The year 2014 in Greenburgh was marked by promise and disappointment. Here, in no particular order, are some of the highlights:
In January 2014, the Town Board finally settled the decade-long litigation between the Town and Fortress Bible Church, with the Town agreeing to pay $6.5 million of which $5.5 million had to be borrowed. Town officials led by Town Supervisor Paul Feiner had been found liable for having violated the constitutional rights of the church when it refused to grant site plan approval for a sanctuary and school on property the church owned off Dobbs Ferry Road near the entrance to the Sprain Parkway. The settlement amount is believed to be the largest ever paid by a United States municipality to settle religious discrimination charges. Mr. Feiner had assured residents prior to the settlement that the entire amount would be covered by insurance. In fact, according to Town Comptroller Bart Talamini, insurance covered only the first $1 million.
ROBBING PETER TO PAY PAUL
In December 2014, the Town Board approved a budget and tax hike within the state-mandated property tax cap – but to be able to fund it, the Town had to draw down without any public discussion and or ever answering the public’s questions — an unprecedented 40% of the Town’s Risk Retention Fund for judgments and claims. Without relying on fund balance, town taxpayers would have faced a tax hike next year – an election year — of more than 10%.
The only time the drawdown was even mentioned came when the town comptroller, in reminding town board members this past November that they had approved the drawdown the prior month, said he was sure they all remembered the reasons why that was necessary, to which the town board members burst out laughing – a moment caught on videotape, posted online, and circulated to more than a thousand Greenburgh residents.
The Town finally launched its town-wide revaluation project – the first since 1956 – prompting commercial property owners to file tax certiorari claims in order to recover the greatest amount possible before properties are reassessed. Real estate brokers are warning Edgemont residents to expect to end up paying more for town taxes while the rest of unincorporated Greenburgh ends up paying less for town taxes. The Town’s tax assessor, however, has said no one knows yet whether that will turn out to be true.
BALLOONING TAX CERT REFUNDS
Because of revaluation, deputy town attorney Peter Carparelli warned Edgemont school and fire districts to expect Town-negotiated tax cert refunds next year to be five times what they usually are. Edgemont voters agreed to bond up to $550,000 for tax cert refunds for the Greenville fire district in 2015.
Mr. Feiner said he was unaware of what projections for tax cert refunds next year might be when he and his colleagues on the town board voted unanimously to drain 40% of the Town’s Risk Retention Fund – from which such claims are paid. He said it was more important to him (in an election year) that the Town Board not exceed the state property tax cap in any event. The problem, however, is that once the election takes place, if funds have not materialized to replenish the fund balance, property taxes might escalate dramatically.
In 2007, after Mr. Feiner won the Democratic primary, he announced a property tax increase of more than 23%.
In the spring of 2014, the Town’s Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee unveiled its draft plan for the next 20 years. The committee had been working on the plan for more than six years. Reaction to the plan was almost uniformly negative. Edgemont residents came out in large numbers to protest proposals that they said called for the “urbanization” of Edgemont’s commercial district through the creation of “nodes” which would allow for construction of multiple four-story mixed use retail and residential buildings that would be built to the curb along Central Avenue.
Edgemont residents were told that the Town needed to maximum revenues from a declining tax base, that because of its school district and a 23-year history of commercial investments retaining their value compared with the rest of unincorporated Greenburgh, Edgemont was likely to be where developers would have the greatest interest in investing the largest amount of money, and that if Edgemont residents didn’t like the idea, they would have to come up with something else. A revised comprehensive plan is due to be released in early 2015.
In the fall of 2014, Edgemont residents who for the past ten years have been asking town officials without success for sidewalks to make it safer for children to walk to and from their elementary schools got a shot in the arm from new town police chief Chris McNerney, who told the Edgemont Community Council that he favored the installation of sidewalks for child safety reasons. He later specifically recommended sidewalks on Seely Place, Ardsley Road and Fort Hill Road.
Mr. Feiner said he supported Chief McNerney’s recommendation, but Mr. Feiner never got the town board on board. Nor did he ever ask the town public works commissioner or the town engineer to work up a plan for sidewalks in Edgemont, without which the Town could not apply for any federal grants to pay for the work.
On December 2, 2014, Mr. Feiner placed all plans for any sidewalks in Edgemont on indefinite hold, pending a town-wide study of sidewalk needs in all of the Town’s ten school districts in unincorporated Greenburgh. The chief also said even the sidewalk he had recommended for Seely Place required a “three season” analysis that he had not yet conducted. As a result, no sidewalks in Edgemont will even be considered for at least a year or longer. Ironically, later that same day, a young woman walking her dog was struck by a car on East Hartsdale Avenue and seriously injured. The dog died.
In an apparent effort to mollify disappointed Edgemont parents who were led to believe badly needed sidewalks were about to become a reality, Mr. Feiner got two Edgemont civic associations to sponsor a meeting with him and Chief McNerney in an Edgemont school for early January.
