The transformation of the Bronx’s decades old Special Natural Area District into the Special Natural Resources District — complete with new laws — is important, according to the city’s planning department. Even if Staten Island is no longer part of the equation.
Whether it’s called “snerd” or city planning’s more preferred “S-N-R-D,” the zoning overhaul is designed to protect more trees while looking at environmental impacts of the borough’s greenbelt as a whole rather than through individual lots as has been done since the 1970s.
Yet there’s no shortage of controversy surrounding SNRD, ranging from the removal of community board oversight on smaller properties to the outright and wholesale removal of an entire borough that makes up much of the original SNAD.
The fact that SNRD has made its way to Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr.’s office while Staten Island is going to stay the way it is for now was something not lost on Community Board 8 land use chair Charles Moerdler. In fact, he believes the push to create SNRD in the Bronx is far more personal, pointing the finger straight at city planning’s borough director Carol Samol.
“We were called at one point in time the community planning board,” Moerdler told Diaz’s staff during last week’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure hearing. “Our function was, and still should be, to participate in a partnership with the Department of City Planning. But I will tell you that relations today between most community boards in the borough and the Department of City Planning, thanks to this current leadership, has been reduced to active warfare.”
Community board leaders like Moerdler and chair Rosemary Ginty have called city planning out for not being forthcoming through the SNRD approval process. Outside of their belief requests like returning some community board oversight to properties smaller than an acre, the board was incensed by sudden and unannounced changes to the SNRD proposal — primarily removing Staten Island, and not providing a revised proposal reflecting that change so the community board could vote properly last month.
Even worse, Ginty told Diaz’s staff, the Bronx community board only found out Staten Island had been excised from the process because a board member works in the borough and found out about it. No official word came from city planning.
Moerdler believes the only reason why what he has described as a broken proposal is even moving forward in the Bronx is because he believes Samol has a personal beef with the board — something Samol denies. It stems back to longstanding requests from Moerdler and other CB8 members to downzone an area around Dash Place near Manhattan College to prevent any more high-density housing projects from going up.
The downzoning request — which required weeks of work by the volunteer board members — sat on Samol’s desk for months, Moerdler said, and was never acted upon, being told city planning was “too busy” to review it. Not long after, Moerdler and the board demanded Samol be removed from her position.
“I honestly believe what’s going on here is retribution from that end,” Moerdler said of city planning. “That is my opinion, and she will disagree.”
Samol, who attended the hearing with senior city planner Juton Horstman, didn’t immediately respond to Moerdler’s accusation. However, in a statement from city planning to The Riverdale Press after the meeting, communications director Melissa Grace defended the SNRD proposal process, as well as the work by the department’s leaders.
“DCP stands squarely behind our amazing, professional Bronx planners, their highly accomplished leader Carol Samol, and the special district proposal to strengthen protection of natural resources while reducing red tape faced by single-family homeowners seeking to improve their property,” Grace said.
“Developed by two community working groups over four years, the special district update provisions — which remain unchanged for the Bronx — are solid. They should be debated on the merits.”
Horstman told Diaz’s staff that the current SNAD is based on outdated ecological science.
“We learned a lot in the last 20 years, 40 years since the text has been in place,” the senior planner said. SNRD would treat environmental issues with a more holistic, comprehensive approach. When changes are proposed to different properties, surrounding lots will be taken into consideration. And there will be a greater push to preserve and add trees to the greenbelt area that covers mostly the parts of Riverdale and Spuyten Duyvil as well as Fieldston.
SNRD also would streamline the approval process for changes on single-family lots, Horstman said, which currently takes more than a year to complete.
“It’s very burdensome for some of the smaller homeowners for an unpredictable outcome,” he said. “You can ask for these discretionary approvals, but there’s no threshold on how far you can ask for a modification.”
Instead of going to the community board, proposed property changes on lots of 1 acre or less would go directly to the buildings department.
Although Staten Island won’t be implementing these changes — at least for now — Samol said she believes this is an evolution of the greenbelt that can’t wait for the Bronx.
“Throughout the process, we have been looking at the two different borough’s needs, and we believe strongly that the rules that are presented at the start of ULURP really meets the Bronx’s needs, and met the Bronx prototype,” Samol said.
But that process has been fraught with sinkholes and canyons, CB8 chair Ginty said. The fact the community board hasn’t officially weighed in on the proposals — it refused to vote on the outdated text changes last month — along with the other material changes that have taken place since city planning certified the SNRD amendment, means there needs to be a reset button.
“The board had no zoning text before it to approve or disapprove,” Ginty said. “We have been living with this for 44 years. And under these circumstances, any ULURP process must start anew.”
Diaz is expected to provide his recommendation on SNRD before the end of the month before it moves on to the City Planning Commission for hearings and potential modifications to the proposal before making its final stop at city council, and ultimately, the mayor’s desk — all of which is expected to conclude by October.
CORRECTION: Community Board 8 land use chair Charles Moerdler told staff members from Ruben Diaz Jr.’s office that he believes the continuation of the Special Natural Area District changes in the Bronx is out of retribution by city planning’s borough director Carol Samol. A headline in the July 18 edition incorrectly identified the community board as a whole in sharing that belief.