Four Democratic hopefuls are competing for their party’s nomination in the upcoming primary for two seats carrying four-year terms on the New Castle Town Board.
Incumbent Lori Morton, who won a special election last November for the final year of current Supervisor Ivy Pool’s council term from the 2017 election, returns to retain her seat. She is joined by running mate Michael Weinberg in his first run for public office.
They are facing two first-time candidates, Tara Kassal and Andrea Sanseverino Galan.
Morton and Weinberg are also running on the independent 4 New Castle line headed by supervisor candidate Holly McCall while Kassal and Sanseverino Galan are part of the Unite New Castle slate led by current councilwoman and supervisor candidate Lisa Katz.
While all candidates in this race are on the ballot in November, next week’s winners will appear on two lines in the fall, rather than only an independent line.
Kassal had no desire to get involved in local politics until two issues emerged within the past several years – the incessant noise caused by aircraft landing at Westchester County Airport and more recently the debate over the Form Based Code.
Kassal, a member of the town’s Airport Advisory Committee, had been in the real estate industry for more than 20 years and has worked on community development projects. The downtown needed help and Kassal said she had the background and expertise to assist the community.
“I think we have a tremendous opportunity right now to create a really thriving hamlet and a really great experience for our residents, one that attracts residents from surrounding communities,” she said.
While Kassal, 49, said she’s not generally not anti-Form Based Code – streamlining the approval process is one improvement that can be made – lack of resident input and inadequate execution fails to provide a vision. Working with developers and property owners to maximize potential without overburdening the infrastructure while using the current code will lead to better outcomes, she said.
Residents also weren’t advised that a Form Based Code would be the vehicle to achieve the town’s goals.
“The Comprehensive Plan, I think, really did a good job in what could be,” Kassal said. “The challenge was there was nothing in any of these sessions, as far as I understand, that led us to a Form Based Code. I’m not sure how the Form Based Code came into the equation.”
Pressing forward with the proposed code along North Greeley Avenue but continuing the environmental review for the full 72 acres is wrong, Kassal said. There is also no guarantee that the sought-after mix of housing and retail will be achieved through the Form Based Code, she said.
Kassal is in favor of the Chap Line if the town can build it in a fiscally responsibly fashion while making sure that the surrounding neighborhoods aren’t negatively impacted. The town must also explore where sidewalks could increase walkability, she said.
The Council on Race and Equity (CRE) made some outstanding recommendations last year. It is up to town leaders and residents to embrace diversity and attract members of varied backgrounds.
“The CRE has really made some important strides,” Kassal said. “Now what’s going to be important is how do we take these steps and expand further some of the key areas that they identified.”
Kassal said she wants to help the town through a tough period with the pandemic and the divisive Form Based Code debate.
“We need to make sure we’re a high-functioning community, that we can come together and manage our difference in an effective and special way,” Kassal said.
Morton jumped into the town’s political scene last year to run for Pool’s unexpired council term.
In less than six months on the board, the assortment of issues has been intriguing. Employment contracts, strategic decisions and how New Castle emerges from the pandemic are just a few of the challenges.
“My day job is turning things that might seem impossible into things that are possible, and I feel like that’s what the Town Board is, too, just in a different space,” said Morton, 49, vice president of cardiovascular research at Regeneron.
Discussion on how to help downtown Chappaqua and the Form Based Code has dominated the run-up to the primary. Morton said she wants to the public understand that the Form Based Code isn’t a development plan but a zoning strategy that enables property owners to have more flexibility to make improvements.
Focusing on North Greeley Avenue is an appropriate step to take because that corridor has significant needs and is large enough to support the town’s goals, she said.
Although there have been warnings from critics that including the entire 72 acres in the environmental review would speed development, no zoning change can get made without public input, Morton said.
“The question is what will the approach be to have public input by incoming future Town Boards,” she said. “So that’s the question that voters should be asking about when there are elections. What is the philosophy of an incoming Town Board or candidate around zoning and how could they go about passing or not passing it, what degree of public input could they be seeking?”
The importance of helping Millwood reach its potential rests largely on sewers. Morton said town officials will have to work closely with the county and other levels of government to obtain the funding while emphasizing the environmental risk of continuing without sewers.
Millwood residents who are already paying into the district also need assurances that they will one day have sewers, she said.
A key mission for the next Town Board is to work toward grants, funding and private donors to help fund the Chap Line, which would be “a wonderful addition to the community,” Morton said. She added that the sidewalks master plan should also be prioritized to understand where pedestrian mobility can be enhanced.
Morton would like to explore other recreational opportunities, including improving the town’s limited number of playing fields, which are overused.
