Clarkstown Councilman Hoehmann Opposes Ramapo Proposal On Pascack Ridge Downzoning

 

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To: Editor Rockland Voice
From: George Hoehmann,
Clarkstown Councilman

Re: Pascack Ridge Development in Town of Ramapo

Dear Editor:  In this letter I would like to provide your readers with detailed reasons as to why I oppose the proposed downzoning in the Town of Ramapo for the proposed development, Pascack Ridge.

Overview: What is being proposed?
As readers of the Rockland Voice know, two developers have proposed to the Town of Ramapo a zone change that will take over twenty eight acres and change the zoning from R-15, which calls for three to four dwelling units per acre to an MR 12 zone that will enable over 12 units per acre. Collectively the two developers are seeking an amendment to the town comprehensive plan and a zone change that will create 290 units of multifamily housing. The additional area adjacent to these units will be affected and can also be rezoned meaning even more units eventually.

As I will outline in this article the zoning and the underlying foundational document called the ‘Comprehensive Plan’ offer specific criteria for such requests that the project does not meet. Thus, as a matter of law and in accord with zoning and the comprehensive plan these proposals cannot proceed.  If the Town of Ramapo proceeds to approve this zoning change it will be opposed in the courts by neighboring property owners and by the Town of Clarkstown.

I was born and raised in Rockland County and I am a product of local schools and have watched the character of the county change dramatically. When I was a child Germonds Road was gravel covered and one could count the number of cars passing along it each evening on one hand.

Today Clarkstown has grown into a burgeoning diverse community with many needs. Some planning and development in the county has been less than desirable and there have been many lost opportunities for better growth. But we are now at a critical point that requires diligence and leadership from elected officials and all concerned persons to insure that the future and land-use decisions are in accord with sound planning practice and strong zoning laws.

I am now in my sixth year serving as a councilman in the Town where I was born. Prior to serving as a councilman, I had the unique opportunity to serve my fellow citizens for five years as a member of the Clarkstown Planning Board. In this role I learned a great deal about the law and the proper rules to govern land-use issues as controlled by zoning and upheld by a foundational document – called the ‘Comprehensive Plan’.

For the public good to encompass the welfare of all citizens, each town must have a comprehensive plan and its zoning laws must be firmly rooted in the plan. As a member of the Clarkstown planning board I was proud to be an integral part of the process for the development of a new and truly groundbreaking document in Clarkstown. Our Comprehensive Plan has been recognized far and wide as an example of best practices in land-use. Not only did I serve throughout the development of the plan on Clarkstown’s planning board and as a member of the Comprehensive Plan committee, but I had the opportunity to approve the final version as a newly elected town board member in the fall of 2009.

In short it was a unique perspective to be on both ends of the process. Moreover, the town board realized that stewardship of the document was critically important and created a committee called- ‘The Special Board’ – consisting of town staff, volunteers and others who were charged with the proper implementation of the Plan.

I have served as Chairman of the Special Board since its inception in 2009 and am proud of the fact that we are indeed seeking to insure that all land-use decisions are in accord with the law and are based on the goals and objectives outlined in the Clarkstown Comprehensive Plan. Would that others do the same!

What, you might wonder is the Clarkstown Comprehensive Plan?
In short it was designed in the form of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and evaluates land-use as it affects the whole land within our town. A zone change or development anywhere in New York State must be evaluated using this format of outlining specific concerns and offering mitigation to prevent adverse impacts over a standard set of categories. The surprising thing to realize is that Clarkstown is probably the first community to actually use the EIS as a format for its comprehensive plan. We owe our gratitude to Clarkstown’s Town Planner, Joe Simoes, and his staff for the recommendation that this format be used to create our Plan document.

Why is it so important for a town to have a credible and strictly managed comprehensive plan?
Simply put, the comprehensive plan in any municipality is the foundation underpinning all land-use decisions and it forms the basis for all zoning in any municipality. All zoning laws flow naturally and properly from the guidelines delineated in the plan and it structures the hopes, desires and appropriate land-use that the local governing board adopts to provide for that community. A good comprehensive plan looks at the entire municipality, not just a particular segment, and it provides the maximum public benefit to all of the municipality’s residents.

