Mayor takes back offer to meet with planning board

Mayor Valastro: Planning board unwilling to budge on proposed zoning changes, including the removal of the board’s oversight

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By Ginny Privitar

— Last weekend, Chester Mayor Philip Valastro sent an email to the village planning board taking back his offer to hold a joint meeting to discuss differences about the most recent proposed zoning changes.

Not all village trustees were aware that Valastro did this.

Valastro's email came as a surprise to many since he'd announced at a March 25 planning board meeting that he wanted to meet jointly with the planning board to discuss their differences of opinion. Reached by phone on Tuesday, Valastro said he'd decided a meeting would be unproductive after speaking with two members of the planning board, who told him they weren't going to budge. He also said not everyone agreed on the proposed dates for the joint meeting.

There was no indication alternate dates were proposed. Planning Board Chair Rick Ramsdell told The Chronicle he had last spoken to the mayor "a couple of months ago.”

The village recently annexed 60-plus acres to accommodate BT Holdings, a proposed development that will put 228 condominiums and 80 senior citizen rental units on 68 acres behind the ShopRite plaza. The annexation is allowing the developer to build more intensively than would have been possible if the property had stayed in the town, which lacks the water and infrastructure needed for the number of residences in his plan. Before the annexation, Valastro argued it would allow the village to control development in that area.

The annexed property needs zoning, which will be included in the village-wide zoning update.

Valastro said there were only one or two issues yet to decide, and there is “no give or take with the planning board."

Planning board members were especially concerned that their oversight was omitted in the zoning revision, which would allow developers free rein, and that they were not kept in the loop while this was happening.

“It’s unnerving to see this kind of stuff happen,” Ramsdell said back in March. “I don’t understand what the possible reasoning could be, but the result of it is an open gate for people to essentially do whatever they want."

Fear that senior housing will go

Valastro said this week that “the only thing we’re changing is a couple of issues. We took out discretion of the planning board. You don’t need it in every paragraph. We told them we’re willing to put it back in. They’re upset because it isn’t 100 percent of what the planning board wants.”

But the planning board has made some concessions in the last few months. Originally, the planning board wanted no more than 24 units to a senior building, in accordance with existing code. Since then, the planning board agreed to 33 units for each of three senior buildings. The planning board said they were concerned about the seniors' safety and their ability to evacuate the buildings.

The BT Holdings developer, Frank Nussbaum, and the village want that number increased to 40 units for each of two senior buildings.

Valastro said he was afraid the developer will withdraw the senior units from his project entirely if he's not allowed to build the project they way he wants to. He echoed the developer’s claim that he will lose money that way and might have to sacrifice the senior units.

In any event, only 10 percent of the senior units — no more than ten units, and likely fewer — will have affordable rents. The rest will rent at market rates to an upscale population, according to Nussbaum.

The joint meeting was supposed to take place before the village board votes on the zoning amendment.

The village attorney said a 15-day notice would be given to the public before a vote. He did state, however, that the village was not obligated to advertise the meeting, only to post a notice. This could be on the village website or on a sign. Normally the village posts notices in The Times Herald-Record. The notice for the last public hearing on the proposed amendments was published just once, a few days before the meeting. Many residents and even the planning board found out at the last minute, heightening the frustration of those who disagree with the changes. Many residents, accusing the village board of listening only to the developer and not to them, say they want trustees to work with the planning board. Some say the changes the developer wants should be handled by the zoning board as variances, and not as a sweeping change in code.

The proposed amendment includes changes in definitions, exemptions, and the removal of planning board oversight in some instances. These changes will affect current and future developments village-wide.

Valastro has said that the proposed zoning changes were not designed with BT Holding’s demands in mind. Yet, in a letter to The Chronicle, developer Frank Nussbaum said BT Holdings had a role in the proposed changes.

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