Planners offer to tinker with natural area rules

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Preserving the environment takes work and sometimes a little sacrifice. But some single-family homeowners living within Riverdale’s Special Natural Area District would prefer that sacrifice not total $25,000 in bureaucratic red tape for something as simple as building a deck or installing a swimming pool.

That’s one of the goals the city planning department hoped to achieve in its efforts to overhaul SNAD into the Special Natural Resources District by removing community board oversight of alterations on properties smaller than an acre.

Community Board 8 met that plan with fierce resistance, and it has been a major sticking point blocking the advisory’s board overall blessing in the greenbelt regulation overhaul.

But Juton Horstman took the podium in front of the City Planning Commission with what he believes could be a viable compromise: Before the city’s buildings department can act on any requests for property smaller than an acre, it will have to let the community board know about it first.

“We have heard consistently from testimony that the community wants to remain engaged,” said Horstman, a senior planner in the Bronx. “This would allow for increased awareness of what’s being filed, so neighbors, the community, everyone, would have that information. And it really offers a simpler process to homeowners, maintaining one of those core goals that we’ve established.”

The SNRD changes originally removed CB8 completely from the equation, allowing anyone on smaller single-family properties to take construction plans directly to the buildings department. Right now, anyone wanting to make any property changes within SNAD would have to file with CB8 in an approval process that could take more than a year, and sometimes cost more than the project itself.

Horstman’s proposed amendment to SNRD would return CB8 into the bureaucratic loop for these projects, but its input would not be required for such a project to move forward. Although specifics are still being worked out, the entire application process would be forwarded to the community board from the buildings department with enough time for that project to be discussed at a land use committee meeting. However, the property owner would not be required to attend such a meeting, or address any concerns brought up by the community board.

If any CB8 member has any issues with what’s being proposed, they would have the same right to file an appeal with the buildings department as anyone else.

“I know that these are highly technical, but we are presenting them because, one, we are proposing them as changes,” City Planning Commission chair Marisa Lago said, “but also to show that we pored through the public comment that was here, and looked for areas where we could address public comments in a way” that met the core principles city planning was hoping to achieve with the SNRD changes.

Making the community board aware about upcoming single-family projects in an environmentally sensitive area is just not enough, according to CB8 chair Rosemary Ginty.

“It’s information only,” Ginty told The Riverdale Press on Tuesday. “That gives the community board no zoning authority to review or recommend to the City Planning Commission.”

Ginty, who is credited as one of the authors of the original SNAD first put in place in the 1970s, says she’s scratching her head over why city planning is removing this key advisory function from CB8.

“What’s so wrong about the community board receiving, reviewing and recommending after a public discussion?” she asked.

“What they are doing feels strange. It feels like they’re twisting everything to fit some level of acceptability.”

The planning commission was expected to finalize its revised SNRD proposal on Wednesday before sending it city council for approval. One of the people who will ultimately vote on such changes — Councilman Andrew Cohen — faced some tough questions at last week’s CB8 land use committee meeting at The Riverdale Y.

There, Cohen reiterated a point that he was not ready to vote for SNRD in its existing form, but was open to some sort of compromise. When pressed for details of what he would ask for in such a compromise, Cohen offered little insight.

“I don’t know how it could get resolved,” the councilman said. “Could it be some role for the community board on all these projects? I don’t know the answer to that.”

Cohen implored the community board to allow the SNRD review process to work itself through.

If city planning had some ideas in terms of how they could bridge the divide growing between the agency and the community board, Cohen would be open to hearing what they are.

After Monday’s presentation, Cohen didn’t have much more to say, simply telling The Press in a statement that “we are currently reviewing the proposed amendments.”

Land use chair Charles Moerdler agrees something must change as far as the city’s approach to new building, but removing what he describes as some of the last bastions of participatory democracy is not the way to go.

“To say that we’re going to stop all development and stop all housing construction is counterproductive, in my personal view,” Moerdler said. “Instead we need to channel it, make it meaningful, plan for it.

“There are areas that can lend themselves to construction, and there are areas that don’t make any sense. We have a viable, wonderful and efficient community that is fully integrated in North Riverdale. It is a perfect target for those who want to destroy communities by building more and more housing,” Moerdler said.

“But understand that our authority is limited, and there are some people who would like to limit it even more.”

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