On Monday October 15 Village Trustees held the last of a series of meetings to review the process the Village uses in the Planning and Building Departments. The meetings began last May in response to requests from angry residents who believed they had not been fairly treated by Scarsdale’s Building Department. In fact, Ruth Frankel of Richbell Road was so aggravated that she submitted a petition with 200 names on it to lodge a complaint against the Building and Planning Departments. Concerns were raised about stormwater management, zoning , and decisions made by the Planning Board, the Board of Architectural Review and the Zoning Board of Appeals. Residents aired a myriad of concerns about how new construction has impinged on their properties, caused flooding and changed the look of Scarsdale.
But on Monday night none of those residents attended the meeting. It was not clear whether their concerns had been addressed or they had simply lost interest in the process. Nevertheless, Trustee Kay Eisenman, Chair of the Municipal Services Committee of the Board of Trustees lead the latest meeting and opened by saying:
“I would like to point out that the building process, by its very nature, is a difficult one. It can be aggravating and slow and expensive, and building dept. staff, through no fault of their own, is sometimes blamed when people become frustrated by the system. We have listened to the public’s complaints and ideas for change and we will continue to do so as we are always open to good ideas which could improve the methodology currently in place. The Board is open to changes in the process if such changes seem warranted and will look at areas, such as the stormwater regulations, which may point the way to improving conditions on the ground. We would not be averse to tightening regulations should it make sense to do so, and by that what is meant is that if we find, for example, that it would actually improve flooding in certain sensitive areas where the current codes may be too permissive, we could seek to change the regulations. What works in one neighborhood might not work in another.”
At this final meeting, the Board discussed the possibility of establishing a formal process by which residents could challenge a decision by the Building Department. Currently, residents who seek to object to a project are required to hire an attorney or an engineer at their own expense. Trustee Brodsky raised the idea of using an independent consultant to mediate disputes, saying, “A system where there is no possibility of review is a thorn for people,” and Mayor Flisser agreed. However, Assistant Village Manager Steve Pappalardo and Village Engineer Nunzio Pietrosante countered that the Village already seeks to mediate disputes by bringing everyone involved together. The Village Attorney raised concerns about the legalities of such a system.
Other items on the agenda included the notification process whereby neighbors are advised of a building applications near their home. Trustees agreed that the building of a garage and rear additions should require neighbor notification. In addition, Village Planner Liz Marrinan said that the Village has a new process to track notifications that will help to guarantee that the concerned parties are notified. Should tenants in commercial properties be notified? The group decided that this was not necessary.
The group also explored staffing and discussed whether hiring more inspectors or engineers could improve service. The department is a busy one and currently has 10 in staff. In 2011, the department issued over 1,200 permits for building, stormwater and tree removal. Out of 3,700 inspections they issued 256 violations and 37 stop work orders. According to Pietrasante, they seek to get compliance not to write violations.
Currently Nunzio Pietrosante heads both the Village Engineering and Village Inspection departments. Trustees asked the Village staff to look into hiring more personnel in the next budget planning cycle.
The meeting drew to a close without the fireworks of prior encounters with angry residents. Eisenman left the door open for residents to continue to voice their concerns, saying, “There are many ways for residents to report to Trustees and staff, namely by e-mail, phone, mail or at our bi-monthly Board meetings, and residents are always encouraged to do so.”