For the first time in a decade, North Castle voters will have a choice of two full slates for next week’s town elections.
The Democratic Committee has endorsed incumbents Jose Berra and Saleem Hussain for Town Board. Berra is seeking a third full term while Hussain is running for re-election for the first time.
They will be opposed by two Republican first-time candidates for office who are no strangers to public service in town. Current Planning Board member Larry Ruisi, who also served on the Budget and Finance Advisory Committee, will be joined by Architectural Review Board member Mel Orellana.
First appointed to fill a seat in January 2014 that was vacated after now-outgoing Supervisor Michael Schiliro was first elected supervisor, Berra lost a race for a special election by 22 votes later that year, but returned and won the first of two full terms in 2015.
A CPA and tax attorney who held business positions in investment banking, Berra said he still has more to contribute and believes he brings valuable qualities to the table.
“I think my background adds a unique dimension to the Town Board,” Berra said. “For example, I can spot issues with contracts and applications to the town that others might not and address them constructively to better protect the town.”
During his tenure on the board, Berra has been an outspoken critic of the rapid pace of high-density development in Armonk and of too many developers of townhouse projects being granted condo tax breaks.
Berra said that projects such as the approved developments at the old lumberyard and the Summit Club along with Eagle Ridge and at the former MBIA property, more than 400 housing units – about 10 percent of the town’s current total – will be added to the town’s housing stock in a relatively short time period. Since they’re all located in Armonk, that would represent a 20 percent increase in the hamlet alone. That threatens to add strain on downtown parking and services, and cause traffic congestion, he said.
Berra wants any development to benefit the residents, not just the developer.
“I want developers to succeed, but again, the development projects got to be in the best interests of the town,” he said.
Berra is largely critical of condo taxation and its inherent inequity, which he says benefits the developer. For example, a new townhome with condo taxation pays roughly half the property taxes that a townhome (or single-family home) of similar value without condo taxation pays, and therefore, the developer is able to raise the price of the condo-taxed unit correspondingly, Berra said. Meanwhile, other residents must subsidize the condo tax breaks.
In the case of the Airport Campus development at the former MBIA property, however, Berra said condo taxation is appropriate for the 50 age-restricted apartment units because it provides a needed type of housing that only can be taxed as condos and readapts an empty office building on the site.
“One issue I have with development is it doesn’t unfold in any sort of orderly way,” said Berra, a more than 30-year Armonk resident.
“When something gets approved, usually, even if I oppose it, I would rather see it get built sooner rather than later, so then we can see its impact on the town and have that help guide what we do in the future,” he said.
Berra applauded Councilman Matt Milim’s efforts to advance the two turf fields near IBM and credited his colleague with helping to complete the purchase of the town pool, both critical recreation needs.
In another term, Berra would have a full agenda that in addition to a continued focus on new development, includes needed improvements to the town pool and recreation fields, a highway garage to protect the department’s trucks from premature deterioration, town food composting, solar panels on some municipal facilities, continuing to bolster the ethics code, providing more downtown parking, and forming a procurement committee to help better control the town’s expenditures.
With four years under his belt, Hussain is hopeful he can continue applying his skills and talents to benefit the town. A split board has at times left him the deciding vote on several issues, a responsibility that he embraces.
Hussain also enjoys the interaction with the public and helping them understand the power of their involvement.
“Whenever people come to the Town Board and reach out, they see the difference of their own input,” said Hussain, head of research partnerships for IBM, which focuses on AI. “It’s like their eyes open to it and they’re like ‘Wow, it’s actually very straightforward to make a difference.’”
Hussain said he is uneasy with the level of development in North Castle, but the challenge facing the town is finding the appropriate rate of change and how best to limit the consequences. Impacts on schools and traffic are among the most important considerations, he said. But opposing development isn’t an option either.
“We do need to evolve. We can’t be stuck at one point in time,” Hussain explained. “That has other effects that are negative on our residents, so we need to actually allow for changes to happen.”
