Some people are just about shuddering from anxiety over how overhauled Special Natural Area District regulations could irrevocably transform the essentially unchanged landscape they’ve relished for generations.
So anxious, in fact, they packed into a musty room at the Riverdale Neighborhood House last week to talk about it.
There, retired Riverdale Press editor Buddy Stein — known for his many editorials addressing the local greenbelt — along with architect Sherida Paulsen and former Community Board 8 chair Robert Fanuzzi addressed the city’s plans to weaken SNAD strictures that protect 40 percent of Riverdale’s land, according to Stein.
SNAD, of course, is among a number of special districts established in the 1970s and 1980s to balance development with environmental protections in areas covered in rock outcroppings, steep slopes, and trees — all of which are important, both ecologically and for conservation.
The city’s proposed changes aim to relax permitting for small development projects in these special areas, potentially affecting more than 54,000 lots, according to published reports. And to that end, the city is considering combining three special areas into a single district — all with the aim of creating clearer development standards and codifying best practices to reflect updated ecological science.
That special combined district would include not just SNAD — which actually encompasses parts of both the Bronx and Staten Island — but also a couple more special districts that exist only in Staten Island.
Under the proposed changes, the city would allow developers and homeowners wishing to construct or modify structures on property less than an acre in size to submit plans to the city’s buildings department, which would issue permits for projects that comply with the rules.
At the moment, such projects require approval by the City Planning Commission, after the local community board weighs in.
Work on larger properties — like the Hebrew Home at Riverdale’s ultra-controversial expansion escapade last year — as well as highly sensitive sites, still would require the planning commission’s signoff. Everything else, however, would be as-of-right, meaning a substantial number of applications would go straight to the buildings department, without a stop at city planning or the community board.
“On smaller sites, which typically see applications for renovations to existing family homes, the process would be streamlined,” department spokesman Joe Marvilli said. “By saving homeowners time and money — and incorporating best practices — this proposal is a win for our natural resources, the community, and individual homeowners.”
Still, there are some residents who fear Riverdale as they know it — lush green, thick with trees, covered by crags, hilly and sloping — could be ruined under the city’s new rules, Stein told The Press in a Point of View column last December in response to the proposed changes.
History offers context for today’s conundrum, Stein said. More than a century ago, residents battled city bureaucrats who wanted to flatten those hills, hack down trees, force a grid on streets to lubricate the dreaded slide toward development — like they’d done to most of Manhattan.
But at the beginning of the 20th century, eminent landowners mined their fortunes to obstruct those efforts, building structures along unmapped city streets, laying out roads that undulated according to the land’s natural curvature.
A half-century later, residents mounted another fight, coalescing to preserve Riverdale’s green expansiveness. And now, once again, the city’s bureaucracy threatens the neighborhood’s character, Stein said, with a scheme to dismantle one of the main safeguards that’s helped keep Riverdale looking more like Westchester County than the Bronx.
Paulsen, meanwhile, expressed earnest interest in the proposal’s “nuts and bolts,” claiming the process for filing an application is already quite onerous, even under the rules as they stand now.
Fanuzzi urged residents to focus on what the goals of the new rules would be as far as protecting the environment, while Stein warned against a slow erosion of protections leading to an utter metamorphosis of the land — for the worse, in his eyes.
And would buildings department officials, checking off boxes on an application in an office far away from the greenbelt, even make sound choices regarding development if they know little about Riverdale, Fieldston or Spuyten Duyvil?
“If you give it to Department of Buildings, it’s going to be based on an individual,” Fanuzzi said. “How can you then translate that individual determination into a larger picture of the community?”
Many observing the discussion seemed to agree that community participation is crucial. Therefore, to excise that from the development approval process could turn out to be a grave mistake. Shifting the process to as-of-right — for developers of less than an acre — could have a negative impact on both the land and the community, they added, both in terms of the environment and civic engagement.
Councilman Andrew Cohen stressed the city best listen to the community’s concerns before he’d support any new rules.
A major factor driving apprehension over wresting sway from city planning and community boards and handing it to the buildings department is the fact Riverdale is totally different than Staten Island — a point CB8 land use chair Charles Moerdler made to The Press last December. Riverdale, he said, shouldn’t be dragged along under Staten Island’s rules, given its drastically different needs and desires.
So perhaps it’s no shock many observers at the panel seemed not so ready to go along with the proposed changes just yet, but instead appeared to be rather leery of them. That included Thomas Bird, a lifelong Spuyten Duyvil resident, who emphasized how crucial it is to make sure — under any new rules — that huge “irreplaceable” old trees are distinguished from smaller ones in the review process.
Kathleen Reid — who considers herself something of a newbie to the Palisade Avenue neighborhood — says she’s “really frightened” about the potential quiet erosion of SNAD protections Stein foreboded.
The scribe’s diction drove it home.
“I see the issues before us today as part of a historic struggle to define and defend the character of Riverdale,” Stein said. “I think that nothing is more troubling about the current proposal than the fact that it cuts the community board out of the process. It reduces the leverage the community can exert.”