Developer threatens lawsuit
By Jeff Simms
A decision on whether to rezone seven parcels on the west side of Beacon remains undecided, as the City Council will now look even further into the issue after hearing a second round of public comments on May 2.
About two dozen speakers addressed the council, with more than half favoring the petition submitted in February by a group of Beacon residents. The feedback, however, was more mixed than a month ago during the first public hearing, as a number of residents asked that the properties remain zoned as they are — for high-density growth.
The petition contends that seven parcels — two on South Avenue and five on Wolcott Avenue/Route 9D — were incorrectly included in Beacon’s Hudson River-to-Main Street “linkage zone,” which was adopted three years ago to connect Main Street to the river by encouraging more residential growth. The city’s idea was that added development along Beacon’s west side would create a more vibrant, walkable community and increase support for businesses on Main Street.
But the parcels in question also lie within the city’s Historic District and Landmark Overlay, and the property owners believe dense development near their homes will spoil the character of their neighborhoods.
“It will be a stain upon the growth we’re trying to have in Beacon,” said Lisa Gallina, who lives at the Hammond Plaza condominium complex on Beekman Street. “It will be too fast and too furious.”
By filing their petition, they have asked the city to effectively “downzone” all seven parcels, returning them to the low- and medium-density classifications they held prior to the adoption of the linkage zone.
However, rezoning the parcels would handcuff one proposed development and another that may still take shape. They are the River Highlands, an approximately 70-unit complex proposed for the site known as Parcel L (the three lots immediately south of the Reformed Church of Beacon on Route 9D), and a potential development adjacent to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on South Avenue.
Officials from the Episcopal Diocese of New York, which owns the St. Andrew’s property, say they can’t afford to restore the aging buildings and would prefer to test the market for development as a source of revenue for the church. They say no plans are imminent and the church is currently only seeking proposals.
“We haven’t done anything yet except start to gather information,” said Rich Dambra, a member of St. Andrew’s. “Trust us, we really want to do what’s right for the community.”
Dambra said that St. Andrew’s wants to avoid a situation like what happened with the United Methodist Church of Fishkill, where a dilapidated building still stands near the church, which doesn’t have the money to improve it. But if the City Council supports the residents’ petition, “they are voting for an eyesore to develop, just like it did in Fishkill,” he said.
Church neighbors, particularly those across the street from St. Andrew’s, fear that large-scale development on the two lots — although it would bring in significant revenue — would scar their neighborhood as well.
“Who doesn’t want to trust a church?” said Beacon resident Claire Reed. “But churches have to deal with bottom lines just like everybody else does. [St. Andrew’s] plans sound nice, but that’s not the way we should operate.”
As for the River Highlands proposal, Ronald J. Piccone II of Beacon Ridge Associates, the owners of Parcel L, submitted a comment to the council by email, warning that if the lots are rezoned, “I will have no recourse but to litigate this recent turn of events.”
He added: “I am sure that the developer [Unicorn Contracting] will also sue to recoup his to-date investment. We followed a path, worked within your zoning, and with changes in the wind, we may lose substantial investments.”
Neither River Highlands nor St. Andrew’s representatives signed the property owners’ petition. However, city statutes allow for the review of properties within a zoning district if 50 percent of the property owners in a given block within the district sign a petition requesting the review.
The Beacon planning board last month voted to support the petition for rezoning, agreeing that the parcels’ current zoning conflicts with the city’s comprehensive plan. Mayor Randy Casale said Monday that the City Council will again discuss the issue at its May 23 workshop, a meeting that’s open to the public but does not allow for public comment.
Having heard from planners, neighbors and developers, the members of the council will be tasked with trying to balance the needs of a growing city with the small-town charm that has helped attract much of that growth.
I am worried about Beacon. Developers are greedy and easily change the character of a town.
Sadly, I am disheartened when I see the Butterfield development. It will be dense and some beautiful trees have been destroyed. Why couldn’t it be a smaller scale? What is the big deal about the senior center and why is it taking over Lahey?. Are there no more important issues than the senior center? How did Butterfield become such a partisan issue?
I suppose it is all about money and alliances. Do developers consider city planning? Remember the planning and objections to the houses on the Riverfront. They are too dense with no space for privacy yet cost a fortune. They have no basement and little storage space. They are one on top of the other. No surprise. I witnessed the flooding some years ago and the water damage done to these homes. I know development goes on but can’t it be done with respect for the environment and some caring for the well being of the community?
This is very discouraging, not the least of which the threats by the developer to litigate.
The threat of the developer, Piccone, is repulsive. Their approach should be to try to work out an option with the community. When you read up on how many real estate transactions this family/company has made in Beacon over the last 40 years, it is quite interesting. I hope they decide to try to work with us and not bully the community with threats.
The upside is if they do go to court and if the court rules in favor of the City, the City can move forward. What are the chances?
A citizen at the last Council meeting said it best. It is not incumbent on private property owners or institutions (e.g., the church) to determine what is appropriate, historic, correctly scaled, proper setback or appropriate type of development. That is the job of the city. Maybe you trust the church, maybe you don’t trust developers, but at the end of the day, it is the City’s job to make coherent zoning laws so that the community and character of the city are protected.
The development on the table for Parcel L would obliterate a 360-degree viewshed. That is meant to be a protected resource (by law – in the Plan). If the zoning is kept in place, St. Andrew’s Church could hire a developer to go six stories with no setbacks in a residential neighborhood. Maybe they say they won’t, but they legally can and once you go to that scale, cornices and style are meaningless. It does not fit.
The community has done its research and there is a clear conflict between the City of Beacon’s comprehensive plan and the zoning that was enacted later. By state law all zoning must conform to the comprehensive plan. So the City of Beacon has the duty to fix this mistake of its own making. Maybe the developer will sue, and I’m sure the City is nervous about that eventuality. But to be honest, shouldn’t the city know its own plan?
Beacon has drawn many tourists not just for the arts, which is great, but also because of its historic charm and small-town feel. Many property owners have invested time and money into loving restoration of their homes and neighborhoods. Do we now want to ring revitalized neighborhoods with a wall of Chernobyl-style apartment complexes? Our city has every right to protect the investment of property owners by insisting on low-story, low-occupancy buildings that will add and not detract from the beauty of our Main Street down to the waterfront.
We must insist that the developer’s project blend beautifully into the existing neighborhood and not be a cheap-looking eyesore meant only to quickly line their pockets before moving on. What tourist will want to be greeted by rows of mundane, factory-like apartments overlooking Beacon’s waterfront as they step off the train? We must be extremely cautious and give thumbs up on development only if it adds significant value and appeal to Beacon for generations to come. We only get one chance here, let’s do it right.
The hard reality is that Beacon needs to widen its tax base to satisfy its insatiable appetite for tax revenue. We have just committed to a $10 million highway garage and now they are planning up to a $12 million centralized firehouse. Thank God the city took a track of allowing development to occur on the east end. If not, the real-estate tax liability of individual property owners would have shot up, thereby forcing the longtime local residents out of their homes while driving home prices down.
Believe me, the City of Beacon has its hands deep into the developer’s pocket to enrich the coffers with city fees, engineering, planning and other consultant costs that are demanded by the city. If this development, along with some of the major projects on the east, were curtailed and city residents saw their real-estate taxes and user fees skyrocket in order to pay for the out-of-control spending, we would all be singing a different tune. We need this development. We need the tax dollars.