With some of Fieldston’s and Riverdale’s greener parts possibly in jeopardy, Charles Moerdler wants to split the SNAD.
On Thursday, the city’s planning department offers residents a chance to weigh in on changes it’s proposed to the Special Natural Area District at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. The focus will be on how those changes could affect the very features that make Fieldston and Riverdale look the way they do.
SNAD is among a number of special districts established in the 1970s and 1980s to balance development with environmental protections in areas covered in rock outcroppings, steep slopes, and, of course, trees — which are important both ecologically and for conservation.
Essentially, the city’s proposed changes aim to ease permitting for small development projects in these special areas, potentially affecting more than 54,000 lots, according to published reports.
To that end, the city’s exploring the idea of combining three special areas into a single special natural resources district, with the aim of creating clearer development standards and codifying best practices to reflect updated ecological science.
The special combined district would include not just SNAD — which encompasses parts of both the Bronx and Staten Island — but also the Special South Richmond Development and Special Hillsides Preservation districts, which are only in Staten Island.
Under the proposed changes, the city would allow developers and homeowners wishing to construct or modify structures on property less than an acre in size to submit plans to the city’s buildings department, which would issue permits for projects that abide by the rules. Such projects currently require approval by the City Planning Commission after a stop at the local community board.
Work on larger properties of an acre or more and highly sensitive sites would still be subject to the planning commission’s signoff. But everything else would be as-of-right, meaning a substantial number of applications would go straight to the buildings department, bypassing city planning and community boards, said CB8 chair Rosemary Ginty — a recognized planning expert and an author of SNAD.
“The community will never see them,” Ginty said. “How does that affect the community?”
Notably, the vast majority of the land to be lumped together under the city’s proposal lies in Staten Island — 17,850 acres compared to just 900 in the northwest Bronx, according to reports.
The changes “aim to achieve better and more predictable outcomes for homeowners by cutting red tape, time and expense, while also ensuring appropriate public review for larger projects to retain the most important natural features,” said planning department spokeswoman Rachaele Raynoff.
But lumping Riverdale’s and Fieldston’s special district with those unique to Staten Island is gravely problematic, said Moerdler, a former buildings commissioner and current chair of CB8’s land use committee.
“They’re very different areas,” Moerdler said, adding he’s implored local council members to veto any across-the-board SNAD change. “Staten Island has a very politically active building community where they want to build on every inch of land available. Their premise is, ‘Let’s build anywhere, everywhere, any time, and do it as-of-right.’
“In Riverdale, you do not have the same kind of gallop toward developing every inch. There is a strong desire to keep the area green,” with residents often fixated on the number or caliper of trees to be removed or replaced, tearing down land on a steep slope, or rock formations.
That can be an issue fighting “pro-developer” architects who mainly want to build more houses, leaving CB8 as a kind of last line of defense against development. Under the city’s proposed changes, however, the board would no longer be part of the equation in a significant number of cases. Its “stronger, louder, more effective voice” would effectively be hushed.
Yet, it’s important to put the proposals in context, Ginty said, since they’ve been brewing since around 2015.
Once it became clear change indeed was afoot, CB8’s land use committee created a SNAD working group to meet with the city as a result of increasing sentiment among board members and residents the SNAD ordinance wasn’t adequately protecting key areas of the community.
SNAD controls development in nearly 40 percent of land within CB8, according to the group’s 2015 interim report. It has allowed residents to review and comment on numerous development proposals over the last 40 years, including 53 certifications, 140 authorizations and 26 special permits.
Now, that could all come to an end.
“We have said, from Day One, the reason for the zoning text change starts in Staten Island,” Ginty said. “Real estate developers in Staten Island were sick of coming in for approvals. They wanted as-of-right, not review from city planning and the community board.
“If there are changes that need to be done in SNAD, they should be designed for the issues that we face here, and not because there were problems in Staten Island.”
It’s also crucial to note Staten Island’s special districts are three — including the South Richmond development and hillside preservation districts, in addition to SNAD — to the Bronx’s one, Ginty said.
“What city planning is proposing to do is take these SNAD changes and apply them to all three districts,” Ginty said. “I’m not sure I have ever seen anything like that done. If you do not understand that this is designed for Staten Island, you’re missing the point. We are the tail wagging the dog.”
Local architect Marty Zelnik, however, said the new rules could be a relief to homeowners looking to make relatively minor alterations without struggling through an onerous review process.
“The city is trying to address somebody who has a house on a 10,000-square-foot lot and wants to add an addition, to simplify the life of that person,” Zelnik said.
“We’re talking about process more than the end result. The time and the expense is what they’re trying to shorten and lessen.”
But for Moerdler, the proposed changes tie into a broader trend wresting power from community boards — and the residents they serve — citywide.
“One of the few important viable activities of a community board is land use and its control over zoning,” Moerdler said. “This is part of that. How do you control keeping trees up?”
From the standpoint of residents who cherish the natural quality that distinguishes Fieldston and Riverdale from the urban jungle beyond its borders, the outcome could be dire.
“It’s called the Special Natural Area District for a reason,” Moerdler said. “The reason is, keep it green. The one thing (CB8) has consistently done is to make sure that, to the maximum extent, we preserve the area and community as a livable one. That would be clearly undermined by this SNAD proposal.”