But with Mr. Feiner and the town board having put now the issue of sidewalks for school children on hold townwide for at least a year or longer, Mr. Feiner’s meeting next month has all the trappings of a Feiner publicity stunt and, assuming he can get them to come, with parents and children as props. The ECC declined to sponsor the event.
Mr. Feiner has held similar publicity stunts in 2013 for college students at Westchester Community College seeking a sidewalk on Grasslands Road and in 2007, when a group of disabled adults living in a group home on Chatterton Parkway wanted a sidewalk for their street.
FRANK’S SALE FALLS THROUGH
For much of the year, Mr. Feiner assured Greenburgh residents that all would be well with the Town’s dwindling fund balance – which he uses to subsidize Town tax hikes to keep them from exceeding the state mandated cap – once the Town sold the former Frank’s Nursery property – a six acre tract of environmentally contaminated land off Dobbs Ferry Road that the Town acquired nearly four years ago in a tax foreclosure sale.
Even though the Town’s hired auctioneer warned town officials that the auction would fail if the Town had not completed a Phase II environmental study of the property which would at least estimate what the clean-up would likely cost, the Town went ahead anyway with efforts to sell the property – spending (and wasting) $50,000 in the process – only to take the property off-market when the auctioneer reported that, just as he had predicted months before, the market would severely discount the selling price.
The Town’s four-year effort to dispose of the Frank’s property has been plagued with one setback after another, with town leaders deciding it was better to shroud the matter in secrecy than to be candid with residents and come clean.
Earlier this year, astute residents revealed that the Town never even acquired clean title to the property — it had neglected to comply with state law requiring that legal notice be given to all prior lien holders — and a Texas bank with a $3.5 million unpaid mortgage on the property still had a claim on the property. These same residents also disclosed that the Town had secretly filed suit against the bank to obtain clean title which the bank apparently agreed to relinquish when it realized that the amount owed in back taxes (at least $1.5 million) and the amount required to clean up the site would have exceeded the amount owed on its loan.
WESTHELP CONTINUES TO REMAIN VACANT
WestHELP was once the largest single source of non-tax revenue to the Town, generating $1.2 million a year from 2001 to 2011. The Town received rent for the 108 units of transitional housing for homeless single women and their pre-kindergarten children off Knollwood Road on the campus of Westchester Commuity College that was guaranteed by Westchester County, which owned the property and leased it to the Town for 30 years provided that the Town use the property for low and moderate income rental housing. The Town, however, never set aside any money to renovate the apartments so that they could be used for that purpose when the lease with WestHELP terminated in September 2011. Even worse, the Town was twice offered the opportunity in 2008 to extend the lease for an additional ten year period, but Mr. Feiner, who had been told he could no longer give away more than half of the rent to the Valhalla School District, was not interested in any lease extension.
So now the property, which cost $15 million of taxpayer money to build, sits vacant and deteriorating, with the Town using the parking lot there to store junked cars that the police can use for training purposes. In 2014, the Town squandered any opportunity it might still have had to enter into a deal to finance the renovation with a reputable affordable housing developer and still allow the developer to recoup its investment within the 17 years left under the Town’s lease. It is now only a matter of time before the county takes possession of the property and enters into its own deal with an affordable housing developer to get the property renovated and used for either senior citizen housing or housing for veterans or both.
OUTDOOR GUN FIRING RANGE CLOSES
In the summer of 2014, a woman sitting in the backyard of a home in the new luxury Gel-Sprain development known as Ardsley Chase was reportedly hit by a bullet fragment that was said to have come from the outdoor gun range on Ardsley Road next door to the subdivision. Mr. Feiner held several press conferences calling for the range to be shut down, noting the absence of any state or federal regulations for such businesses. In fact, such businesses have had a long history in this country of being regulated by local municipalities just like Greenburgh; a resident introduced such a measure to show the Town how such regulation works, but before the matter could be considered, Con Ed, which owned the property, terminated the lease, the matter was dropped.
TOWN PROTECTS CAR DEALERS FROM COMPETITION
Tbe Town Board agreed this fall to give Edgemont’s three competing car dealers special permits to operate legally while improving their facilities; the measure, requested by the dealers, also bars any competing car dealers from opening up on Central Avenue. The ECC warned that such a measure could embroil the Town in antitrust litigation and urged town leaders to insist that the car dealers agree to indemnify the Town and its taxpayers from any legal liability resulting from the arrangement. The Town Board refused.
In an apparent effort to answer his critics, Mr. Feiner subsequently introduced a measure to allow additional competing car dealers to open showrooms on Central Avenue. However, Mr. Feiner’s proposal is not expected to attract any new car dealers because input from prospective new dealers was never sought before the measure was introduced – none has been received since –- and it is now on hold in any event pending review and report from the Planning Board.