One of the advantages of development is how it provides 10 percent affordable housing units, a critically important component. The town should propose new ideas to bring to the county and state that would enable local governments to bring more affordable housing, he said.
Hussain opposes clustering affordable housing, preferring to integrate them alongside a development’s market-rate residences whenever possible, which would benefit those living in both types of units. He also views condo taxation for those types of projects as an economics question that should be decided on a case-by-case basis.
Despite the level of development, Hussain said he has not heard as much concern about downtown parking recently. The town’s acquisition of the former Verizon lot near the library in Armonk with room to add close to 50 spaces should provide the hamlet with sufficient parking, he said.
The 11-year North Castle resident spent the first seven years in North White Plains. There have been recurring sentiments over the years that that hamlet receives short shrift from the town, although there has been attention paid to the significant Revolutionary War era historical sites and completion of the community center upgrade, Hussain said.
However, issues persist, including speeding on streets and illegal apartments.
“I think we need to do more,” Hussain said. “I think we should have some of our Town Board meetings there, not just out of Town Hall in Armonk, and then that would allow our North White Plains residents to recognize how much of a center that hamlet is and also encouraging them to participate.”
Completing the purchase of the town pool was critical, Hussain said, and the town shouldn’t delay upgrading the Greenway Road facility. However, he wants to also concentrate on other recreational initiatives, including improving walking and biking and children’s programming.
Hussain has taken the lead with the town’s Technology Task Force on security upgrades to protect data as well as better engaging residents. He wants the public to have greater awareness of the services that are available to the public.
‘I think the thing that’s really critical right now is that we need to have rational perspectives and strong voices on the board and that’s something that we need to strive for, “Hussain said. “I’m really committed to bringing my perspectives.”
Early this year, Orellana had offered his name for consideration to the town Republican Committee to run for Town Board, but was satisfied with the original candidates. When original nominee Jaclyn Goldberg withdrew from the ticket in June after she was indicted in Rockland County, Orellana was called on to fill the vacancy on the ticket.
Orellana, a member of the town’s Architectural Review Board, said he accepted the challenge to help keep North Castle as one of the most attractive places to live.
“I’m not looking for a job, I’m busy as it is,” said Orellana, who has a business and finance background and works for his father-in-law’s Armonk-based construction firm. “But you know what, I said I’m crazy about the town because I love it, I love that my kids can be here one day. I love how this town is so special in many different ways.”
Development has been a primary concern, and Orellana believes that a certain level of development should be entertained as long as it doesn’t stress emergency services, schools and other services. While there have been several projects approved and others still under review, many of the projects are redevelopments, he said.
Certain types of housing are needed in town, Orellana explained, and building more age-restricted units would help make available more single-family homes for families with young children. Orellana said he recently checked the real estate listings in North Castle and there were only 29 houses for sale.
“We kind of need new development, we kind of need new housing here, affordable housing, too,” said Orellana, who was raised in Mount Kisco.
Without fresh sources of revenue, the town will be unable to keep up with rising costs and provide the services residents expect, he said.
‘That’s why I feel that good development is good for the town,” Orellana said. “We require that revenue and we have to be wise as to how we do it.”
Like all the candidates, Orellana criticized the state for trying to force zoning changes for Transit Oriented Development, but has been pleased that North Castle has the 10 percent affordable housing requirement for residential developments. Several recent requests to move affordable units off-site have been made and those should be considered on an individual basis, he said.
Although there have been concerns about parking, Orellana said supply seems to be sufficient in downtown Armonk – unless someone is looking to park directly in front of their destination.
While campaigning in North White Plains, Orellana said he still hears complaints from some residents about lack of concern about their needs, even with the best efforts of Councilwoman Barbara DiGiacinto, the Republican choice for supervisor who has held monthly meetings there. There are issues facing the hamlet, such as water and infrastructure needs.
Also, the town needs to be mindful that when decisions are made in Armonk, to consider the cost on the entire town, especially if North White Plains residents are less likely to benefit, Orellana said.
