Stephanie Coggins and Sura Jeselsohn arrived early at the Equitable Building off Broadway in lower Manhattan for the 10 a.m. meeting.
They were more than ready to express their disapproval of proposed changes to Bronx’s Special Natural Area District, this time directly to a body that could easily decide its fate: the City Planning Commission.
The two women took their seats in the basement meeting room and waited. And waited. And waited.
During that time, they got a tour through many of New York City’s outer boroughs from a perspective few would ever choose — that from the perspective of planners.
Finally, around 3:30 p.m. — more than five hours after they first sat down — the planning commission was ready to hear all about the transformation of SNAD into the Special Natural Resources District.
Jeselsohn walked up to the podium when her name was called, only for her voice to crack after nearly an entire day of silence.
“We want to be sure that any changes to SNAD will not adversely affect our community,” she said. “We are facing a lot of overdevelopment, and this has added a certain attention to any review and sudden changes to jurisdiction.”
The planning commission is the latest stop on the SNAD Uniform Land Use Review Procedure tour that could change the way the city enforces greenbelt protections that have been afforded to Riverdale, Fieldston and the Estates for more than four decades.
But the process getting to this point hasn’t been without controversy. Staten Island was originally part of the plan, too, until they were suddenly yanked from it. Community Board 8 was then told to fend for itself in trying to determine which parts of the city’s proposal to create SNRD from the ashes of SNAD applied to them, and which was just for Staten Island.
That muddled process earned it a negative recommendation from Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr., last month, and a no vote from CB8.
Now it’s the planning commission’s turn before it finally gets sent to the city council. Unlike CB8 and the borough president, who simply advise, the planning commission has the power to modify or even completely rework what’s in front of them. In fact, that’s exactly what they might have to do if planners want to ultimately get the support of Andrew Cohen.
The councilman has been wishy-washy at best over whether he would support SNRD — that is until he stood in front of Marisa Lago and the rest of the planning commission.
“There are a number of really positive changes that I think could go a long way to making SNAD better than what we have now,” Cohen said. “But there are a number of items that are not necessarily a poison pill, but very difficult for me to get around, and that is having the Department of Buildings being the arbiter of the smaller lots.”
Cohen is referring to parts of SNRD that would allow projects on properties smaller than an acre to bypass Community Board 8 review, and instead gets a thumbs up or thumbs down by the buildings department. This particular measure has drawn the ire of CB8 leaders, including land use chair Charles Moerdler, as they believe it removes crucial neighborhood oversight of what is otherwise environmentally sensitive land.
City planners have said the existing regulations requiring single-homeowners to get approval from multiple agencies before building something simple like a driveway or deck is too burdensome, and could ultimately cost more than the property improvement itself.
Cohen says he shares those concerns, but also is worried about leaving those decisions up to the buildings department, which in the eyes of some in the community, doesn’t exactly have a great track record when defending the existing SNAD.
“Our ongoing problem has been enforcement,” Cohen said. “There is not great confidence in the community” that the buildings department will cite and even stop any property improvement or development that threatens the greenbelt area.
In fact, Bronx buildings department Werner deFoe told commissioners there were no plans to increase his staff to handle more enforcement of smaller properties.
But then again, there seems to only be a half-dozen of such requests each year anyway.
deFoe believes that concern over whether his department can enforce the rules is unwarranted, because part of what the transformation from SNAD to SNRD will create are better-defined laws his team can use.
“That is one of the efforts that was made in our group,” deFoe said, “that everything is especially specified so that all we have to do, as the buildings department, is enforce the rules.”
The planning commission hasn’t made any decisions on SNAD yet, however. It’s set to review the proposal more on Aug. 28, with another review session set ahead of time on Aug. 26.