Speakers highlighted several environmental and community character concerns last week at the start of public comments on New Castle’s proposed form-based code, which officials hope will eventually help reinvigorate the downtown Chappaqua business hamlet.
The Town Board, which opened the scoping session last Tuesday at Town Hall, also heard a few comments from residents who remain skeptical that a more streamlined process where the town’s Development Department plays a greater role in issuing downtown approvals would allow for adequate feedback and oversight of a project.
The board had issued a positive recommendation because of the extent of the potential rezoning that would take in Chappaqua’s current Retail Business, Retail Business and Parking, Designed Business and Planned Industrial zones, said Director of Planning Sabrina Charney Hull. That initiates a formal review under the state Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), which includes a scoping session and public hearings.
“SEQRA requires you to balance the environmental impacts with social and economic factors when you’re going to approve an action,” Hull said.
Before public comments were taken, town officials addressed the issue of building heights that the proposed code would allow in the business district. While two stories is currently the maximum in most of the downtown area with the exception of King Street, where two to three stories is allowed, Hull said the new code would allow up to four stories in most areas. King Street would remain at two to three stories.
There are select locations in the downtown where five stories would be permissible – the frontage along the west side of South Greeley Avenue between Woodburn Avenue and King Street and in parts of the train station parking lots. Currently, the parking lots are town-owned land.
“I just want to make it clear that because we’re considering zoning and increasing heights, for instance, of buildings, it doesn’t mean the town is mandating that buildings be built at certain heights,” said Councilwoman Lisa Katz. “We’re saying that we would consider allowing buildings to be built up to a certain height.”
Planning consultant Bonnie Von Ohlsen said the new zoning is designed to attract a variety of downtown development, including residential. That is one of the key pieces of the Comprehensive Plan that was updated in 2017, she said.
“The new zoning district is intended to provide flexibility for development with the intent to revitalize the hamlet and create a sustainable and successful mix of commercial and residential uses, taking into account both current and future real estate markets and trends,” Von Ohlsen said.
The draft scoping document listed about 15 categories where public input is sought, including land use, zoning, visual resources and community character, natural resources, parking and services.
Ridgewood Terrace resident Dan Preniszni said he was concerned that if maximum building heights were increased, most builders would want to increase potential profits, changing Chappaqua’s character.
“If I were a landlord or if I owned the property and I had the option of going two or four floors, there’s no question I would go four floors if I was interested in making a profit, etc.,” he said.
Another resident, Dan Piscitelli of King Street, said he was worried about the visual impact on his development’s residents if there are four- and five-story buildings downtown.
“If you build a four-story (building) out there, I’m going to be looking into somebody’s bedroom as will my neighbors, so that’s a huge concern for us,” Piscitelli said.
Orchard Lane resident Mara Van Fleet raised the issues of traffic and the potential loss of trees and increased runoff if there’s large-scale development on King Street. She said traffic is a problem now and it would be difficult to get onto her street off of King Street.
Meanwhile, Conservation Board member Victoria Alzapiedi urged the Town Board to consider what species would be impacted in vernal pools should some of these areas be developed. She also hoped the town would maintain its current character with an improved downtown.
“How do we want to market our town so it’s different and having developers who have a mindset that still want it to be this community, small-town feeling”” Alzapiedi asked.
The evening’s first speaker, Chappaqua resident Warren Gottlieb, pleaded with the board to provide a way for more public involvement for residents on downtown projects, particularly if they might get shut out from a public process if there is an extensive application.
“The Town Board really needs to do a few things to make sure the public really understands what that means,” Gottlieb said.
During the previous week’s Town Board work session, Hull listed several proposed changes to the revised code, including formal neighbor notification of adjacent property owners for any project.
Other key changes would see a reduction of the maximum height of the first floor from 22 to 16 feet if it is used for commercial purposes, reducing the distance from the curb to a building from 25 feet to 16 feet if there is a new development and maintaining the current 10-percent affordable housing requirements.
Town Board members stressed that if the town were to sell any municipally-owned property to a developer, the sale would be subject to a permissive referendum.
Under the law, officials are unable to schedule a vote but the public can force a proposition through a petition. Privately-owned property is not subject to a vote.
Supervisor Ivy Pool said officials want to address all of the public’s concerns.
“Part of what we’re trying to do here tonight is to make sure in our environmental analysis we look at and answer all of the questions that you have that would make you feel comfortable with the resulting code,” Pool said.
The board adjourned the scoping session until its Feb. 11 meeting. Written and e-mailed comments are also welcomed and can be sent to the board until Feb. 14 at noon. To read the proposed form-based zoning code, visit www.mynewcastle.org.