Form Based Code Fear-Mongering is Wrong Approach for Community

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Since October, when many New Castle residents began to realize that their Town Board was seriously considering a major overhaul to the town code for downtown Chappaqua, there have been hours and hours of questions, comments and debate.

The encouraging part of the public discussion on what has come to be known as the Form Based Code is just over a year after the concept was first introduced by the town as a way to help reinvigorate the hamlet, it has engaged residents and generated intense input. The unfortunate part is there has been a feeding frenzy of opposition, and like so much else today, not all of it rooted in reality.

A Form Based Code is a relatively new concept for municipal planning purposes. It emphasizes the form of structures more than land uses and is a tool to help a community hopefully realize the character and look that it hopes to achieve.

The expediency of online shopping in recent years and other changes in retail and shopping habits have forced officials everywhere, not just in the New Castle hamlet of Chappaqua, to consider remaking their downtown to compete and thrive in the 21st century.

A common strategy today is introducing mixed-use development – a combination of ground-floor retail with apartments upstairs – in an area that is near a transportation hub. The thinking is the more people there are in a downtown, the more activity and business it will generate.

To be sure, there are serious questions about the New Castle plan, which have been raised during five public hearings so far and additional discussions. Parking, a universal source of concern, may be the most critical. It appears unrealistic to expect anyone in Westchester County not to have a car, even if they’re near a bus and train line and can walk to stores downtown.

That may require a parking structure, but is that the right move? If so, where?

Then, if more people are downtown on a consistent basis and there are more vehicles, will the traffic flow easily or will there be frustrating congestion, particularly during peak hours, that can end up hurting the hamlet? Residents who currently live near downtown also need to be reassured their quality of life won’t be hurt.

A valid point raised during the hearings has been whether the pandemic will permanently affect commuting habits and living arrangements.

Appropriate building height and mass are credible concerns as well. However, residents who apparently don’t want any change, have seized on the most unlikely outcome to try and stymie the process. They have pointed to the full build-out scenario that the town is required to provide under the state environmental review process. Full build-out would mean 997 new residential units.

The likelihood of that happening is virtually non-existent. In the off chance it materializes, it would take decades, not years, to materialize. Why? Because in the 72-acre study area there are too many different private property owners for an entire block to be redeveloped with hundreds of new units at one time.

That also doesn’t take in the large acreage the town owns, which would have to be sold or leased and developed. That would likely trigger a permissive referendum, if enough residents signed a petition to force a vote.

There have been doomsday scenarios offered, including the flooding of Chappaqua schools with too many children for the district to comfortably handle. Enrollment has been declining since the onset of the Great Recession, and while that doesn’t mean a community should fill up those seats, even 150 new students, which the district’s consultants have initially projected in a worst-case scenario, would not hurt the schools.

In fact, local birth rates, something that is out of anyone’s control, have a much greater impact. The district’s own projections for the next five years, keeps enrollment largely stagnant.

During the Comprehensive Plan update process, which is now about seven years ago, the overwhelming sentiment among residents who participated was the town’s hamlets need to be reimagined with mixed-use development. The challenge facing the hamlet was correctly identified then, and it remains today.

No one can say for certain whether the Form Based Code will make Chappaqua’s downtown more vibrant. What is known is no community can afford to be fearful of change and remain inert forever.

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