Residents resist ceding oversight of natural area district

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There was a lot of talk about the city’s proposed changes to the Special Natural Area District in the echo-filled auditorium of P.S. 81. But what there wasn’t was a vote.

That’s because Community Board 8’s land use committee failed to get enough members to show up for what many had billed as one of the most significant pieces of legislation that could affect large portions of Riverdale, Fieldston and Spuyten Duyvil in decades.

Monday’s hearing was the first step in what is expected to be a lengthy and contentious journey to turn the greenbelt of the Bronx and Staten Island from the Special Natural Area District to a Special Natural Resource District. The city planning department wants to update the environmental science used in preserving natural elements of the various communities, while removing what they say is more onerous bureaucratic red tape in property owners making minor changes to their property within the protected area.

“It burdens small property owners to have to go through a discretionary review,” said Juton Horstman, a senior city planner who presented the SNAD changes Monday night.

Under the current laws, nearly all exterior changes that take place on any property inside the SNAD requires review by a number of agencies, including CB8. City planners want to remove some of that oversight by allowing properties of 1 acre or less to go directly to the city’s buildings department, and bypass steps including CB8.

That particular part of the plan is not popular with the community board, or some of the 50 or so people who attended Monday’s hearing.

“There is a lot of good in this proposal,” said Sherida Paulsen, an architect and a past chair of the Riverdale Nature Preservancy. “The rules that direct what you can do on the site are predictable and clear, and much more precipitous than they were in the past. And I do agree with everyone else — the 1-acre proposal as the cutoff is incorrect.”

Instead, Paulsen has echoed what CB8 has proposed — limit community board oversight to properties that are more than 10,000 square feet. That’s a quarter of the minimum size the city has proposed at 1 acre.

Leaving the job up to the buildings department just wouldn’t work, Paulsen said.

“They don’t know what they are enforcing most of the time when it comes to SNAD,” she said, adding that if the city is not going to lower the threshold for community board review, that the zoning changes on SNAD shouldn’t take effect until the buildings department has created the necessary forms and has received the appropriate training to properly enforce the new SNRD.

Councilman Andrew Cohen, who at some point will get a vote on the proposed changes at city hall, agrees that the buildings department isn’t in a position to review the rules and safeguard the SNRD.

But he has diverged a bit from the community board, supporting the 1 acre cutoff for community review.

Although he didn’t address that topic specifically during his comments at the hearing Monday night, he did make that position clear in a May 30 letter to the editor in The Riverdale Press, saying smaller property owners shouldn’t have to be scolded by land use chair Charles Moerdler for what he essentially called simple yard modifications.

Moerdler wasn’t having it, however, even while citing his respect for the buildings department — which he at one time served as commissioner for.

“That department was, is and will be unfit to play a role as a substitute for the participatory democracy of a community board,” Moerdler said. “In a time we seek progressive action, this would be retrogressive — to the nth degree.”

Moerdler and other CB8 members have called for the Bronx to be separated from Staten Island when it comes to protection of the greenbelt. Even CB8 chair Rosemary Ginty — one of the original proponents of SNAD as a city employee more than four decades ago — admits because of the size of Staten Island’s greenbelt, that borough is in the “driver’s seat” when it comes to SNAD changes.

Cohen supports that separation, as do his Staten Island counterparts. But even if Riverdale and Fieldston can develop their own rules regarding SNRD, it seems a difficult road to reduce the community board oversight cutoff from 1 acre to 10,000 square feet. City planning’s Horstman didn’t address the push.

Maintaining the greenbelt is important to ensuring the character of the greater Riverdale community is not destroyed, according to Stephanie Coggins, who does not live within the SNAD, but says she’s seen what development can destroy firsthand in her efforts to save the Villa Rosa Bonheur apartment building on Palisade Avenue.

“I would like people to stop thinking in terms of their lots, and stop thinking in terms of Fieldston, and stop thinking in terms of Delafield, but start thinking in terms of Riverdale as a whole,” she said.

“If you don’t think there is going to be development on your block, then you will be very surprised when the beautiful rock outcropping is gone, and the trees and natural elements that you grew up with are moved or are gone.

“I want people to start thinking of us in terms of a larger community. That is the only way we’re going to take control of this situation.”

The community board will have a second opportunity to vote on the SNAD changes — and make proposals of its own — at its June 27 meeting. It’s scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m., at P.S. 37 on West 230th Street.

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