New regulations are being proposed that will change the way the Special Natural Area District is administered by the city planning department. These special zoning rules govern many of the single-family house areas in Riverdale and Fieldston.
These rules are scheduled for certification by DCP on May 6, and they will come before the community board shortly thereafter.
Since 1999, I’ve raised my family in a house within Riverdale’s SNAD. My architecture firm has done a lot of work in the Riverdale “greenbelt” governed by the SNAD. As one of several Riverdale residents who participated in DCP’s SNAD advisory panel, I have reviewed early drafts of the proposed zoning text change.
This is my own personal opinion, and does not reflect the views of others on the advisory panel, or any other people or groups.
While I cannot draw final conclusions until the final drafts are made public, and while the details of enforcement need to be refined, this change will be good for our community, improving protections to the natural environment while lightening regulatory burdens on Riverdale homeowners.
We sympathize with our clients for the burden that the regulations impose on them, the extreme cost and long delays involved in undertaking even modest projects in the SNAD. A family wanting to add a deck, install a patio, or build a small addition to their home must currently endure a nine- to 12-month process of drawing preparation, reviews, hearings and paperwork. The cost of hiring an architect to process this specialized, complex application can be formidable: It is something higher than the intended home improvement itself.
The new regulations would dramatically reduce the time needed to gain approval, while actually increasing environmental protections. They have been tailored to specifically address the situation here, in Riverdale and Fieldston, where there are relatively few unbuilt lots, and where vigilant residents demand stringent, site-specific measures to defend the natural environment.
Some highlights of the planned changes are:
• Approvals will follow a formula. If you follow the written rules, you will gain approval. No longer are criteria for approval subject to the judgement of DCP. Very specific, strict standards will spell out what is allowed and what is not, taking uncertainty from the process, allowing homeowners to know exactly what will be permitted and what will be required, from the start.
• Environmental protections are strengthened. The new rules are significantly stricter than the current ones. Old trees are more aggressively protected, and new requirements mandate environmentally beneficial plantings. Numerical targets will set hard limits on potential developments and expansions. Flexibility in house placement and height will be offered to people whose projects protect the environment.
The rules explicitly integrate ecological science into the process, mandating tree and plant species suitable to the area that will enhance the environment.
• No more separate DCP applications. Plans for modest home improvements will be reviewed solely by the buildings department, just like any new construction — under most circumstances. This alone will remove months from the construction review process and reduce professional fees.
Public hearings at the community board will no longer be required for these improvements.
• Enforcement will be improved. Now, no agency practically enforces SNAD approvals. DCP has no enforcement staff, and the buildings department doesn’t understand the rules, so it rarely weighs in when it is called in. As a result, people who have violated SNAD rules faced few repercussions.
This should be reduced under the proposed plan. The DCP and buildings department have committed to training inspectors and examiners to administer SNAD projects. When they respond to 311 calls, these informed inspectors will be empowered to issue violations — with fines — to those who do not follow approved plans.
While the SNAD rules are written by DCP, it is and will remain the buildings department’s job to enforce them. They alone have the manpower to visit jobsites, issue violations and shut jobs down. Stories of contractors or homeowners who do work contrary to approvals, or without any approvals at all, cause deep concern in anyone who cares about the neighborhood.
Now, most inspectors are ignorant of the SNAD rules, approved SNAD plans are rarely found on-site, and are rarely reviewed by inspectors when they are called out to a jobsite.
Training buildings department staff in the rules, integrating approved SNAD plans into on-site drawing sets, and directing the inspections to licensed third-party professionals — whose livelihoods are on the line when they certify compliance — should be applied vigorously to the SNAD program. This and other elements can create a robust, thorough enforcement plan for this aggressive, thoughtful new package of regulations.
Even as the enforcement program is hashed out between the buildings department and DCP, this SNAD proposal should, in my opinion, be supported. The revised regulations should result in faster, less expensive applications for modest home improvements, with less red tape, less uncertainty, and better protection of our environment.
Zoning regulations should always aim to strike a balance between preserving homeowners’ rights to enjoy their property as they see fit, and protecting the community’s interest in fostering a healthy, beautiful environment.
With the right enforcement measures, these rule changes should get us closer to the right balance.
The author is an architect and partner with Building Studio Architects in Manhattan.