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Mayor Connett on Rivertowns Square Vote

The following is from the Jan. 19 newsletter from Dobbs Ferry Mayor Hartley Connett.

Dear Residents,

Here is an update on village government, projects and proposals in progress, and initiatives in the works.

I apologize at the outset for the length of the first section on Rivertowns Square. There has been a lot of ground covered over the past 2 years of review, and important action was taken by the Board of Trustees on this project, which in turn has important implications for Dobbs Ferry. Not everyone agreed, but the board was able to work through differences to come to a bi-partisan decision. While this report will include an outline on the majority’s ‘positive’ Findings Statement and strong support for the project to move forward to Site Plan review, there were meaningful concerns presented by the minority, which are mentioned; while not voting in favor, members of the minority nevertheless made significant contributions, comments, modifications and additions to the Findings Statement. These changes made for a stronger document, adding positively to the final vote, and protecting the interests of the village and residents. Overall, it is important to know the facts, how the process worked, all the options and alternatives considered, plusses and minuses, where we agreed and where we did not, and what drove the final decisions. This required a little bit of page length in this report.

Projects & Proposals
 
Rivertowns Square Proposal
 
At a meeting on January 8, 2013, the Dobbs Ferry Board of Trustees voted 4-3 in favor of passing a ‘positive’ Findings Statement for the mixed-use redevelopment proposal known as Rivertowns Square. This action means the 2 year SEQRA environmental review process has been concluded. The proposal now moves into the Site Plan process including review by the village’s planning and architectural boards, before returning to the Board of Trustees ('BOT') for final approval.  As in the past, residents and interested parties will be kept fully informed and involved as this process moves forward. If you were unable to attend the meeting or watch it live on TV, I encourage you to watch the meeting on the village’s website www.dobbsferry.com; go to the ‘Dobbs Ferry TV’ tab, Board of Trustees, then click on the thumbnail for ‘1/8/2013 Board of Trustees Part 2’.  The meeting will also be running continuously on the local Public Access TV channels through next week.  Please watch the meeting to hear what the Trustees presented, as well what some residents said about the project – those for and those against. It’s the best way to get the facts.

Here is an outline reflecting the view of the majority of Trustees (4) who voted in favor of passing a ‘positive’ Findings Statement relative to the proposed redevelopment of the former Akzo Nobel site:

I.                    An Open and Thorough Review Process

This included determination at the beginning by the entire board requiring a full SEQRA review even though the initial proposal did not require one single zoning variance; in other words, it could be built ‘as of right’.  A 2 year SEQRA review process ensued including no less than 70 meetings; public hearings, special workshops, professional and expert consultants, extensive analysis and reports were completed on all the important issues, including traffic, environment, landscape, and socio-economics. Along the way the Board of trustees unanimously adopted (7-0) both the DEIS and FEIS documents. The ad hoc Citizens Budget Committee conducted their own independent financial analysis (fully supporting the project from a financial standpoint with no dissenting votes). The environmental review was open and transparent, offering extended public comment periods to make sure the public had full opportunity to review and provide input. In short, an extensive and open review of all aspects of the redevelopment proposal was conducted, in the highest professional and strictest manner of law, in which the board was presented with substantial information to reach a decision – one way or the other - on the Findings Statement.

II.                  Substantial Changes Made to Project since the Initial Proposal

The initial redevelopment proposal contained a 70,000 sq. ft. box super market as the centerpiece of the project; this then became 50,000, then 35,000, but the board strongly objected to any of these alternatives. These alternatives have now been replaced with an 18,000 sq. ft. specialty market – which we understand will be a Mrs. Greens. In addition,The Sundance Cinema Arts Theatre was also added. This change of use led to a significant reduction in traffic on local streets during peak like periods compared to the large grocery store options, as well as enhanced cultural benefits for the village and local region .Additional changes have been made to the residential portion, with an 11% reduction in total units (now 202 units / all 1-2 bedroom rentals); the residential building was reduced to 3 stories (from 4) on the side of the property facing Ogden Avenue.  Additional green space has been created with 2 new pocket parks. 40% of the property (approximately 5 acres) will be ‘open space’; with 26 % of the property must remain permanently undisturbed. New walking and bike trails will be created on Village streets and on previously unutilized Village owned land, including a trail connection through Chauncey Park to Southfield Avenue. The Ogden Avenue roadway will be extended so as to provide a designated route for the village’s DPW vehicles (trucks will never need to enter the property); this extension will also provide a new alternative route (not currently existing) for traffic to drive completely around the property.
 