It is crucial that New Castle is welcoming to all people and to fund key recommendations outlined by the CRE, she said.
“That’s how you support diversity in the community, you create an environment where everybody feels like a valued member of the community,” Morton said.
Andrea Severino Galan
Last fall, as the debate on the Form Based Code was ramping up during public hearings, Sanseverino Galan noticed the vitriolic discourse online. The values of civility, respect and constructive debate seemed to evaporate.
“The collapse of these values and the disdain for divergent views, the intolerance and disrespect on issues like the Form Based Code really compelled me to run for office, and for me making sure the voices of all residents are heard and respected,” Sanseverino Galan said.
She said the Form Based Code is a zoning tool that is inappropriate for the town. Discussions involving the wider community are needed in order to arrive at a shared vision.
The key is collaborating with a developer and negotiating incentives so the town realizes the types of stores and uses it wants to see rather than allowing the developers to have free rein without prioritizing the needs of the community, Sanseverino Galan said.
She said the 2014 community outreach that result in the updated Comprehensive Plan didn’t call for taking reviews of applications out of the hands of the planning and zoning boards.
“So looking back to something that was done seven years ago and really muzzling the input from residents now is not the answer to revitalizing our hamlets, to solve social justice issues or achieving affordable, diverse housing,” Sanseverino Galan said. “To me, the Form Based Code really violates these principles.”
It also makes sense for the town to take a step back and evaluate the longer-term impacts on work and commuting patterns brought on by the pandemic, she said.
For Millwood, Sanseverino Galan supports expansion of sewers, although mindful that could trigger development. Engaging residents in Millwood and the West End is crucial to understanding their needs, Sanseverino Galan said. She also backs having hamlet-specific advisory boards.
Sanseverino Galan said she is eager to see the results of a recreation master plan being completed to help the town enhance its recreation facilities.
She favors expansion of sidewalks if feasible for Chappaqua and Millwood as well as the Chap Line. However, there must be grants and state and federal funding to pay for the latter.
Sanseverino Galan applauded the CRE’s work to promote inclusion and diversity in New Castle. She would like to see the town’s latest permanent committee act as a liaison to new and prospective residents. Recruiting volunteers from diverse backgrounds to serve on advisory boards and civic organizations is also needed.
“Having their point of view, having my point of view as a Latina, having another point of view from another perspective is vital to all decision-making processes and a diversity of viewpoints,” Sanseverino Galan said.
This may be Weinberg’s first run for public office but he is no stranger to politics.
Having been active locally as a Democratic district leader and with the Chappaqua-Millwood Chamber of Commerce, Weinberg decided to make the jump to candidate.
Weinberg, 62, said his familiarity with county and local officials in his role as a part-time adviser to state Sen. Peter Harckham provides him with critical tools that could help New Castle.
“I’ve been an active Democrat, active in government and politics for as long as I can remember,” Weinberg said. “I think it’s important for people to use their voices.”
He maintains that the Form Based Code speaks to the goals and objectives laid out in the 2017 updated Comprehensive Plan, particularly the call for a diversity of housing.
Ultimately, the town is writing a zoning code designed to help the downtown. Residents can debate what should be included in the zoning code, but town officials cannot force a property owner to build what the municipality is seeking, Weinberg said.
“Remember, especially with the North Greeley corridor, all the land that’s going to be in that is private land,” said Weinberg. “So you can’t dictate to a private landowner exactly what to build. Zoning doesn’t allow that; state law doesn’t allow that.”
He agrees with the current board’s move to focus on North Greeley Avenue, to see how the process works over the next couple of years. However, the town can’t sit idle as some surrounding communities move forward, Weinberg said.
Greater efficiency is needed in the project review process, which would be welcome so applicants aren’t taking a few years to gain routine approvals, he said.
Weinberg said if elected he would work over the next four years to get some movement on sewers for Millwood. There can be little to no commercial expansion with that service. Furthermore, there are residents who are paying for sewers but not hooked up.
“We want to see more restaurants and more commercial retail here, but you have to have sewers,” Weinberg said.
He’s a supporter of the Chap Line provided there is outside funding to pay for most of the work. Results from the comprehensive sidewalk plan could help determine where additional sidewalks can be included.
Weinberg supports exploring the possibility of having a community pool, which could be a multigenerational summer meeting place that brings residents together from throughout the town. A dog park has been another frequently requested amenity that could be a year-round meeting place.
He commended the CRE’s extensive list of recommendations. While not every idea can be implemented right away, the town needs to figure out how to fund them.
Weinberg would also like to find some money to preserve open space, especially near the watershed.