Public weighs in on linkage zone, affordable housing
By Jeff Simms
The debate over whether to rezone a handful of properties within Beacon’s west-side linkage zone, now six months old, appears primed to continue for at least another month — as does the ongoing discussion about how to calculate affordable housing citywide.
Both issues were the subjects of public hearings on Aug. 15, and both were adjourned pending input from Dutchess County planners.
The linkage debate began in February when a group of residents petitioned the city to rezone seven parcels within the zone, which was created three years ago to encourage increased residential development in the area between the west end of Main Street and the Hudson River. The petitioners argued that high-density linkage zoning would disrupt the neighborhoods surrounding the seven parcels, two of which sit on South Avenue, with five others on Wolcott Avenue/Route 9D.
The petition has drawn particular attention for including “Parcel L,” the name used for the three lots just south of the Reformed Church of Beacon on Route 9D. Parcel L is owned by Beacon Ridge Associates and a builder, Unicorn Contracting, has proposed a 70-unit development called River Highlands for the site.
On Aug. 10, the Beacon Planning Board submitted a memo to the City Council recommending that all seven properties, including Parcel L, revert to their pre-linkage zoning. In the case of Parcel L, the planning board said it believed increased density there would be “inconsistent with adjacent parcels along Route 9D.”
Based on “the desire to keep a consistency in land uses” on 9D, the planning board recommended reverting back to the 2009 comprehensive plan zoning for Parcel L, which was low-density residential. The board made a similar recommendation to the council in April to accept the residents’ petition, which asks for all seven properties to revert to their pre-linkage zoning.
After two public hearings (Aug. 15 was the third), it appears Beacon officials agree with the planning board on four of the seven properties. The current draft of the proposal before the council shows four parcels being reverted to their pre-linkage, low-density classifications.
The notable exception is Parcel L, which is proposed for rezoning to a medium density of five to nine units per acre — a reduction from its present status but not the low density of one to two units per acre requested by residents.
The Story of “Parcel L”
Nineteenth-century maps of Fishkill Landing (now known as Beacon) show that much of the land known as “Parcel L” was once owned by the prominent Kittredge family. A single home occupied the site for much of the 20th century.
As part of a comprehensive plan adopted in the 1970s, the lot was rezoned for medium-high density (10 to 15 units per acre). In 1995, its zoning was changed to one unit per acre and the lot was included in a newly adopted Historic District and Landmark Overlay that added restrictions for exterior alterations.
In 2002, Parcel L was subdivided into three lots. In 2007 a new comprehensive plan changed the zoning to 5 to 9 units per acre. In 2009, the city restricted construction on the parcel further, zoning it for 1 to 2 units per acre. But in 2013 the city, as part of its new linkage zone, changed the zoning to high density, opening the door for multi-unit buildings.
In February, residents asked the city to return seven properties, including the three lots in Parcel L, to pre-linkage zoning, which would revert the land to its 2009 low-density designation.
On Aug. 15, comments from the public focused almost exclusively on that exception.
“Why is it being considered in a completely different manner?” asked Garianne Carapola, a resident of the Hammond Plaza condominium complex, just downhill from Parcel L. “Is it because it’s the only section of land named on the petition that developers have actively shown interest in?”
Unicorn Contracting has appeared only once before the Beacon planning board, making a preliminary presentation in Nov. 2015. However, Ronald J. Piccone II of Beacon Ridge Associates in May threatened legal action if the Parcel L lots are rezoned. He implied that Unicorn would also sue.
Beacon Administrator Anthony Ruggiero told The Current on Aug. 18 that the city has not heard from Beacon Ridge or Unicorn regarding litigation since then.
During the Aug. 15 hearing, several speakers, most of them from Hammond Plaza, urged the City Council to heed the Planning Board and rezone all seven lots.
“When the comprehensive plan was crafted there was a very forward-thinking effort … to ensure the future of Beacon,” argued Claire Reed, a Hammond Plaza resident. Suggesting that the potential of medium- or high-density zoning for Parcel L “does not make sense,” Reed added, “We will live to regret a change that is so philosophically different from what these people [who drafted the comprehensive plan] clearly intended … and unfortunately I think it would be a very long-lasting mistake.”
The council agreed to adjourn the public hearing until Sept. 19 while it awaits input from the Dutchess County Planning Board.
Feedback was more mixed during another public hearing on Aug. 15, this one on a proposal to set a price threshold on affordable “workforce” housing — units within new developments that are made available at lower than market-value costs — in Beacon.
City officials have proposed a change that would make households earning 65 percent or less of the area’s median income (AMI) eligible for reduced-cost housing. The AMI is around $58,900, so households earning about $38,000 annually or less would meet the eligibility requirement.
Adjusting the income threshold — the current law is unclear regarding income limits — would increase the number of households that could save by renting or buying workforce housing.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines “unaffordable” housing as that which requires a household to pay more than 30 percent of its gross income on housing costs, which include rent and utilities or a mortgage payment, utilities, insurance and taxes.
Therefore, if the city adopts the change, eligible households earning 65 percent or less of the AMI would be able to rent or purchase workforce units at a cost not exceeding 30 percent of their income. Including utilities, that works out to housing costs of just over $1,000 per month.
The second, and much less controversial, change being proposed would set a priority list, giving households that include emergency responders, municipal and school system employees and current and former members of the military first crack at workforce housing.
On Aug. 15, developers again asked the council to “grandfather” already approved building projects, which would bind them to the affordable housing standards in place at the time of planning board approval for their projects and not to any changes the City Council may adopt.
Beacon developer Rodney Weber estimated that if the council adopts the changes, it would cost him more than $38,000 per year “in perpetuity” on a single project. “It really does affect my project in particular,” Weber said. “Grandfathering for me is important because it comes down to investors and banks. Half a million dollars is nothing to shake a stick at.”
Daniel Laub, an associate at Cuddy & Feder, which represents The Lofts at Beacon, Beacon 248 and Weber Projects, told the council that “trying to now switch around the amount of money that’s dedicated to these [affordable] units now will change drastically their figures for what [developers] were originally proposing and how they got their approvals.”
Hammond Plaza resident Lisa Gallina, however, exhorted the council to adopt the changes. “The biggest scourge upon this city would be to lose its cultural diversity — to lose police officers, firefighters, teachers and nurses — all the working people who would like to live here,” she said. “We need to have affordable housing at all different levels, and the developers should not be driving the conversation. Their profiteering has nothing to do with this city.”
The public hearing on the affordable housing proposal was adjourned until Oct. 3, again as the city awaits feedback from Dutchess County.