It started with a note.
What it said and who passed it, Charles Moerdler won’t say. He quickly read it during the April 10 Community Board 8 meeting at the Fort Independence Community Center just as discussion over 3061 Scenic Place was starting.
And just 15 minutes later, Moerdler would abruptly end his long tenure as chair of CB8’s land use committee.
That self-imposed exile would last less than 10 days, however, after Moerdler rescinded that resignation, and let CB8 chair Rosemary Ginty know he was ready to get back to work.
But still, Moerdler hasn’t forgotten what prompted him to want to suddenly step down from a position he’s held for decades. The owner of a riverfront home on Scenic Place had admitted to doing work without proper city approval, and was looking to the board to help him bring his property back into compliance. But the number of people who supported Pat LaFrieda’s mea culpa has shrunk from 11 to four, literally overnight.
“I have no problem with people changing their mind between Day A and Day B,” Moerdler said. “That is their right and their obligation. What is different here is that I get a note slipped to me that there is something going on. And then I see the tenor of the meeting.”
People who had supported Moerdler’s position to let LaFrieda finish the property restoration at the land use committee meeting the night before were changing their tune, and Moerdler felt that a lot of that music was coming from the same source. Although he couldn’t prove it, Moerdler concluded that someone must have been “campaigning” some of the board members to change their vote before the meeting.
And Moerdler felt blindsided.
“In the normal course of events, when you have a committee report, what the board does normally is tinker around the edges,” Moerdler said.
“‘I don’t like the language of this,’ and ‘I don’t like the language of that.’ But here, there was an undercurrent of active opposition that I found sort of surprising.”
In the end, the board rejected LaFrieda’s restoration plan, backing instead Ginty’s position that no approval should come without penalties for the alleged regulatory violations on the property.
People did change their mind, Ginty said, but the idea that anyone lobbied them ahead of the meeting is one the first-year chair called preposterous.
“I am aware of no lobbying. Zero,” Ginty said. “I believe the issue lobbied itself.”
Determining which board members flipped is not an easy task. Because there was no quorum at the land use committee, the vote where Moerdler’s resolution passed was “illegal,” according to Ginty, and she turned down requests to share the roll call of that vote. Yet, even if names were revealed, if anyone were to ask the half dozen or so board members who changed their vote, Ginty said, they would find out that no one tried to sway them.
Former CB8 chair Robert Fanuzzi, however, volunteered himself as one of the board members who changed his mind, and told The Press he made that decision on his own.
“I think Rosemary did the right thing and is doing a great job,” Fanuzzi said. “There is no story behind what happened. It was all played out in public, and the outcome was reached completely fairly. And Mr. Moerdler lost the vote.”
Fanuzzi said Moerdler’s position was “weak” as evidenced by the land use vote, which Moerdler had won — albeit unofficially — 11-8.
“He had a weak hand going in, and his presentation (April 10) made it weaker,” Fanuzzi said. “He lost support, and he lost fair and square. There was no skullduggery and no backroom deal.”
What ultimately happens with 3061 Scenic Place — which included reconstruction of a retaining wall and the removal of some trees in an area protected by the Special Natural Area District — is up to city planning and the buildings department. CB8’s role is advisory, Ginty said, and city officials can give the community board’s vote a lot of weight, or no weight at all.
With that controversy behind them, CB8 is about to seriously take on Hebrew Home at Riverdale’s plan to expand its Palisade Avenue campus to include a continuing care retirement community. Moerdler expects to be leading those discussions as chair of the land use committee, something Ginty believed was possible.
“I am not aware of any procedure to stop him from doing that,” Ginty said. “He resigned, and we know that the language is very clear that he is changing his plans and is now determined not to resign.”
But Moerdler shouldn’t expect a hero’s return. Ginty took issue with some of Moerdler’s criticisms of the board in an April 19 Press story, and the four officers of CB8 signed on to a letter calling those comments “a disservice to the board and its members, who work tirelessly and give of their time, experience, expertise and judgment to the issues facing our community.”
“To read the article, one is asked to believe that the board membership is a group of misguided, naïve individuals heading in the wrong direction at every turn,” according to the letter. “That they have been warned and ignore direction, and have lost credibility. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
In a statement, Moerdler concurred CB8 has done some great things, but there’s still room for improvement.
“I completely agree that the board — comprised of dedicated volunteers who strive diligently to advance the interests of the community — has done a splendid job in a whole host of areas, both this year and in the past,” Moerdler said.
“In my view, that stellar record of accomplishment can only be enhanced by an even greater focus on changing those things that realistically can be changed and merit change, and preserving those things vital to our community that warrant preservation.”