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Zoning Change Rejected; Jovanovich Spars with Commenters

Dozens of residents, Rye City School Board President, and Library Director turn out to speak against proposed zoning change.

Rye City Council voted thumbs down on a proposal that would have shifted zoning for the properties on the area encompassing 1031, 1037 and 1051 Boston Post Road from B-1 Neighborhood Businees District to B-2 Central Business District and the parking district designation at 1031 Boston Post Road from "C" to "A" designation.

Dozens of people turned out at the Wednesday's night City Council meeting in Rye to express their displeasure at a proposed zoning option at the city-owned property convinced the body was poised to approve the development of a 60 unit apartment building at the site of Lester's department store.

Their fears were eventually quelled, but not necessarily their tempers, during sometimes passionate exchanges between some Rye residents and Councilman Peter Jovanovich. 

The evening opened with a 90 minute overview of the City's preparation and response to Hurricane Irene. After opening the regular session of the City Council meeting at 9:20 p.m., Mayor Doug French went to the zoning change item saying he recommended the Council take no action and proceed with selling the parcels under their current zoning designations. A motion to change the zoning law was unanimously defeated by the Council. 

Councilwoman Catherine Parker told the audience their suspicions about a large residential development on the property currently occupied by Lester's department store with 60 or more units were completely unfounded. Since the city will not create a new police station and courthouse, they must sell the parcels and were only considering their options.

"We cannot hold on to that building and be landlords, it has to have a public purpose," said Parker. "We were looking at the possibility of changing the zoning without there being an actual proposal. There’s no developer that has come to the city."

As for a 60-plus unit development, Parker said, "I don’t know where that number came from in the public arena but up here that is not something that has ever been discussed."

The perceived lack of public notice and communication with Rye City Schools generated most of the public's comments, but other issues bubbled passionately to the surface.

School Board President Laura Slack attended the meeting, accompanied by Rye City Schools Superintendent Dr. Edward Shine.

Slack said the Board of Education "had deep concerns" about the proposed law change. Overcrowding and shortfalls in tax revenue would make it impossible for the Rye City School District to accommodate the additional children that might enroll in the system. 

"It's bad time to absorb more children," said Slack. "We simply don't have the physical plant." 

As for the lack of communication about the proposed law change, Slack said that while there was usually exchange of information between the city and the school district on such matters, "clearly the ball was dropped" about this particular proposal.

Next at the podium, Rye resident Scott Barringer said the Council never should have considered an option with so many units as President Slack made her way back to her seat.

At that point, Councilman Peter Jovanovich made a series of comments suggesting there was another motivation behind the public's opposition to the proposed zoning law changes. 

Scott Barringer, 5 Martin Lane, said he was “incredulous” the matter had even gotten to the point of consideration and asked “how did this ever [get] to the point where pen was put to paper.”

Mayor French explained that the Council was going through process of considering all possible scenarios.

At that point, Councilman Peter Jovanovich wanted in on the conversation.

“Let me address this. Schools are bursting at their seams not because poor people are moving to this town,” said Jovanovich.

“Don’t insinuate,” replied Barringer. “Don’t put words in my mouth.”

“Here’s the point, we’re talking about one or two bedroom apartments. So how many students could that possibly be?” said Jovanovich.

The councilman then continued at length: 

“Schools are bursting at the seams because Rye is getting younger and richer. That’s what’s driving development. So what we have here is a concept which is mixed use, which is something that city planners all across the country are recognizing is a good way for downtowns to develop.

I personally find it very interesting that every day, every week, every month some post-war tract house is torn down and a 4 to 5 bedroom house is put up and there are no petitions, there are no emails going around town.

The reason why school enrollment is up is because there are bigger houses going up on the same plot of land. That’s where its coming up from, plus the fact that there is a recession. We have had barely any multi-family developments.

If Laura Slack is here she can answer, is it low income housing that’s driving enrollment in the City of Rye?”

Laura Slack objected to Jovanovich attaching the issue of low-income housing to her.

“I didn’t say a word about that. What I’m objecting to is you building 60 units in a building, that will generate more children," Slack said as she stood at her seat. "Don’t put words in my mouth.”

