing such as the award-winning model of the cupola building at Chappaqua Crossing, which intersperses market rate, affordable and workforce housing. There also will be a significant increased tax burden on our residents, many of whom are already struggling with the high housing costs and taxes. The town admits that it has conducted no studies on the cost to taxpayers of development under the FBC. Given that town tax revenue is about 0.8 percent of assessed value, $100 million in new development will generate, at best, about $800,000 in town tax revenue (even less if developers receive tax abatement deals).

The Chappaqua Board of Education has indicated that school taxes, the largest component of resident tax bills, will be underfunded relative to per-student district costs as a result of the proposed FBC.

Despite hundreds of residents’ letters and statements to the Town Board opposing this plan, the majority of the board has refused to consider alternatives or scale back the scope of the study area.

The “New Direction” recently promoted by board members misleadingly assures residents that only six acres along the North Greeley Avenue corridor will be developed. It is a classic bait-and-switch maneuver. The Town Board is simultaneously studying the full 72-acre zone, from the train station commuter lot to the Walgreens at the top of the King Street hill.

This means that future boards can easily expand four-story development zoning under the FBC throughout the hamlet with a simple majority vote. Furthermore, completing the study on the full 72 acres opens up the town to lawsuits from developers seeking to build anywhere in the study area outside the North Greeley corridor.

There is a better way. The Unite New Castle Democratic slate was founded on the belief that our residents and local merchants are smart, engaged community members who deserve a voice in our town. Our experience maintains that smart towns create a sustainable vision with robust resident input and effectively manage growth by working collaboratively with developers to create compelling residential, commercial and mixed-use projects that enhance a sense of place. Smart towns do not willingly set the stage for overdevelopment that will negatively impact residents and the environment. Smart towns do not cede control of their future to for-profit developers. There are ways to achieve revitalization and development by modifying our current legislation and simplifying our approval processes.

Our opponents for Town Board favor the FBC. They would have residents believe that the FBC is the only way to encourage economic growth and diversity.

This is simply not true. If anything, the FBC would reduce the potential for true economic growth, displace renters of current affordable housing in town and increase the luxury housing market while simultaneously putting a greater tax burden on single-family homeowners. It does not make provisions for workforce or senior housing. It necessitates the construction of multi-story parking garages, remote lots that require shuttle service and/or robotic stacked parking to deal with the potential five-fold increase in the hamlet’s population.

Make no mistake, the FBC is a giveaway to developers looking to make a profit off of our town, and it is not a sustainable path toward improving housing diversity and affordability in New Castle.

We believe the town can better achieve economic vitality and diversity by including residents and merchants in the process, rather than muscling through unpopular and ineffective legislation that will eviscerate our community.

The Unite New Castle plan will streamline and accelerate the development process. We will focus development on existing vacant structures and simplify the existing review process to expedite projects using overlay zones, special permits and variances if a particular project makes sense for our community’s vigor and diversity. The four successive moratoriums on downtown development have effectively made it impossible to develop buildings like the former Rite Aid site. Most significantly, we will forge a truly collaborative process with developers to ensure each and every project is optimized with respect to community outcomes, with a focus on a true mix of uses and increasing affordable and attainable housing options to achieve housing diversity.

Our slate is committed to economically sustainable development, ensuring new projects contribute to the tax base rather than add to the tax liabilities of single-family homeowners, driving out New Castle’s most vulnerable residents and reducing the town’s long-term marketability.

New Castle has an incredible opportunity to set the stage for a resilient future with a sustainable vision that affords the town the flexibility to embrace technological and societal advances that will enhance the quality of life for all residents. Maintaining control over the development of our hamlets will ensure every project is welcoming and inclusive to people of all races, religions, creeds and socioeconomic status. The proposed FBC permanently eliminates these opportunities for collaboration and optimization in favor of a cookie-cutter approach to revitalization.

Unite New Castle was formed around our commitment to creating thriving hamlets and a more vibrant and diverse New Castle. We are ready to meet the challenge – not just FOR our community, but WITH them.

Please support us on June 22 in the Democratic primary. Together, and with the best interests of New Castle at heart, we will shape the town you want to live in.

Lisa Katz is a New Castle councilwoman and a Democratic candidate for supervisor. Tara Kassal, Andrea Sanseverino Galan and Victoria Bayard Tipp are Democratic candidates for Town Board. They will also appear on the independent Unite New Castle line in November.