Update (March 8, 2022): The Westchester County Planning Board has reviewed the Village of Sleepy Hollow’s proposed amendments to the Zoning Ordinance. In response (see letter here), the County writes, “We encourage the Village to reconsider this action, or to perhaps consider adopting a revised version of these regulations.”
Zoning code is not something that typically lends itself to intense public interest and discussion. In Sleepy Hollow, however, it has become a matter of serious debate. It revolves around what the Village’s zoning code actually says—and the obligations of Village officials to apply it appropriately.
The debate relates to what took place on August 24, 2021, when the Sleepy Hollow Board of Trustees approved amendments to the Village’s zoning code. The vote was unanimous. The amendments were the result of a lengthy process of consultation involving residents, business owners, and Village officials.
The revised Code of the Village of Sleepy Hollow does many things aimed at improving livability in, and promoting economic revitalization of, the downtown area. It eliminates parking requirements for all lots less than 30 feet in width, for example, allows for the establishment of bars and restaurants in proximity of one another, and provides incentives to achieve sustainability and electrification measures. Moreover, it permits non-residential activities in the upper floors of mixed-use buildings and eliminates new curb cuts (thus preventing vehicles from driving across sidewalks) on specific streets like Beekman Avenue.
In addition, the amended Code encourages the adaptive reuse of buildings originally designed for religious, educational, and institutional purposes that have historic, cultural, and economic value to the Village. It also seeks to bring about affordable housing, streetscape/landscape improvements, green infrastructure, and public art installations—among other benefits.
Complementing these changes is the creation of a “Lower Beekman Avenue Designs Standards Overlay District” (LBADS). Comprising all parcels between Kendall Avenue and Clinton Street along Beekman Avenue, the LBADS reflects goals requested by Sleepy Hollow residents during the Comprehensive Plan update, which Village officials conducted in 2019.
Within the overlay district, the Code institutes specific regulations about the heights and shapes of new buildings to maintain air flow between them and ensure adequate sunlight for all. At the same time, it facilitates increased density and makes the development process clearer.
The LBADS includes architectural design requirements regarding front stoops and porches, styles, and building depths to help replicate the historic pattern of development along lower Beekman. Its aim is to ensure “an attractive, walkable neighborhood that serves as a link between the downtown and the waterfront.”
Controversy over 135 Beekman Avenue
One property that stands within this newly designated overlay district is 135 Beekman Avenue. It has emerged at the epicenter of the zoning debate.
Owned by Mr. Francesco Alesci of Queens, the .56-acre lot is currently the site of a large, multi-family home built in the late 1800s. Alesci plans to tear down the current dwelling and replace it with a much bigger building, one comprised of 14 apartments. The building is slated to be four stories, each of which will have a fitness room, and will extend well beyond the rear of all existing buildings along Beekman. According to the current architectural plan, there will also be 27 parking spaces at the rear of the building (in addition to some indoor parking on the building’s ground level).
At a meeting of Sleepy Hollow’s Planning Board on November 18, 2021, many residents, several of them neighbors of 135 Beekman, turned out, posing questions and raising myriad concerns. Neighbors said that the proposed building is out of scale with the rest of the area and thus violates community desires as embodied in the Comprehensive Plan of 2019. Other concerns raised include matters of fire safety, fears of gentrification and displacement in a neighborhood with a large working-class and Latino population, and a parking lot and driveway that would occupy more than half the lot. (Sleepy Hollow resident Daniel Convissor, in written comments to the Zoning Board, said it was “absurd” that the Village requires 27 parking spaces and called the proposed project “a car parking lot with some places to sleep attached to it.”)
The main point of contention, however, concerns the height and length of the proposed building and how it will impinge on the privacy of neighboring residents and on sunlight.
Maria Martins, whose family has lived in an adjacent property for 34 years, for instance, spoke at the November meeting of the importance of her backyard garden. It is one that her children and nieces and nephews have long enjoyed and where there are fruit trees planted by her late father. The shadow that the proposed apartment complex would cast over the yard would cause great harm to the garden, she said.