As a general overview, it is important to also know that during the SEQRA process the board spent substantial time discussing and evaluating alternatives to the proposal – smaller footprints, different usage for buildings, and removing buildings; on occasion the SEQRA process was put on hold while discussions were being held with the developer. After extensively evaluating the alternate ‘smaller’ versions – which included the risk that certain positive elements of the project could also disappear or go away – the end result would have been projects with inferior results and profiles. For example, the ‘smaller’ alternatives would not include the substantial changes and concessions ultimately gained; infrastructure investments and improvements would not be affordable, so they would not get done; the current problems would not get fixed, financial yields would be much less (or negative), and traffic patterns and safety issues would be worse than they are today. In short, in the opinion of the majority the smaller versions contemplated would not have gained the village any advantages, or made the traffic impacts any less. In fact, they would be worse.
 
III.                Major Concessions and Give-backs Negotiated

In addition to the substantive changes outlined above, the village was able to achieve meaningful concessions and give-backs from the developer. These include the following:

·         10 affordable housing units at 60% of average income level (Village Code only requires 80% average income level). This concession will completely satisfy the village’s affordable housing obligations under the Westchester County Funding Grant for the village’s major Waterfront Stabilization and Renovation Project. The village will now never be at risk to have to give this money back.
 
The value of this affordable housing concession to the village (tax payers):    $2,000,000
 
·         Roadway & Infrastructure Improvements:
                                                                               
o   New sidewalks on Ogden Avenue, Beacon Hill, and Danforth
o   New Curbs, speed bumps, 1-way option on Ogden
o   Synchronize Ashford Avenue traffic signals
o   New striping, coordinated turning arrows, extended turning lanes on Lawrence Avenue and Saw Mill River Parkway.
o   New round-about connecting Lawrence Avenue with new Ogden Avenue extension
o   Hydrant fees to be paid by developer
o   New catch basins / future maintenance paid by developer
o   New sewage pump station
 
The value of these and other roadway, safety, and infrastructure improvements to the village (tax payers):   $6,000,000
 
·         It is very important to note the infrastructure and roadway improvements will be a requirement under contract agreements between the developer and the village. These requirements will be fully bonded, and specific work will be required to be done in the first phases of construction. No certificate of occupancy will be issued until all required mitigation work is completed. Special funds will also be set aside by the developer to contribute to any modifications which might need to be finalized in the future. One-time fees paid by the developer (outlined below in FINANCIAL IMACTS) also provide additional contingency resources.
 
·         Agreement from the developer to a tax certiorari moratorium of 10 years (Commercial) and 5 years (residential). This assures a minimum property tax return, protecting the village’s financial position over the long term.
 
·         Agreement by the developer to withdraw all back tax certiorari claims which would have been awarded based on the difference between the current (old) assessed value and the recent actual purchase price.
 
IV.                Financial Impacts
 
·         Concessions and  Give-backs (from above)                        $8,000,000
·         Additional Building Permit Fees                                           $1,500,000
·         Recreation Fees                                                                  $760,000
 
SUM OF TOTAL DIRECT IMMEDIATE $ BENEFITS:                    $10,260,000        
 
V.                  Other Financial impacts
 
·         Property Tax                                                                        $320,000 / year (1)
·         Tax certiorari moratorium                                                     $300,000 (2)
 
Note (1) Based on full build-out. It is also important to realize the current property tax is ~125,000 / year at the property’s current assessed value. Based on the recent purchase price, property taxes would drop to ~$55,000 / year.
 
Note (2) based on the recent purchase price, this would be the amount of money the village would owe back if a tax cert claim were submitted. All estimated tax figures and assessments have been provided by the village’s Tax Assessor. 
 
