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.