Faced with Intense Opposition and Fallout from Flood, Council Decides Against Zoning Expansion for 1037

lestersThe City of Rye’s plan to re-zone 1037 Boston Post Road was the subject of vehement public outcry at the September 14 City Council meeting. When it came time for a vote, the Council was unanimous in its decision to not move forward with re-zoning the property.


By Jim Byrne


The City of Rye’s plan to re-zone 1037 Boston Post Road was the subject of vehement public outcry at the September 14 City Council meeting. When it came time for a vote, the Council was unanimous in its decision to not move forward with re-zoning the property.


frenchjovoIn June, the City announced that, in order to increase development opportunities and maximize a potential sale, it intended to extend the Central Business District and re-zone the current site of Lester’s from B-1 to B-2, which would allow for mixed-use capability. Rye entered a lease-purchase agreement for the building in 2006, and plunked down $6.2 million dollars with the intention of one day transforming it into a new police/court facility. The current Council nixed the idea last June, and made the final $5 million balloon payment. Along with putting something back on the tax rolls, the City believed re-zoning 1037 – along with the adjacent 1031 BPR– would provide the best chance at recouping its initial investment.


Residents, however, were not keen on the idea, especially after a July 26 Planning Commission memo was circulated via e-mail. The memo noted that the combined development potential of the two properties could quadruple from approximately 18,000 square-feet under B-1 zoning, to 72,000 square-feet. Though the number of units could vary depending on their size, it was estimated that a three-story building maximizing the 72,000 square-foot space could yield 60 multi-family housing units.


At a sparsely attended August Council meeting, resident Mitch Palais was the sole dissenting voice. He asked the Council not to adopt the local law that evening, to extend the public hearing to the September meeting, so others could be heard. Mayor Doug French and the Council obliged, and dozens of residents, along with Rye schools Superintendent Ed Shine, and Rye library Director Kitty Little, came out to share their concerns.


barringerwebSchool Board President Laura Slack said a zoning change would be detrimental to students in Rye over the long-term. The Board is currently discussing a bond to address enrollment, which is at its highest levels in history. “We simply don’t have the physical plant to absorb more children,” she added.


Many residents expressed displeasure that the plan was floated in the first place.


“This is such a patently bad idea that I can’t believe leadership in town – whoever it was, whatever committee – even considered this proposal,” said Scott Barringer. “I was under five feet of water two weeks ago, the traffic situation is difficult as it is, and the schools are bursting at the seems. How does something that is detrimental in so many ways even appear to be considered to the extent that pen is put to paper?”


Councilman Peter Jovanovich incensed residents at the meeting when he suggested the uproar was over the thought that “poor people” would be moving to town to fill the re-zoned property.


“Schools are bursting at the seams because Rye is getting younger and richer,” said Councilman Jovanovich. “That’s what’s driving development … I personally find it very interesting that – every day, every week, every month – some post-war tract house is torn down and a four- to five-bedroom house is put up and there are no petitions, there are no e-mails going around town. The reason why school enrollment is up is because there are bigger houses going up on the same plot of land. That’s where it’s coming up from, plus the fact that there is a recession. We have had barely any multi-family developments.”


Mr. Barringer, upset at the Councilman’s insinuation, said his problem was with “ludicrous” government proposals.


He continued, “Sixty apartments, at this location? I don’t care if they’re all millionaires, with this traffic problem and this flooding issue it’s irresponsible to even consider. And it sounds like you were behind it.”


Ms. Slack also took exception to the Councilman’s comments, and asked him not to put words in her mouth. Later in the meeting she said that, although the Council and Board usually do a good job communicating, “the ball was dropped” in this instance. Several residents questioned whether the District or School Board had been briefed at all on the plan, and – judging by what was said at the meeting – it appeared there was no communication.  


In an e-mail dated August 16, however, City Manager Scott Pickup reached out to Dr. Shine about re-zoning, in search of data on student populations currently residing in the 50-plus unit developments currently in the City. Dr. Shine noted they would try to help “ASAP”. Dr. Shine was silent at the Council meeting.


oconnorwebOn September 19, Mayor Doug French explained, “The Planning Commission as it’s charged, advised the Council on all of the potential uses and size parameters that a zoning change authorized only by the Council would allow. Potential projects for future approval and planning review would range from commercial use, office space, residential and combined retail/residential.”


Library Director Little said she was not consulted vis-à-vis the proposal.


Other residents, such as Bill O’Connor, took exception to the fact they had to jump through hoops to make modifications to their properties, while the City didn’t even post a sign outside Lester’s notifying residents of the public hearings.


After the Council and Planning Commission absorbed criticism for close to an hour on the issue, Councilman Richard Filippi suggested that residents attend, or perhaps even join, one of the various commission meetings rather than be someone who “just sleeps here at night.” The comment didn’t go over well.


“The accusation of those who ‘just sleep in Rye’ I take exception to,” said Mr. Barringer. “There are very few of us who took the time to come here tonight that ‘just sleep in Rye’. We’re coaches, CCD teachers, we help out, and we take great pride in this community. That’s what I think is the crux of this issue. We don’t want our elected officials to sneak something by us surreptitiously that they think is in the town’s best interest, when it’s obviously not something that is in any way palatable and doesn’t pass the basic litmus test of something that’s sensible. So, we’re not ‘just sleeping here in Rye’, we take this town seriously.”


millerwebWhile Councilman Jovanovich defended mixed-use concepts, citing it as “the future”, and City Planner Christian Miller finally got a chance to explain the process of planning and the need to put every option on the table, the Council eventually voted unanimously not to support the zoning shift.


“Although no sale or development proposals are currently under review or have come forward, the Council determined that given the recent flooding, increasing school enrollment, and traffic and parking impacts, a zoning change of this magnitude should not be considered,” said Mayor French. “Although the standard City procedures for zoning review were followed in terms of obtaining planning comment, public notification and public hearings, this was not a standard situation. As Mayor, given the uniqueness of the circumstances, this required an enhanced process outside of the norm that would allow for broader review and consideration.”

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