MASSAGE PARLORS CONTINUE TO FLOURISH
Sidewalks were not the only item on Chief McNerney’s agenda when he address the ECC in October. He was also concerned about the proliferation in Edgemont of massage parlors used for prostitution, saying so many had opened in the past couple of years that Edgemont had become the “massage parlor capital” of Westchester County. He was determined, he said, to get legislation introduced in Greenburgh to give law enforcement more power to shut down these establishments.
Mr. Feiner pledged to introduce a measure, but the best he and the town attorney could come up with was a 120-day moratorium on the Town issuing any new permits for massage parlors to open. The only problem with the proposed law, residents pointed out, was that the Town doesn’t issue permits for massage parlors to open. No matter, Mr. Feiner said, it was more important for him to show Edgemont he was doing something to deal with the problem than to actually try dealing with the problem itself.
At its December meeting, the ECC said it would draft its own measure for the Town to pass, which Mr. Feiner said would be “considered” – but the Town has historically never passed any legislation the ECC has drafted.
THE $1 MILLION PAYMENT ‘UNDER THE TABLE’ FOR LAND USE APPROVALS
In late summer 2014, Mr. Feiner announced that the Town was being asked to accept a $1 million “donation” from a developer. The money was to be used for the acquisition of land to be used to expand Taxter Ridge Park in East Irvington. The devil, however, was in the details. The $1 million payment had been promised by the developer in 2009 as a quid pro quo for getting approvals it needed from the Town Board to proceed with a 444-unit apartment complex known as Avalon Green off of Taxter Road just outside of East Irvington. Mr. Feiner assured everyone that the $1 million had been negotiated by the president of the East Irvington Civic Association and that the Town knew nothing about it.
But it turned out that the civic association president had been appointed by Mr. Feiner to be a deputy town supervisor for the Avalon Green project, which meant that a town official appointed by Mr. Feiner had effectively secured the promise of a $1 million payment under the table from a developer in exchange for municipal land use approvals, which is generally unlawful.
Also problematic, under the agreement the Town was asked to approve, the money was not to be used unless it was for the acquisition of property abutting Taxter Ridge, a 200-acre parcel of open space – generally inaccessible to the public — that the Town regards as “parkland.” However, the money was to be used instead to acquire from the Unification Church two lots in a planned luxury home subdivision in the Village of Tarrytown which did not abut the Taxter Ridge property at all.
And as part of the quid pro quo, everyone involved was pledged to secrecy – including two prominent residents of the Village of Tarrytown – including the chairman of its planning board — who claimed they never knew until now that they were even named in the agreement. The Town quietly approved the transaction and assigned all of its rights under the deal to the Village of Tarrytown.
POOR SOUND AT TOWN BOARD MEETINGS
The year 2014 saw continued controversy over the quality of sound at town board meetings at Town Hall itself as well as broadcast on cable TV and over the Internet. Even worse, residents began to suspect that one or more town officials were deliberately tampering with the sound and recording equipment to prevent certain residents known to be critical of town government from airing their views publicly. The Town promised an investigation and certain comments that appeared to have been edited were restored. Town officials insisted that the errors were inadvertent, but a resident involved in the investigation suggested the Town and the vendor had been less than candid.
RESIDENT WINS ACCESS TO TOWN’S EMAIL LIST
For years residents have complained that Mr. Feiner was using the taxpayer-supported Town email list to promote his personal political views while at the same time launching personal attacks against residents who disagreed with him. But resident Dorrine Livson, president of the Woodlands-Worthington Civic Association, fought back and won a court ruling this November giving her the right to obtain the Town’s email list under the state’s Freedom of Information Law. The court ordered the Town to turn over the list to Ms. Livson but the Town immediately appealed the ruling and, by law, obtained a stay of the court’s ruling.
DROMORE LITIGATION CONTINUES AS EDGEMONT’S NUNS FIGHT BACK
The Harrison developer that in 2006 purchased a 2.8 acre tract of land off Dromore Road next to the Greenburgh Nature Center that for years had been zoned only for single family residential homes continued its legal battle to enforce an error in the Town’s zoning map that had mistakenly listed the property as being in the Town’s Central Avenue Mixed-Use Zone which, if the developer succeeds, would allow the developer to build apartments and thereby make the property worth ten times more than the $1.4 million it paid in a court-ordered settlement with the prior owner.
However, earlier this year Edgemont’s cloistered Sisters of the Holy Sacrament, who own a convent on a six acre site adjacent to the Nature Center, fought back. Assisted in court by the Edgemont Community Council, the nuns defeated an attempt by the developer to block the nuns from seeking to enforce a restrictive covenant on the property that bars the construction of apartments.
The court ruled that because the Town might still prevail in its effort to get an appeals court to rule that the Town could lawfully correct the error in its zoning map, the developer’s attempt to declare the restrictive covenant unenforceable was not yet ripe. If in 2015, an appeals court rules that the Town was not permitted to correct its zoning map, then the nuns will have to fight once again to enforce the restrictive covenant.