Like several speakers during the public hearing, Martins suggested that much of the proposed building (at 43.5 feet in height) would seem to be in violation of the revised Code. (Similar to other critics of the proposed project, Maria Martins has made clear that she is not opposed to a new apartment building. Why not a lower and longer building instead, she wonders, one with a smaller asphalted area for motor vehicles?) The zoning Code states that buildings are not to exceed 25 feet in height beyond 80 feet in from the edge of the sidewalk. The 80-foot requirement aligns with the rear of existing buildings along Beekman, thereby reproducing the current pattern of development, while allowing fire department access to upper stories.
Chairperson Marjorie Hsu assured those in attendance that the Planning Board had determined that the adapted plans presented by Alesci and his architect conformed to the revised Village Code. Both Sean McCarthy, the Village’s Building Inspector, and Hsu insisted that the height limitations only concern residential zones. And because 135 Beekman sits in a commercial zone—even if the property abuts other residences—the height limitations do not apply, they said. However, as some residents asserted at the meeting, the text of the Code would seem to clearly indicate that the overlay district applies to all parcels, whether commercial or residential.
Throwing out the baby with the bathwater?
Sometime in late January, Chairperson Hsu requested that the Village overturn the revisions to the Village Code.
The question is, why?
Livable Tarrytowns reached out to Marjorie Hsu for an explanation (on February 17). As of this posting, she has not responded.
Similarly, Sleepy Hollow Mayor Ken Wray has not responded to a Livable Tarrytowns’ request (sent on February 18) for an explanation for his position on the matter. At a recent “Work Session” (February 15) of the Board of Trustees, the mayor urged his fellow Board members to support a resolution in favor of a public hearing to reconsider the amendments to the Village Code as requested by Chairperson Hsu.
The lone dissenting vote was from Trustee Jared Rodriguez (a practicing urban planner), who said that he could not support the resolution in good conscience. “From what I know in my professional capacity,” he explained, “it is exceedingly rare for a planning board chair to request a former zoning amendment to be overturned. It is rarer still for a legislative body like us to satisfy such a request.”
“I’m personally proud of the zoning amendments we approved here unanimously six months ago,” he continued, “after hearing support from our residents, many of them reaching out to me personally and coming to public hearings, businesses, and the planning board itself at the time.”
The timing of Chairperson Hsu’s request, and the Board of Trustees vote in favor of a hearing, is “fishy” in the estimation of Maria Martins. It comes soon after Ms. Martins, through her lawyers, filed an appeal of the Village Building Inspector’s determination that proposed project at 135 Beekman complies with the new zoning Code.
Village officials have reportedly stated that their desire to overturn the revisions to the Code has nothing to do with the debate surrounding 135 Beekman Avenue. Instead, they say, it is because of inconsistencies in the amendments that they must throw them out.
Still, regardless of intentions, in the face of a legal challenge to the Village’s determination re: 135 Beekman Avenue, the move to jettison all amendments to the Code would seem to be an admission that the project as currently envisioned violates zoning regulations. It also has the appearance of an effort to satisfy the wishes of a single developer as repealing the Code revisions would potentially allow the 135 Beekman Avenue project as currently envisioned to advance to construction. To the extent this appearance reflects reality, one wonders what precedent it sets for other developers who might seek zoning code modifications in the future.
If there are, in fact, inconsistencies with the amendments, why not fix the specific problems? Why throw out the amendments in their entirety?
And why risk the appearance of impropriety and undermine public trust in government?
Referring to the effort to overturn the amendments at the work session on January 18, Mayor Wray asserted, “I will reserve my comments on the change and the need for it until we get to that public hearing.”
On Tuesday, March 8 at 7pm, when the hearing is scheduled to take place at Sleepy Hollow Village Hall, the public will have an opportunity to hear Wray’s explanation.
Making a difference
As for 135 Beekman Avenue, the lot’s future—in addition to the future of zoning and livability in Sleepy Hollow—hinges to a significant degree on what takes places at the hearing.
It is for such reasons that Lauren Connell, a candidate for an open seat on the Sleepy Hollow Board of Trustees (she is running unopposed), urges people to make their voices heard. “I encourage people to attend the hearing on March 8,” she told Livable Tarrytowns. “If there’s a good turnout, it could make a difference.”