A war of words has broken out in the pages of The Riverdale Press between Councilman Andrew Cohen and Charles Moerdler, the chair of Community Board 8’s land use committee.
Ahead of Monday’s land use meeting where the city’s proposed changes to the Special Natural Area District were considered and debated, Cohen wrote a letter to the editor that was published in the newspaper’s May 30 edition highlighting the “abusive treatment” of homeowners at the hands of Moerdler.
“If Mr. Moerdler made good on every hollow threat of ‘I’ll see you in court …’ we would need a bigger courthouse,” Cohen wrote. He added that if CB8 wants to keep its power in land use matters, the board will need to “protect that power, as well as the community from the abuses of the land use chair.”
Cohen was responding to a Point of View authored by Moerdler the previous week in which the land use chair made the case for preserving SNAD rules for Riverdale and rejecting proposed changes by the city that would remove oversight of smaller properties. By excluding the community board from the process and applying uniform principles to the Bronx and Staten Island, the city will endanger what makes Riverdale so great, Moerdler wrote.
Cohen was less bothered by Moerdler’s call to preserve the SNAD rules and more by the insinuation he was the only man standing between Riverdale and certain doom. Moerdler is known by some to pontificate at meetings with a flair for the dramatic.
Last year, he quit his position as land use chair only to return 10 days later after being asked back by some CB8 members, but to the frustration of others. And at a May 6 land use meeting, Moerdler promised “war” if a developer went forward with a planned demolition.
“Mr. Cohen’s baseless and intemperate assertions in his letter to The Press are nonsense,” Moerdler wrote in a yet-to-be published response. “I make no apology for doing what little I can to preserving and advancing the interests of my community and neighbors.”
In his letter, Moerdler accuses Cohen of being a tool of developers and those who would benefit from a “stagnating bureaucracy.” He also took umbrage with Cohen’s repeated claim that a homeowner wanting to expand their kitchen would have to go before CB8. Moerdler wrote his committee has no interest in or jurisdiction over the interiors of private residences.
He explains he recently commented on plans for the so-called “Kennedy House,” a home in Riverdale where John F. Kennedy once resided as a child.
The owner planned to turn the home into an educational center with a kitchen that would sell coffee and pastries. Moerdler was vehemently opposed to the idea, believing it was inappropriate for a commercial café to exist inside a home zoned as a private residence.
“If, however, that is the kind of activity that Mr. Cohen wishes to champion — the commercial rape of residential neighborhoods,” the public should be aware, Moerdler wrote. As should Cohen’s “opposition to participatory democracy” in regards to SNAD rules.
“His conduct speaks for itself,” Cohen told The Press. My “letter makes it clear that I have a frustration in the way that Chuck conducts the land use committee meetings.”
Cohen made his frustrations crystal clear in recent weeks. Cohen asked why a homeowner who wants to make minor alterations to his residence has to go to CB8 to be “berated by Chuck Moerdler.” The current process is unnecessarily burdensome in cost and time on small homeowners, the councilman argued.
During Monday’s SNAD hearing at P.S. 81, no one talked about Cohen’s letter except the councilman’s predecessor, Oliver Koppell, after voicing support for keeping community board oversight when it comes to the Special Natural Area District.
“Riverdale has maintained its special character in significant measure because Charles Moerdler has sat in this chair for so many decades,” Koppell said of the land use chair, to applause and some cheers from the sparsely populated meeting.
Cohen thinks Moerdler and CB8 are less concerned with representing the community and more afraid to lose power. Ideally, Cohen believes a community board and a city council member would work side-by-side on as many issues as is feasible.
Cohen says he has a collaborative and good relationship with Community Board 7 and Community Board 12 elsewhere in his council district. He even ensures developers go before those boards before accepting Article XI affordable housing tax incentives, a measure not required by law.
“I can see the value in the community board, perhaps,” Cohen said. But his experience with CB8 — a board he was once a part of before becoming a councilman — has left him frustrated and exasperated.
“I find the way (Moerdler) conducts himself to not be in the best interest of the community,” Cohen said.
Additional reporting by editor Michael Hinman.