“I feel like they’ve been neglected, and we have to see them as a group and every decision we make has to benefit the entire group because if we make a bad decision, we pay the price and maybe they weren’t involved in it,” Orellana said.
North White Plains has experienced illegal apartments over the years, and Orellana believes that some of that is attributed to the historically slow building approval process.
An improvement that Orellana wants to see is shorter and more efficient Town Board meetings. Multiple meetings have lasted into a fourth and even fifth hour this year, a disservice to residents and those with business before the board, he said.
Upgrades to some town facilities should be considered. While the town has been in excellent financial condition, officials must be prepared for a potential difficult economic environment.
“We’re in an environment where we need to be more fiscally responsible with our finances as opposed to looking for ways to spend it,” Orellana said.
Ruisi has been asked multiple times to run for office in North Castle, but always resisted the calls. What he hasn’t refused is to serve his town, with 12 years on the Budget and Finance Advisory Committee and the last four years on the Planning Board.
A CPA, his business experience is vast, as a senior audit manager for Price Waterhouse and a CEO and CFO for companies in a variety of industries, including healthcare, real estate, media and entertainment, hospitality and other fields.
“When I saw that (Supervisor) Mike (Schiliro) was stepping aside and I looked at the composition of the board and the skill set, I was hoping somebody a lot younger than me would step up,” Ruisi said. “So I figure with my level of experience within the town (with) budget and finance, my business experience, I’m probably a good add to the board.”
Ruisi said it was largely coincidental that several major projects and proposals have matured at about the same time. While individually the projects seem to work, the town must stay vigilant on development’s impact on parking and schools. He especially likes the Airport Campus townhome and age-restricted housing development at the former MBIA campus, which could have as much as a $7 million benefit to all taxing jurisdictions, he said.
“You have a pretty dense development. It’s not something that I would want to have right down the street,” Ruisi said. “The fact that it’s a mile-and-a-half, two miles down the road, I think softens it.”
Ruisi can see both arguments on the issue of the fairness of condo taxation, whereby a townhome owner with a million-dollar unit is taxed at about half the rate as a single-family homeowner. However, if a community seeks a variety of housing, including for empty-nesters and young professionals, condo taxation has to be part of the equation.
“I think it’s appropriate,” he said. “I can see the point of view that everything should be fee simple. If you’re going to have a mix of housing, you’re going to have to have a certain amount of condo taxation.”
Development puts pressure on parking and traffic and the town needs to carefully monitor both, especially since most of the newly-approved units have yet to be built, Ruisi said.
He believes that the town is a part of the solution of increasing regional housing stock, and with that are the needed affordable housing units. But you can’t criticize the governor for her proposals if the town doesn’t contribute, he said.
“You basically have to do your fair share, and I think right now, as I have said earlier, North Castle has done a lot,” Ruisi said.
As a member of the Budget and Finance committee, Ruisi helped the town devise a financial plan to pay for accelerated road paving by taking advantage of historically low interest rates. Now that those rates have risen significantly, the town must balance borrowing and spending from fund balance.
“Right now, we have a hefty fund balance, but you need to spend that judiciously,” Ruisi said. “You can’t break open the piggy bank every time you want to do something.”
That will be tested as the town is poised to install artificial turf on two of the IBM fields and to make repairs over the next two winters to maintain the town pool, he said.
If elected, Ruisi hopes to have shorter meetings and to make sure that civility is observed even when there are sharp disagreements.
“There’s a lack of respect in certain situations between some of the board members and some of the people who come forward to do development,” he said. “You may not like a developer, you may disagree, but you need to treat every one of them with respect.”
Martin has more than 30 years experience covering local news in Westchester and Putnam counties, including a frequent focus on zoning and planning issues. He has been editor-in-chief of The Examiner since its inception in 2007. Read more from Martin’s editor-author bio here. Read Martin’s archived work here: https://www.theexaminernews.com/author/martin-wilbur2007/