Jovanovich continued, “Don’t deny. Whether this is built or not the trend in Rye is for more kids. This building generates a tremendous amount of controversy, but if a million and a half or two million dollar house is built to replace a tract home, there is no controversy. So here’s my point…so if you all are saying essentially that we don’t want apartments in Rye…[the crowd comments] No?  Any more apartments in Rye? Then what are you against?”

Barringer, still standing at the podium replied to Jovanovich, “What I’m against is our government coming up with proposals, even to consider, that are so ludicrous that I can’t believe that people that are meant to be elected because of their good judgment would put pen to paper to subsidize supporting something like what we all read.

Sixty apartments! At this location? I don’t care if they’re all millionaires. Sixty apartments at this location with this traffic problem and this flooding issue is irresponsible to even consider. And it sounds like you were behind it.

And I don’t know what your motivation, but let me do a little insinuating now, is your motivation because you’re somehow appeasing the County because you want to appear to be putting more low income housing in here because the County has been so good to us so far?”

Jovanovich replied, “You want to know what my motivation was? [Barringer, “Yes.”] I believe in mixed use, I believe that’s the future of Rye.

Then Jovanovich continued with an extended defense of mixed-use development in the downtown area, "There are many, many people who want to move to Rye who can’t afford these big places, but would like to be within walking distance of the train station, walking distance of amenities…That’s my motivation. You all’s motivation that I don’t know.”

• 

Heightened awareness and public turn-out about the zoning change had been sparked by the circulation of two documents: a Planning Commission memorandum and a County Planning Board letter. 

A memorandum from the Rye Planning Commission to the Rye City Council dated July 26, 2011 described the purpose of considering the zoning law change was "to allow dwelling units of the first floor for properties located on Boston Post Road," but it was speculative language within the document about possible zoning scenarios that piqued the attention of area residents and apparently the Rye City School Board.

City Planner Christian Miller explained that the advisory's purpose was to anticipate for members of the City Council several hypothetical projects that could potentially be developed on the parcels, not describe real projects under consideration.

The memorandum describes the maximum use implications for solely housing development as well as different mixed uses of retail, housing and office space on the properties.

It was language describing the sole housing hypothetical scenario that caught the attention of some: "the combined development potential of these two properties would quadruple from approximately 18,000 square feet under current B-1 District zoning to 72,000 square feet under the proposed B-2 District." 

Under those circumstances, the Planning Commission memorandum speculated the development "could yield approximately 60 units" and "68 parking spaces would be required." The memo also explained that a retail/office use could hypothetically create a building that required "72 parking spaces" that "would need to be located under the building to meet City parking requirements."

There was also a letter from the Westchester County Planning Board dated August 4, 2011 and signed by Commissioner Edward Burroughs indicating their office had reviewed the proposed law changes the Rye Planning Commission had hypothetically described.

The County Commissioner offered two comments about the proposed law change: that it was "consistent with the County Planning Board's long-term policies and strategies" and that the changes "will also provide additional potential to develop affordable affirmatively furthering fair housing (AAFFH) units in this location."

Later in the meeting, Councilman Joseph Sack recommended the Council consider changing the practice of not publicly posting proposed zoning changes initiated by the City. City Planner Christian Miller had earlier explained that the City Council had the discretion to change zoning law without the same process of public notice required by private parties.