A good comprehensive plan will protect residents from adverse land-use decisions beneficial to a few at the expense of the many, prevent lawsuits and insure the future for residents. Areas can be identified for specific growth, such as is the case under Clarkstown’s plan for the commercial corridors along state highways, such as Routes 303, 304, 59 and 9W, while maintaining rigorous zoning to protect existing residential neighborhoods from over development and downzoning.

Environmentally sensitive areas can be studied and protected as was the case in Clarkstown’s plan with reviews of waterways and enhanced zoning protection for ridges, wetlands and streams. Cultural and other resources are further items that are also reviewed as was the case with Clarkstown’s plan to insure that the historic buildings and districts in our town will survive the march of time and not be lost in the name of ‘progress’ as has too often been the case.

In summary a properly functioning governing board in a municipality that adheres to its comprehensive plan will insure development occurs in accord with the law and in a manner that is reasoned and rational in protecting its present and future residents. This is important because for most people the greatest investment they make resides in the equity that inheres to their home. When municipalities throw caution to the wind and allow irresponsible overdevelopment not in accord with a properly structured comprehensive plan, home values suffer, quality of life deteriorates and the community’s desirable characteristics falter.

Is Pascack Ridge Out of Step with Ramapo’s Comprehensive Plan?
All of the above leads me to explain why I have decided to take a strong activist role in opposition to the downzoning and dangerous overdevelopment which is presently before the Town of Ramapo. The present proposal for Pascack Ridge will negatively impact both Clarkstown and Ramapo.

Since this proposal came forth in the fall it has become increasingly evident that the existing Ramapo Comprehensive Plan does not support the proposed application. In fact due to environmental constraints of steep slopes, the Pascack Brook, and several easements, the existing comprehensive plan and zoning calls for a medium density housing of no more than three to four units per acre.

The surrounding neighbors have on three previous occasions fought proposed down-zoning and each time the Ramapo Town Board properly denied its approval. Further, as one listens to oral presentations, studies the written materials presented by the consultants and the ‘experts’, it is no longer a matter for discussion that the standard of ‘public good’ required to justify a zone change in this case is not, and cannot, be met.  The only ‘good’ one can see from the proposed down-zoning is the profit that would accrue to the developer as all of the neighbors are left with added traffic, flooding, pollution and diminished home values.

In my official role as a town councilman I have attended three Ramapo Town Board meetings, often driving Margaret Comer, the widow of the late Jim Comer who was the long time Forrest Brook Citizens Association President, to attend these meetings. It was Jim who rallied the neighbors in the Clarkstown section of this area to fight against the prior applications and insist that Ramapo and Spring Valley be good neighbors.  Now Margaret and scores of her neighbors in Clarkstown and Ramapo are adding their voice to again say “enough is enough“. They are coming out in the great American tradition of democracy to raise grievances and insist that Ramapo follow the law and abide by the existing comprehensive plan.

This is critically important as one builds a record documenting if or how the law was followed. In this present case should the law be followed and the comprehensive plan be adhered to, then this development could not proceed. It’s really quite simple; citizens and neighboring municipalities are forcing the light of public awareness onto the Ramapo Town Board’s process and in the event that something is approved not in accordance with current zoning and good municipal practice then legal recourse and injunctive relief must and will be sought to protect both Ramapo’s and Clarkstown’s citizens.

Willingness to Sue
It is precisely because all residents affected by this proposed development and the general community at large need protection that I took an unprecedented step at the December 2014 Clarkstown Town Board meeting.  I prepared and proposed a resolution, seconded by Councilman Borelli and adopted by a 5-0 vote of the Town Board, to authorize the Town of Clarkstown to retain special counsel and through the Town’s attorney prepare to seek injunctive relief from the Town of Ramapo to protect our community form an example of extreme overdevelopment that will negatively impact this environmentally sensitive area and which would forever alter that neighborhood and the community-at-large negatively.

