In Chappaqua, Conflict of Interest Argument Erupts Over Form-Based Code

The smoldering controversy over the Form-Based Code in Chappaqua erupted again last week after two residents called for Councilwoman Lauren Levin to recuse herself because they believe she would benefit from a proposed revision.

Last Monday’s New Castle Town Board work session and meeting focused on discussion of four additional sections of the code that were returned from the town’s consultant for inclusion in the document’s Final Generic Environmental Impact Statement (FGEIS). Responses from the consultants answer substantive questions and comments from residents during the extended public hearing encompassing 13 different topics.

However, the evening turned tense when resident Scott Le Vine called on Levin to recuse herself on the issue because she owns a townhouse, which he described as “an investment property,” at 149 King St.

Le Vine, who lives in another townhouse at the address, said that the Town Board’s interest in reducing the maximum height of any potential development on the east side of North Greeley Avenue from four to three stories would increase the value of Levin’s townhouse because the taller height would blight the unit. Properties on the west side of the street, where the former Rite Aid space sits empty, would still be allowed to reach four stories.

Meanwhile, other unit owners in the complex stand to have their property values hurt, Le Vine asserted.

“All of my neighbors wish that they had the magic wand that Councilmember Levin has to let them avoid these harmful impacts,” Le Vine said. “Pandora’s Box has now been opened by the Town Board majority, now making the site-specific decisions, which supersede the earlier general hamlet-wide decisions, and create new big winners and big new losers on owners of individual hamlet properties, including investment properties owned by Town Board members.”

His comments caused a commotion that forced the Town Board to adjourn the meeting for about 10 minutes. However, before that, Levin chastised Le Vine for raising the topic, an issue that has been addressed previously by town attorneys who have cited case law to determine that there is no disqualifying interest. There is no need for recusal if other property owners would be similarly affected, they have concluded.

“I cannot believe you have the audacity to come in here and put me on the spot like that with no evidence whatsoever,” Levin said.

“This is absolutely out of line and I’m not going to stoop to your level, I’m not, because I’ve already answered these questions multiple times, through an e-mail I sent to the president of the association,” she later continued.

After Town Attorney Ed Phillips said that it has been determined there’s no conflict of interest, another resident, Ray Sanseverino, also addressed the issue.

“It’s not just a conflict, I don’t know whether there is or is not, but it’s the appearance of impropriety and the request is you recuse yourself,” he said.

Acting Supervisor Jeremy Saland stepped in and called attempts to impugn a board in hopes of eliminating her from the vote as “pathetic and sad.”

The Town Board has been working with only four members until at least this November’s election is certified following the resignation of former Supervisor Ivy Pool in June. Councilwoman Lisa Katz has been highly critical of the Form-Based Code and having a recusal would likely doom the proposal.

Saland urged critics to propose changes that could improve the code, which has resulted in some revisions, rather than baselessly attacking a board member.

“If you’re that desperate because you don’t have the substance and you’re going to attack somebody up here for doing her job, accusing her or insinuating…it a pretty sad state of affairs,” Saland said.

The exchanges overshadowed an extensive discussion on four additional sections that were returned by the consultants — land use, zoning, visual resources and community character and air quality and noise. That leaves seven sections that must still be addressed, which are scheduled to arrive this month, said Director of Planning Sabrina Charney Hull.

Saland, Levin and Councilwoman Lori Morton said they were moving toward having the three-story maximum with no ground-floor retail requirement on the east side of North Greeley Avenue. At least 10 percent of the rental units would be for residents at 80 to 100 percent of Area Median Income (AMI).

But Katz responded that decreasing the retail on North Greeley Avenue could stunt the potential growth of the downtown.

The Town Board is limiting its exploration of any rezone to the six acres on North Greeley Avenue despite completing the environmental work for the entire 72-acre area downtown after considerable pushback during the hearings.

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