·         Jobs

o   400 construction jobs
o   650 permanent NEW JOBS
o   Outreach job/internship program for Dobbs Ferry and Ardsley School District Youth
o   Outreach job program for Children’s Village and St Christopher students
 
·         New Trolley Shuttle Service

o   The developer agrees to operate a new shuttle service for a minimum of 1 year when the residential units achieve 50% occupancy.
o   The shuttle will stop at multiple points in the village including downtown areas and the waterfront train station.
o   Promote stronger connection to ‘downtown’ / enhance business for local merchants
o   Less traffic / good for environment
 
VI.                Dobbs Ferry’s Future Fiscal Challenges
 
Nothing keeps us up at night more than knowing what the current financial path looks like down the road; not just the village but the trend for the entire region.  Here are just 2 recent reports:

New York State Comptroller, Dec 28, 2012 Financial Report:  “over the past 5 years average New York State village expenditures grew by 13% while revenues  increased by only 7%”  … this gap has been growing in more recent periods.

The Journal News, Monday Jan 7, 2013: ‘Local government(s) planning to borrow to pay pension bills to stave of retirement costs’ … this means these municipalities are virtuallybankrupt. This report went further to estimate that retirement/pension costs will skyrocket 59% this year; reaching a total of $3.5 billion in total, which equates to $225 per person in the state (every person, man, woman, and child).
While Dobbs Ferry has done an excellent job managing budgets and taxes – within the lowest tax rate increase in the region over the past 3 years – and we are not considering borrowing to meet unfunded pension liabilities  … we can’t keep pulling rabbits out of the hat.

Dobbs Ferry’s trends are as follows:

·         Property tax rates have been in decline for 4 years
·         The village has returned $1,700,000 dollars in tax cert settlements over this period. In DF tax rate terms, this equates to a 17% tax rate increase ($100,000 = ~ 1% in tax rates)
·         The village has ~ $1,300,000 / year in retirement pension costs (excluding health care!) which is expected to increase significantly over the next 5-10 years, including additional increases under the new Affordable Care Act.

Without new sources of revenue, the village faces the potential for significant tax rate increases every year into the future; an unsustainable community, unable to afford new projects to improve infrastructure, or the quality of life for our youth, our seniors, and every family. This is not an acceptable picture. Instead, the estimated revenues from this project will help to secure a more robust and healthier financial future for Dobbs Ferry, improving the quality of life for all residents, as well as the surrounding communities.

VII.              Environmental
 
·         Storm Water Mitigation – water runoff will decrease at peak by 29% and 5% overall. Water runoff quality will also be improved with a state-of-art infiltration process
·         Applicant is required to plant 187 new trees at a minimum. This is to replace the 300 trees which are dead or dying, of which only 70 are good.
·         Removal of all unsightly vines and invasive growth
·         Enhanced screening particularly for the Ogden corridor and the Saw Mill River borders of the property.
·         The developers will also actively manage the property, which is expected to be beautifully landscaped and maintained – it will not be abandoned as in the past.
·         Steep slopes have been mitigated.
·         Additional ‘Green’ technologies will be addressed during Site Plan review
 
VIII.            Recreation
 
This area of private property has been an abandoned empty industrial chemical company complex which was never used actively by village residents. Now this previously unused village space will become a public space for shopping and cultural enjoyment, including new bike and walking trail ways around the property, and thru Chauncey Park connecting to Southfield Avenue.
 
·         New open space

o   2 new pocket parks
o   40 % of property remains open space, or ~ 5 acres
o   23% of the undisturbed property must remain preserved permanently

·         New bike paths and walkways throughout the development and neighborhood
·         The project will conform to ‘Complete Streets’ which was adopted by the village to promote safe pedestrian traffic, biking and walking.
·         New exercise stations within Chauncey Park

These are amenities not found anywhere else in the village, which will improve the quality of life for the local neighborhood and an attraction for all other residents too.

IX.                The Sundance Cinema Arts Theatre

The addition of The Sundance brand gave a whole new face to the project, not only compared to the initial vision for a mega box supermarket, but simply on its own as a valuable cultural and marketing asset for Dobbs Ferry. The majority view this entity as a major ‘game changer’ for the village in a very positive way.
 
