While the New Castle Town Board's work sessions are normally informal, low-key events held in a small conference room at town hall, Tuesday's joint work session with the Chappaqua school board on the status of the Chappaqua Crossing development was packed, with several disgruntled attendees who were upset with the choice of venue.
"You asked people to come participate and then you put it in this little room!" shouted Chappaqua resident Jules Buxbaum. Others voiced similar displeasure (see the attached video for part of the exchange).
The Town Board relented and moved the meeting into its main room, where regular sessions are held, delaying the start of the session. Even then the crowd quickly filled the space.
While tempers did not flare up to the same degree again, many of the crowd in attendance seemed to be facing an August of discontent, over a project that they adamantly oppose.
Several key issues have received new scrutiny since a final environmental impact statement was released in July with a new build option, known as Alternative I under the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the former Reader's Digest site.
The new alternative will allow for more office space – 662,000 square feet – versus 520,000 in the proposed action, or applicant Summit/Greenfield's desired development version. There are only 199 housing units in Alternative I, versus 278 in the proposed action.
Aside from scale and traffic concerns having been raised, another contentious issue is whether the development will bring scores of new children into the district.
While the proposed action includes an age restriction permitting only adults 55 and older with children 18 and up, Alternative I does not. Numbers from the newest FEIS iteration show that roughly 58 new students could potentially be added to the school system. Summit/Greenfield mentioned that the district will be under capacity in enrollment, but the board responded in a recent public email, saying that additional costs for more children, such as transportation and supplies, need to be considered.
Members of the Chappaqua school board, in their turns to the speak on the matter, tore into the process and criticized property owner Summit/Greenfueld, and offered criticism to the Town Board at times.
On the issue of potential student enrollment, members consistently criticized Summit/Greenfield's arguments that adding extra school children to the district through residential properties would not be an issue due to the district being under capacity.
"To me, the declining enrollment and excess capacity is an asset of the district that should not be given away," said board member Jeffrey Mester, arguing that the extra capacity gives the district a way to reduce expenses as the student population goes down.
School board member Gregg Bresner stressed that the project could have a significant financial impact on the area.
"I think we're talking about an issue that could be the most important issue that this town has ever faced," he said.
School board member Alyson Kiesel, in a statement, likened supporting Summit/Greenfield's requests to the corporate bailouts of the past few years.
"Are you now going to tell the New Castle taxpayer that they need to bail out a developer, whose property investment has not achieved the profitability they desire?" she asked, to which she received applause from the audience.
She also said that Summit/Greenfield has not worked with the district to create "a mutually beneficial project."
Kiesel, mindful of her role in the public school system, offered an analogy for the situation.
"We teach our students that bullying is not tolerated in our schools," she said. "If we do not protect our taxpayers and students, then we are allowing ourselves to be bullied.
Also raised during the meeting was the taxable status of housing units that would be proposed for the site.
Mester proposed that the housing units be taxed on a fee-simple basis, something the school board described in a recent email about the project as "outright ownership, taxed as single family house, not subject to condominium tax." He also said that revaluation for the town should be considered, with a Homestead Act exemption that would allow housing, whether a condominium or single-family building, to be taxed at the same rate if they have the same value.
Supervisor Barbara Gerrard expressed some concern with this idea, saying that while a revaluation study is currently being done for the town (and is due next month), treating condominiums under the Homestead Act and taxing them at 100-percent value would go on while neighboring communities – such as Mount Kisco and Armonk – would not be doing it for theirs. She also cited concerns about what would happen to current condominium residents in town.
Monitoring the impact on enrollment was also discussed. Bresner brought up a previous study on projected enrollment with Chappaqua Crossing that was done by BOCES. He argued that the district should get an organization with experience in the condominium market to look at the situation, and argued that the BOCES study was out of date, with it assuming that an age restriction would be in force cited as a reason. The latest building version of the development submitted to the town, dubbed "Alternative I" for the final environmental impact statement, does not have one, while the desired "proposed action" version of the development still does.
Despite the angst over the project, town board members stressed that something had to be done with the site.
Gerrard noted that Summit/Greenfield is currently in a tax certiori challenge to get its tax bill lowered - which would mean less revenue - and explained that the town board is responsible for the town's fiscal security.
Councilman Robin Stout, in talking about not doing anything with the site, likened it to a black hole. He also pointed out, in response to Bresner explaining that Reader's Digest's tax revenue was small relative to the town's expenses, that revenue from the site had been going down.
Geoff Thompson of Thompson & Bender, a public relations firm working of behalf of Summit/Greenfield, offered a quick rebuttal in an interview after the meeting.
"We are very confident that our numbers that we show in the FEIS are solid and stand behind them," he said, adding that they feel the project is "tax positive" for the town and the schools. Thompson also said that the school board has only met with them one in the past few years, and that they have made unsuccessful attempts to talk with them.
The Town Board is still reviewing the current FEIS iteration, and the next major event for the public to attend will be a Sept. 28 information session.
Editor's Note: The initial version of this story reported that the tensions delayed the meeting "beyond its 7 p.m. start time." However, it was a few mintues after that already, but before the substance of the meeting was intended to be discussed. This note is for purposes of clarification.