What Should The Town of Ramapo Do?
By law the development companies are not entitled to approval of this project.  Indeed, it is not even entitled to the public hearings which have already been held given the existing zoning and the comprehensive plan Ramapo has in place. Ramapo did not even have to entertain this proposal in any form. The developer can build medium density properties at this site and nothing more. That is a powerful statement but true and thus the machinations that have taken place to seek a change of the comprehensive plan and downzoning.

If the Town of Ramapo proceeds on this dangerous and unprecedented course of action it must do so in a way that is in concert with the State Environmental Quality Review Act commonly known as (SEQRA).Under this metric clear guidelines are established, the developers must answer all questions and these answers must be validated by experts deemed competent by the municipal board. To date the developers have offered platitudes and no answers of any real specificity.

Moreover, Ramapo has a process that ought to be followed.  Any massive proposal for a change to a municipality’s comprehensive plan calls for a full town wide analysis with reasoned judgments and an update of the entire plan.  The Town must detail why the plan ought to be changed and it must explain to the community at large why added property density in one location and not in another in the same municipality is warranted.  All aspects of SEQRA must be followed.

The citizens of Rockland County owe a debt of gratitude to County Executive Ed Day and to the County Planning department which under general municipal law has conducted its review and disapproved this project with great detail. This is critically important because the county disapproval provides numerous reasons as to the basis for its actions and will require that any approval address these concerns in exacting detail and by a supermajority of the Town Board. A super majority for any zone change to occur in Pascack Ridge is now required—thank you County Executive Day and Rockland County Planning.  Thus, four of the five members of Ramapo’s Town Board must vote affirmatively and their approval must specifically address each aspect of the county’s objections as well as the points raised on the record by all citizens and interested parties including Clarkstown.

Dozens of private citizens and many elected officials have spoken at the Town of Ramapo’s public hearings.  They have built the record which clearly demonstrates to the Ramapo Town Board, and which will demonstrate to any future court, that existing land use laws in place and the existing comprehensive plan itself offers specific criteria where a zone change might occur; not surprisingly this parcel falls short. According to the Ramapo Plan a zoning change to multifamily requires that the parcel have direct access to major roads including state highways and sidewalks to shopping. Eight criteria exist to consider a change in the zoning – this proposal falls short on seven of the eight.

The Pascack proposed development is against the law and it must be scrapped by the Town of Ramapo.

Finally, let me say that Patrick Farm and Pascack Ridge are two projects that were proposed in recent years that are in direct conflict with the Ramapo comprehensive plan. To make a change in zoning without considering the entire town is called “Spot Zoning” and cannot be tolerated. Should the Town Board in Ramapo feel that it needs to amend its zoning and the comprehensive plan the Board are acting improperly by doing it one or two parcels at a time and not as part of a change in the overall plan weighing all factors. Should the Board proceed on its present course, and should it fail to follow SEQRA and existing land-use laws, the board members must have no doubt that the Town of Clarkstown will proceed with the authorization it has been given under my motion to seek injunctive relief for not only the residents of Clarkstown but also for our fellow citizens in the Town of Ramapo.

Attending a neighboring municipality to speak at a town board meeting is a highly unusual action for any Councilperson or elected official from another municipality. I thank the Supervisor of the Town of Ramapo and the Town Board members for permitting many elected officials to publicly express their concern.  We have been heard with respect listened to with decorum and professionalism.  I think I speak for everyone in expressing my appreciation for the courtesies extended by the Ramapo board to all of us.

I call upon all citizens affected by this proposal to attend the February 11, 2015 Ramapo Town Board meeting and explain to their elected officials that they must comply with existing land-use laws.

I urge the Ramapo Town Board to reject this project.

{Please see this Google Document for the text of comments made by Councilman Hoehmann at the last Ramapo Town Board meeting.}

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