·         Positive cultural benefits of Sundance Institute brand – not just for Dobbs Ferry, but also all the local surrounding villages and the southern Westchester region
·         Support for local artists
·         Support for School and Institutional Film and Arts Programs

o   Dobbs Ferry and Ardsley School District
o   Children’s Village and St. Christopher’s
o   Mercy College

·         Support for local artists
·         Support (or possible home) for Rivertowns Arts Council
·         Marketing of the Village and local area Merchants

o   On-line ticket reservation service for local restaurants
o   Support and advertising for local merchants
o   Commitment and support to create a new Dobbs Ferry Business Chamber of Commerce

·         Traffic impacts greatly reduced (compared to grocery box store alternatives)
 
X.                  Conclusions of the Majority
 
·         A full 2-year SEQRA review process was thoroughly completed – open and transparent
·         Substantive changes have been made to the project from the initial proposal
·         Significant investments and upgrades will be made to infrastructure which will be required with contingencies before any certificate of occupancy is issued.
·         Major concessions have been negotiated from the developer which are in the best interest of the local neighborhood, and for the majority of residents too
·         The project will yield significant positive financial returns, both immediate and for the long-term.
·         Fees paid by the developer in combination with the long-term returns presents the village significant potential funding sources to improve infrastructure and the quality of life for residents. This includes:

o   Dedicated and upgraded Senior Center
o   A new community / youth center in Gould Park.
o   A major upgrade to the community pool allowing more residents to join and a new recreation facility we can all be more proud of (instead of what is there now)

·         Construction jobs will be a boost to all the local merchants in the area and thereafter 650 new permanent jobs for local residents and the surrounding communities.
·         The projects components – including a Hilton Hotel and The Sundance Cinema – will support and promote tourism for our village – and benefitting the entire region.
·         New amenities for local neighborhoods – including new bike paths, biking and walking trails, and Chauncey Park connectors to Southfield Avenue and the Westchester County Bike Trail way System – are all big plusses for quality of life and recreation.
·         There will be less water runoff, and the project will improve the environment with more new trees (replacing all the dead and dying ones) and new green space … and with additional green technologies expected to be added in Site Plan review.
 
On balance, the majority on the board view the project with the ‘right’ balance in size and mix, which will afford the significant mitigation and infrastructure investments to be made; along with the valuable concessions earned by the village, using the developer’s monies to fix the problems currently in that area, which will mitigate traffic and add amenities and improvements to the immediate neighborhood, and which will in turn benefit all of the residents in the community … helping to make Dobbs Ferry more sustainable into the future, and a more desirous (and exciting) place to live.
 
The Trustees in the minority (3) of course did not agree with all or some of the views of the majority; however their opinions and concerns were extremely important and relevant, not only on the specific Findings Statement, but importantly thoughout the entire SEQRA review process. As noted at the beginning of this report, while the minority voted against passage of a positive Findings Statement, members in the minority made significant contributions, changes, comments, and modifications to the final document. These additions made for a stronger findings, in some cases setting standards, requirements, and contingencies which strengthened  the final document and level of comfort with the project overall. The minority was very concerned about the traffic impacts to the immediate surrounding areas; this was of course the main area of concern for everyone thoughout the process and which the most time and analysis was spent. But in the end, they were not satisfied the mitigation and infrastructure improvements proposed would adequately address the traffic impact. In addition, there was concern expressed for the overall size and footprint of the project. While Site Plan review will present opportunity for some modification, the minority lacked confidence in this process. This remains to be seen. A portion of the minority view held the opinion that mistakes were made by the village (i.e. prior boards) in the past regarding the initial Chauncey Square development, in particular the Health Club and the associated retail businesses attached to the structure; in particular related to the traffic issues which have arisen since. The opinion stated that a full SEQRA (‘positive declaration’) should have been conducted at that time (instead of a Supplemental EIS). There certainly was no argument that the success and popularity of these particular businesses was underestimated. A small minority held the view that the project did not conform to the Village’s code and/or the Vision Plan. On this point there is direct disagreement.  It is a fact the proposal does not require a single zoning variance.  Regarding the Vision Code, we would encourage everyone to read the document.  The Vision Plan is a guide, not law. Further, there are elements and language in the Vision Plan which can be interpretive (and depending how much of the sentence or paragraph one reads). On the issue of conformance to the Code and/or Vision Plan, the majority has strong disagreement with this particular minority point.

 Dobbs Ferry Vision Plan (65.9 MB)
 
In the end, a bi-partisan decision was reached.  Each member respected the other member’s opinion, and everyone was given equal opportunity to contribute, provide input, and make a decision.  While we did not all agree, the combined contribution of all the members – minority and majority alike – helped to create a final Findings Statement which is stronger and better then had we not worked openly or together as a team.

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