What's next for natural area zoning?

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If there was a single word to describe how Christopher Rizzo feels right now, it’s “frustration.”

It’s been nearly a week since the city’s planning department officially withdrew its proposal to dramatically transform Riverdale’s Special Natural Area District into what it was calling a Special Natural Resources District. What was meant to be a much-needed overhaul of decades-old environmental rules protecting greenbelts in both the Bronx and Staten Island instead became a controversy that pitted some of New York City’s biggest movers and shakers in planning against each other.

Rizzo, however, just wanted to make a program he deeply believes in not just as a land use attorney, but as someone who cares deeply about his Riverdale home.

“You shouldn’t have to be a multi-millionaire to own a home in the SNAD,” Rizzo said. “The current SNAD regulations are the worst of both worlds in the sense that individual homeowners — including those on very small lots — are put through a very expensive, and often needless, application process. It creates a regulatory burden for small homeowners who just want to do very minor work on their property.”

When SNAD was put in place in the 1970s, a lot of older Riverdale was built out. But unlike some of the more urban centers in other boroughs like Manhattan, there were large lots and many trees still left. And there was a significant push to ensure those trees and that nature would be preserved, no matter how much the city needed to expand.

But science changes all the time how planners look at preservation, and what was a focus on individual lots as if they existed on their own islands, city officials pushed to take a more macro look at environmental protection, taking the whole region into account when someone wants to build something new.

That’s where the SNAD working group came in. More than four years ago, this committee was created with members holding diverse opinions on the future of SNAD, including Rizzo, and those who wanted more strict environmental standards. Through that work, the group developed what would become the foundation of city planning’s Special Natural Resources District, which would look at the entire greenbelt as a whole, while at the same time try to alleviate some of the red tape individual homeowners on larger lots, must endure.

“I am disappointed that it did not go forward,” Rizzo said of SNRD. “A lot of people, including myself, invested a lot of valuable time in these amendments. And I think that people should have spoken up much earlier in the process if they had major objections to what was being proposed.”

 

Participatory democracy

Carol Samol, the city planning department’s Bronx borough director, officially withdrew the SNRD proposal from city council consideration Oct. 10. She did so in response to a letter from Councilman Andrew Cohen, informing her that SNRD in its current amended form after a trip through the City Planning Commission would not be approved by his colleagues in its current form.

“I am convinced now more than ever that there is no viable path forward for the current SNAD legislation to pass in the city council,” Cohen wrote Oct. 2. “Despite the recent text amendments, these changes do not reflect the current needs of the community.”

The biggest stumbling block, at least at the most hyperlocal level, was the removal of Community Board 8 from the approval process for any exterior work inside the neighborhoods where SNRD would be in effect. Right now, nearly all exterior changes in SNAD-covered properties require a stop at CB8’s land use committee. Sometimes, the visit is painless, or might require a little negotiation. A few times, depending on what’s proposed, it could be met with loud opposition.

The problem with that, according to planning commission chair Marisa Lago, is that it adds a considerable expense to single-family homeowners who might just want to change a driveway, or put in a swimming pool. It could take a year to get something like that fully approved through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, and even worse, the regulatory application alone is sometimes more expensive than the actual project.

Under SNRD, properties of an acre or less could actually bypass the entire ULURP, and go straight to the city’s buildings department for approval. The planning commission even amended the SNRD proposal to require the buildings department to share such applications with CB8, although CB8 would not have an official voice in the proceedings.

“DCP has dedicated significant resources to this multi-year planning effort in the Bronx,” Lago said during prepared comments earlier this month when her commission approved SNRD. “Such an intensive review of zoning affecting a small area of the borough only comes along once every few decades. As you might guess, our Bronx office is extraordinarily busy meeting the planning needs of neighborhoods across the Bronx, the fastest-growing county in New York state.”

 

After denial, a new plan?

Even if SNRD had gone through, Rizzo himself admits some issues were not properly resolved in the process. The biggest was giving community boards — and the community as a whole — a much louder voice when it comes to as-of-right construction.

Under current zoning laws, any developer staying within the parameters of a property’s specific classification can avoid a lot of the review process, and start turning dirt through as-of-right zoning. However, the buildings department allows for a 45-day challenge period of any as-of-right project, Rizzo said, that includes an extensive appeal process. But in order to challenge, people have to know about the projects first.

“If your challenge gets rejected, you can appeal to the commission,” Rizzo said. “If the commissioner denies you, you can go to the Board of Standards and Appeals, or you can file a lawsuit to enjoin the project. There are all real means to challenge zoning non-compliance, and I have had success with them.”

Another issue not addressed was the ability for owners of larger lots to subdivide them, which could create higher-density construction through a SNAD loophole.

“From a constitutional perspective, it’s very hard to tell somebody who owns a zoning-compliant tax lot that no, you can’t build there, because it was carved out of a larger zoning tax lot,” Rizzo said. “Good luck with that.”

 

An optimistic future?

Community board members already have expressed relief in seeing SNRD come to an end. CB8 land use chair Charles Moerdler, in a letter to the editor to The Riverdale Press, called SNRD a deprivation of the neighborhood’s “small window to participatory democracy.” He, along with the CB8’s officers — led by chair and one of the original SNAD authors Rosemary Ginty — applauded Cohen for stepping up after weeks of seemingly sidestepping the issue in sort of a “wait and see” approach.

In fact, Cohen seemed initially for some parts of SNRD, including the removal of community board oversight of single-family properties, even submitting a letter to the editor earlier this year calling out how Moerdler is said to negatively treat some applicants.

For Rizzo, however, it seems years of work was yanked away in a single withdrawal letter ending SNRD. And if city planners were hoping to try again, the lawyer isn’t hearing anything.

But if there was an effort to try and bring his working group back together to take another deep look at SNAD, Rizzo said he might hesitate at first, but would ultimately take part.

“I would do it if there were assurances that the community was going to be brought into the process in such a way that they would have real buy-in into the end results,” Rizzo said. “I would really want to know that the relevant stakeholders were being invited to the table so that we would be sure that what we produced in the end is really a position that could be embraced by the community.”

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