Not much went right Thursday night for the Greenburgh Zoning Board of Appeals or ZBA which held its first ever public hearing as “lead agency” to consider its proposal to issue a “conditional negative declaration” or CND finding no significant environmental impact if it grants a billion dollar private equity firm’s application for a 3,000% variance to allow an assisted living facility in Edgemont at a site more than a mile from where such facilities are permitted under the Town’s zoning code.
The condition is that the firm employ a full time nurse (which all such facilities employ any way) and pay for a few modest improvements to Underhill Road.
Under state environmental law, the ZBA must first address the environmental impacts before it may vote on the proposed variance, but the CND, which was prepared by the Town’s planning commissioner Garrett Duquesne, who has been an outspoken supporter of the project, ran into trouble almost from the start.
First, the Greenville Fire District, which provides basic life support services to all Edgemont residents, blasted the CND in a letter dated February 10, 2017, for assuming that the fire district would not be required by law to respond to medical emergencies at the proposed site if the facility employed a full-time nurse. The fire district cannot pick and choose who it will respond to in a medical emergency.
“We are compelled to take issue with the CND insofar as it lacks adequate analysis, is based on erroneous assumptions, and proposes solutions that are based on unsound footing,” the Fire District letter stated. The district said it was “compelled to request that the ZBA rescind the CND and issue a Positive Declaration,” adding that the ZBA did not respond to the Board’s prior letter dated December 16, 2017 calling for a full independent analysis, and “did not discuss potential Project impacts and concerns with us.”
Second, the ZBA admitted that it was unaware, when it proposed the CND, that the Greenville Fire District was party to an inter-municipal agreement or IMA with the Town’s police department which required that the Fire District respond to all such medical emergencies within Edgemont.
Even though the fire district’s February 10 letter expressly referring to the IMA and its requirements, ZBA members did not receive a copy of the IMA and had never read it.
“The ZBA’s fundamental misunderstanding of our role necessarily means that the CND does not correctly identify impacts the Project may have on the District, or the effect of the proposed mitigation measures,” the Fire District said.
A “positive declaration” of potential environmental impact, which is what the Fire District called for, would require the applicant to prepare a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which the ZBA can require be reviewed by an independent consultant that the applicant must pay for.
Third, as became embarrassingly apparent during the hearing, ZBA members did not even have before them a copy of the same draft CND that had been issued to the public.
Fourth, the ZBA found itself unable to explain why its CND accepted data from the applicant as to the anticipated number of emergency medical calls, without bothering to ask for, much less analyze, industry data as to the number of such calls to be anticipated.
Fifth, the ZBA also found itself unable to explain why it assumed that if there were going to be 115 such “calls,” it would mean 115 emergency medical trips when, as residents and a local doctor testified, emergency medical calls in Edgemont normally result in three or four such trips for every one call. Thus, not only does the Fire District respond, but so too does the Police Department, and if an ambulance is needed, there would be a third responder, and if a paramedic did not travel with the ambulance, there would be a fourth trip.
The ZBA had concluded in its CND that there was no need to study the impact of noise and light along the Underhill Road corridor because it assumed there would only be 115 total calls per year and it further assumed that if a nurse were present on site, that the Greenville Fire District would not have to respond to any of these calls.
Sixth, the ZBA had no explanation Thursday night for why it chose to compare the number of emergency medical calls expected to be generated per year with an estimate of normal vehicular traffic to the existing plant nursery on a peak day during June. The ZBA’s CND found that because the number of emergency medical calls per year was estimated to be less than normal vehicular traffic to the nursery, there would be less impact to the community if the assisted living facility is built.
Some suggested that such a conclusion reflected the ZBA’s built-in bias in favor of granting the variances under consideration without regard to the impact such facility would have in Edgemont in terms of the quality of life and the potential costs to Edgemont taxpayers down the road in having to fund the emergency medical services the facility would require.
Several residents remarked that Thursday night’s ZBA hearing was a textbook example of why Edgemont residents favoring incorporation want land use decisions affecting Edgemont to be decided by residents who actually live in Edgemont.
Edgemont residents who attended the ZBA hearing or watched it on TV said they were astounded as to the lack of knowledge or understanding by ZBA members as to how emergency medical services are handled in Edgemont. Only one of the seven ZBA members lives in Edgemont, but according to Fire District personnel, no one from the ZBA, including the one who lives in Edgemont, ever asked any Edgemont personnel what happens when there is an emergency medical call.
An attorney for the Town was quoted in Friday’s Scarsdale Inquirer saying that ZBA members were under no obligation to speak to anyone from the fire district in generating its CND.
Fire district commissioners had expressed concern in their letter that if the proposal is approved based on these misconceptions, without an independent study to analyze the potential costs, it is possible that the ZBA’s action would saddle Edgemont taxpayers with a huge new expenditure that would not be offset by the facility’s property tax payments.
The ZBA’s draft CND was also criticized for requiring a few modest improvements to Underhill Road to address the sloping hairpin curve that emergency medical responders would have to navigate several times per week at high rates of speed.
Thus, the ZBA was told that there are state highway guidelines for construction of safe state and county roads and that in order to know whether the Underhill Road corridor was as safe as a state or county road, the CND should have compared the conditions there with the state requirements.
The hearing was concluded with many residents unable to get a chance to speak.
Based on comments made in the ZBA’s deliberative session following the public hearing, it does not appear that any ZBA members are open to the idea of issuing a positive declaration and allowing for an independent study.
The ZBA, which had had planned to close the hearing Thursday night and issue its decision at its next meeting on March 16, concluded that it would instead continue the hearing on March 16, at which time ZBA members said they would have before them the right document being considered.
The Greenburgh ZBA has apparently never before been a “lead agency” under the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act or SEQRA.
The Town Board had previously designated itself “lead agency” and to signal its support of the project and the proposed variances before the ZBA, last June approved a “negative declaration” – without any conditions – finding no environmental impact whatsoever. The Town’s actions outraged a number of Edgemont residents along the Underhill corridor as well as residents of the Ardsley School District whose homes abut the property at issue.
The Town then voted to rescind its “negative declaration” on the ground, it said at the time, that the Zoning Board should be “lead agency” because the variances that need to be granted represented the most significant of the government approvals that would be needed for the project.