RyeDad September 15, 2011 at 04:24 PM
Excellent coverage by Renea. Thanks for including the PDF of the relevant letters.
Bob Zahm September 15, 2011 at 05:49 PM
Why is enrollment growing in the Rye Schools? Because there is an inflow of new residents, often with new / young families who come to Rye because of the schools quality, excellent commuting, and nice-sized downtown. The addition of bedrooms to housing stock is enabling the growth in enrollment, but which came first is a tough question. Would adding apartments also increase enrollment? Most definitely. More so than large houses? Maybe, maybe not. But apartment living would certainly be a more affodable way to buy a Rye Education than 1/4 acre lot.
Bob Zahm September 15, 2011 at 05:51 PM
And that's a part of the schools funding issue. Because of how property taxes are assessed, condos as effectively subsidized by single family homes. So given a fixed number of new students moving into apartments versus single family homes, the apartment residents would effectively increase taxes on the single family homes.
Bob Zahm September 15, 2011 at 05:54 PM
But the issues with the propsed zoning change surely need to concentrate on the flooding impact of even denser use than is presently the case. How could the property be re-zoned without constraints / requirements being put in place that indicate how flooding risk on neighboring properties was to be minimized? Dr. Raine made a very effective set of comments (he's done so previously) about the impact of the Rye Y's large parking lot on flooding on the Orchard avenue homes. We shouldn't be making the same mistakes twice.
divman September 15, 2011 at 06:36 PM
At the end of day , the blessing of the Rye Planning Council on a project of this scope and impact on the city with zero calls to the school system , zero calls to the real estate experts , little to no public notice was 125% dead wrong and the way concerned citizens were talked down to by Jovanavich was a disgrace . Its just more of the same these days with politicians treating taxpayers as idiots who need the brilliance of politicians to tell us how to live and what we should accept . Transparency . Completely missing and now even the new team on Rye Council has alot of questions to answer .
RyeDad September 15, 2011 at 06:56 PM
divman: You hit the nail right on the head. We have a bunch of buffoons running this town. Pickup is in way over his head and the City Council operates behind closed doors. City staff and the City Council don't care about the laws that are in place to ensure transparency. They routinely disregard these laws to avoid their own embarrassing stupidity becoming known to the public. It is time to clean house. Pickup (Shew's protege) needs to be the first to go. French should save us further misery and resign. Did you happen to see the way the Corporation Counsel looks at Pickup? Very strange.
Pat Geoghegan September 15, 2011 at 08:01 PM
Instead of guessing about the school population in apartments, why not extrapolate from the data we have on the current student population from the existing apartments in the City of Rye? Pat G
Charmian Neary September 15, 2011 at 09:42 PM
This issue was handled poorly by Mayor French and several members of the council. I consider myself as informed as any Rye resident, and I had read about this proposed zoning change in July, but I was surprised when it was presented almost as a fait accompli at a sparsely attended council meeting in mid August. Whether or not there is a developer in mind, or a specific set of plans, is NOT the issue therefore the comments from the dais on the public's misinformation were frankly condescending. I was present at the last meeting to hear city staff admit the outside parameters of what could be built potentially at the Lesters site with the new zoning in place. The word potential is important because even if there are no plans, the fact that such an out of scale structure could be built under the proposed change means the community has every right to be alarmed. I wish we had spoken up before we ended up with 9 banks in a half mile or so in downtown. I wish we could be informed every time a developer clear cuts a dozen trees to build a bigger house. The transparency touted in the last council race is a sorry cliche these days as ill considered decisions are made in secrecy then the public is sneered at for being uninformed. Could this council be any more obtuse if they tried?
Jeni Spaeth September 16, 2011 at 01:03 AM
How many of the units would have been slated for low-income families?
Renea Henry (Editor) September 16, 2011 at 01:09 AM
Jeni, there was no development under consideration. The model ordinance for the county suggests there be no fewer than 10% affordable units in a new development. If the zoning change went through and allowed a structure with as many as 60 units, that would be 6 AAFFH units.
divman September 16, 2011 at 01:51 PM
Jeni : With the Planning Commission giving its blessing for 60 apartment units , it would have been somewhere between a minimum of 6 units and of course as many as 60 potentially . Keep in mind Astorino at the county level is under extreme pressure by the federal government to build hundreds more low income apartments in towns like Rye . We have already met our obligations to build more low income units ( Cottage Street i think is location ) thus we don't have to do more . Charmian Neary above says it all . Somebody that attends meetings and stays informed and STILL was oblivious to how fast they were pushing for a rezone that would all but wave a bright red flag to every developer around to build the biggest housing project in downtown Rye in decades . Yet we were sneered at by certain members of the Rye Council for expressing disbelief or to question their brilliance of design or the need to bother to let the schools or the public know . That is the real horror of this sad fiasco . The people we think are looking out for us are all but concealing their desire for huge changes in town
