Environmental advocates gird for battle over changes to natural area oversight


It was the beginning of a new year — 1975, that is.

The ongoing energy crisis had cars lined up for gas from Riverdale Avenue to Broadway. The former Palisade Avenue home of longtime U.N. Secretary-General U Thant had just burned to the ground. And a McDonald’s restaurant opened its doors on Broadway for the first time, with a Burger King under construction up the road.

Rosemary Ginty, who then worked at the City Planning Commission’s Bronx office, led a meeting with colleague Robert Esnard at Riverdale Temple, introducing what was then Community Board 14 to the concept of a “greenbelt.”

The Special Natural Area District was just a few months old on Staten Island, and city officials like Ginty were ready to bring that concept to Fieldston and Spuyten Duyvil.

Most seemed receptive to the idea, except for educational leaders from the College of Mount Saint Vincent and Manhattan College, who feared more layers of bureaucratic red tape — even to protect the environment — could make it difficult for either school to expand campuses.

For more than 40 years, SNAD has helped keep large swaths of Riverdale look less like New York City and more like something found upstate. But it’s also grown its own faction of critics over the years as well, blasting what they call regulations so restrictive, those living in it practically need a permit simply to cut their grass.


A good thing?

While SNAD regulations are not that tough, it’s not far off, says Michael Goldblum, a partner with Manhattan’s Building Studio Architects, who has tried to do work inside the district.

“Several homeowners asked us to get them permits to add pools to their yards lately,” Goldblum said. “The work needed to do the SNAD filings added about 15 to 20 percent to the cost of their pools, and extended the approval time by five to six months.”

In fact, Goldblum said, it took longer to get approvals for the pools than to actually build the pools. And it’s situations like that which the city planning department hopes to eliminate in what is the first major overhaul of SNAD since it was implemented all those years ago. The new Special Natural Resource District is expected to maintain New York City’s greenbelt, but soften regulations a bit for properties that are less than an acre.

That means instead of having to make multiple stops in front of various agencies — including Community Board 8 — homes instead the SNRD that want pools or other exterior changes can go straight to the city’s buildings department.

And it’s not just pools. Goldblum has had to dissuade some Fieldston residents from starting projects — like expanding a kitchen by four feet into an existing paved driveway, or extending a deck by three feet — because of the cost and time.

“All abandoned these modest planned improvements because of the added cost of the fees and the nine-month lead time needed for SNAD reviews,” Goldblum said. “Why is that a good thing?”

Ginty, now the chair of CB8, believes these regulations are important. Ahead of a Uniform Land Use Review Process hearing June 3 at P.S. 81, Ginty has championed a proposal by Councilman Andrew Cohen — supported by Cohen’s Staten Island counterpart — to break up the SNAD, allowing Staten Island to have its rules, and Riverdale its own.

“We are a postage stamp next to how Staten Island is affected,” Ginty told a recent land use meeting at The Riverdale Y. “Staten Island is driving the bus on the changes that they are making. What has early on been one of the things that we really cared about was separating us from Staten Island, and eliminate that concept of as of right.”

But even if he’s successful in creating a separate greenbelt for Riverdale, Cohen is still keen to support some of the changes city planning has proposed — including removing what he said are unnecessary regulations governing single-family homes, like those in Fieldston. Those are the as-of-right regulations Ginty talked about lifting some of the review process for smaller properties under SNRD.

“If a guy wants to add an extension to their kitchen, does he have to go to the community board to be berated by Chuck Moerdler?” Cohen said of CB8’s land use chair. “It adds a huge amount of time to the process, and a huge amount of cost for relatively small changes. And I feel like the community board is maybe more interested in guarding its power than really being good stewards here.”


Finding middle ground

CB8 oversight gives the community a chance to weigh in on proposed changes to neighborhoods before they happen, Moerdler said. And it’s not about berating people, but instead trying to turn controversial plans into something more palatable.

“Those are the projects that raise the biggest screams and hell,” Moerdler said. “These are the kinds of things where a guy wants to put a swimming pool right up against your house, or the kinds of things where they’re going to tear down all the trees here, and if I have to put up new things, I’ll put up a couple of bushes in the front.

“In those cases, we don’t disapprove. We try to mediate. Can you move the pool away from the other guy’s house? Can you move the air-conditioner to the back? Nine times out of 10, when you ask somebody if they can do this, they say yes.”

While city planning’s proposed changes aren’t perfect, Goldblum says he struggles to find how any of them are ill-fitted for Riverdale, to the point where it has to secede from the city greenbelt it shares with Staten Island.

“They specifically benefit Riverdale in setting strict rules for small home improvements that make up the lion’s share of work here, while leaving in place the lengthy, costly city planning review process for new development and subdivisions,” Goldblum said. “If I could find a rule that seems biased against Riverdale, I would support changing it. Otherwise, the proliferation of rules for their own sake is bad government.”

Monday’s meeting begins at 7 p.m., at P.S. 81, 5550 Riverdale Ave.