Board threatens suit to protect natural area


The city had tasked them with holding just a single vote: Approve sweeping changes to the Bronx’s Special Natural Area District, that would essentially transform SNAD into the Special Natural Resources District.

Community Board 8 had a much different answer when the full board came together last week at P.S. 37, however: No. In all-caps.

Not on the proposal itself from the city planning department. But on the entire process that led CB8 here, from the years-long process to rewrite greenbelt laws in the city, to the sudden removal last month of the original driving force behind these changes — Staten Island.

“We received no notice of them dropping the Staten Island pieces,” CB8 chair Rosemary Ginty said. “The planning commission has 13 members. They had to advertise that meeting. There had to be a quorum. And they voted to certify the text. And this is the text.”

Ginty is referring to a 216-page document that outlines a number of drastic changes to SNAD, intended to update laws based on decades-old environmental data, while also streamlining some of the bureaucratic red tape some developers and homeowners claim has stifled new buildings and renovations. One of the most contentious parts of the new SNRD would be the removal of community board oversight on properties of 1 acre or less, a provision that has been supported at some point by Councilman Andrew Cohen, but opposed by CB8 members.

Yet, most of the 216 pages address specific issues on Staten Island, Ginty said. And as of just a few weeks ago, Staten Island is no longer considered part of the changes.

That was news that almost didn’t make it to CB8 before it was set to vote, Ginty said. The only reason why it did is because one community board member happens to work in Staten Island, and heard about the change.

City law requires CB8 to vote on the SNRD text amendment as part of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. But if Staten Island is no longer a part of the amendment, Ginty said she has no clue what the board should be voting on.

“Staten Island is interwoven into every section, every sentence,” said Ginty, who is one of the authors of the original SNAD laws that cover not only Staten Island, but also parts of Riverdale, Fieldston and the Estates. “To extract Staten Island from this district, we deserve to see what remains, because that is what we would be voting on.”

After learning Staten Island was no longer part of the SNRD changes, Ginty and CB8 land use chair Charles Moerdler sought to meet with city planning department director Marisa Lago to talk about what revisions would be needed to the SNRD proposal without the other borough. They received a response the very next day from city planning executive director Anita Laremont telling them that the Staten Island withdrawal “does not change a single element of the proposal related to the Riverdale-Fieldston special district update.”

A revised text amendment, she added, would be completed sometime in July — after CB8 was scheduled to vote on it.

Sherida Paulsen, chair of the Riverdale Nature Preservancy, told the board during public comment that once Staten Island is removed from the text amendment, only 53 of the original 216 pages are left.

“I urge the community board to vote to oppose the zoning proposal,” Paulsen said. “There is no clear, certifiable material for the board to act upon.”

And the community board was ready to do just that. Instead of voting on the SNAD/SNRD proposal, CB8 instead unanimously approved a resolution accusing city planning of violating the laws governing ULURP. The changes were not brought in front of the board in a timely manner, and the document they have that still includes Staten Island is no longer a finished document for them to cast their vote, according to the resolution.

Even with the vote, however, city planning is standing behind how they’ve handled this process.

“The removal of Staten Island has no effect on the Bronx portion of the proposal, which we’ve worked on with the community for over four years,” city planning spokesman Joe Marvilli told The Riverdale Press in a statement. “We’ve seen local support in the Bronx for the proposal, and we will continue to engage with the community throughout the public review process.”

Moerdler described the sudden SNRD changes — and lack of communication about those changes — as one of the most disgraceful acts he’s seen during his 50 years working with both the city and state.

“While (the SNRD proposal) may proceed on various steps, at least as far as we’re concerned, it’s dead,” the land use chair said. And if it isn’t, “there will be a lawsuit, and that lawsuit will prevail. And you should know at that point that hundreds of thousands of dollars of your tax money will have gone down the drain for an environmental impact study that is irrevocable.

“The opportunity to work with the community to save our trees, to save our environment, to do the things that were good in that (SNRD) resolution, will have been forfeited.”

Without the CB8 vote, the current status of the SNRD resolution is unclear.

Typically, the next stop for a review in the ULURP process would be at Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr.’s desk, before going in front of the City Planning Commission. From there, it goes to the full city council and mayor — a process that will likely continue well into the fall.

Robert Fanuzzi, a former CB8 chair who also was part of the SNAD work group developing potential changes to the greenbelt law, said he hopes city planning will reverse course and give the community board a clean text amendment to consider.

“We are the only people standing up for what is the city charter process for ULURP,” Fanuzzi said. “We are being put in a straitjacket right now. We don’t have the freedom to negotiate, we don’t have the time to negotiate. And we are on an artificial time clock that has tied our hands.”