Howard Deixler September 16, 2011 at 01:59 PM
Jovanivich ascribes all sorts of nefarious motives to citizens who dare to speak out against a proposal that the Councilman obviously likes. Peter makes assertions based on... what? Big houses replacing small houses? Any real data to back that up? Is there anything the Councilman says about this that's based on anything other than his own imagination and prejudices?
Howard Deixler September 16, 2011 at 02:00 PM
Uh, Renea, that would be no fewer than 6 units.
RyeDad September 16, 2011 at 02:51 PM
Divman and Howard: It appears to me that Jovanovich may have always wanted to change this town to reflect what he envisions it should be. After this mess he still being on Planning is a joke. Perhaps he should be booted from this position because not only does it seem to me that he doesn't have the communities needs as a #1 priority, but it seems his position on Planning may also conflict with his relationship with the Rye Record. Is he in a position to push his personal agenda through his spouse controlled press forum and also in Planning? This could be a bad formula. He can remove any perceived conflict by resigning from Planning. Jovanovich and his partners in this lunacy almost got away with this 60 apartment idiocy. Someone from the City Council HAD to request that this be placed on the City Council agenda. Why won't anyone say who it was? The City Planners attempt at throwing Jovanovich and French a lifeline was lame. Many issues come up in planning. That doesn't mean they make it to the City Council agenda. They should stop the lying and misleading the public. Bravo to all who stood up to the morons who proposed this. Ms. Slack rocked their world when she asked them to vote on it. I though French was going to choke on his scepter.
RyeDad September 16, 2011 at 03:13 PM
On another note what about the Health Insurance for Vinny's wife and kids issue? French says they were going into Executive Session to maybe discuss something that may come up. Are you f-ing kidding me? Was he getting a telepathic signal from Uranus telling him to go into executive session and then maybe another signal from planet Jovanovich to talk about the health and welfare of a dedicated Rye employees family? Why did the City Council have to discuss this in secrecy under such suspicious means? Did certain Council members not want to discuss publicly how they wanted to screw over Vinny's kids in public? Maybe they did. Maybe they didn't. French shrouding the Vinny issue with his Royal Highness Cape leaves everyone wondering what his and the City Council's real agenda was. French and his Jesters are making a mockery of transparency and open government while allowing Pickup to talk down to citizens who dare to call him on anything.
Renea Henry (Editor) September 16, 2011 at 03:44 PM
I'll have a summary up about the other items discussed at the meeting this afternoon. The Council did vote to give City Manager Scott Pickup authorization to clarify the Administrative Professionals Group policy. They will vote on a recommendation from the city manager at the next meeting on September 25 and if a change is authorized 1) it will extend health coverage eligibility for a city employee who dies in service to the surviving spouse until they are Medicare-eligible and their children until they are adults and 2) would be retroactive to August 1.
RyeDad September 16, 2011 at 04:38 PM
Thanks for the update Renea. The APG stands for the Administrative Pay Group not Administrative Professional Group. This Pay Group of employees are no more professional than all the rest of Rye's dedicated and hardworking employees. They are all professionals and should all be referred to as and treated as professionals and with respect by the City of Rye. Unfortunately, they are not.
Committee for Election Equality September 17, 2011 at 07:46 PM
It is a "gateway" parcel, situated at the southern post of our wonderdful downtown area, and an entrance to the splendid schools, neighborhoods, and churches to the Mamaroneck border. It should remain city owned and splendidly groomed for the enjoyment of the residents of Rye (whether you own, rent, large house, small house); an extension of the Village Green, so to speak.
Howard Deixler September 18, 2011 at 01:27 AM
What an appropriate, sensible and enlightened point of view. Thank you Mr. Lamont.
tedc September 19, 2011 at 02:42 PM
I agree its way past time to unload The Otis Building Mr. Lamont. But I believe a $6+M "park" is as much of a non-option to us taxpayer owners as a new 60 unit apartment building.
Committee for Election Equality September 19, 2011 at 09:25 PM
Tedc, Thank you for your comment and advisement. That is quite a price tag, I agree. Does that price envision a graded piece of grass, a few trees, and donated park benches? When we think of Rye's open public places, the fields are plentiful but I can't think of any Rye City park like setting in town except for RTP where RTP really opens up a new can of worms.
tedc September 20, 2011 at 05:49 PM
Well – in that very location there’s The Village Green and the adjoining Blind Brook Walkway. The original site plan worked out when Mayor Moorhead made the city his gift shows the natural linkage of The Library, The Square House, the mature tree canopy and the open lawn. There’s an awful lot of public usage on the grass these days for sure. And if you can remember the Sunoco Station that was located where Rye City Hall now stands you might believe we’ve come a long way.
John Mayo-Smith October 08, 2011 at 09:34 PM
Are Tax and Zoning Loopholes Swamping Rye Schools? http://bit.ly/rtlgWY

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