Fiery Land-Use Disputes Incite Tension Across Westchester
Neighbors, developers, and local governments are locked in disputes about land use, neighborhood character, safety, and progress. Who’s right?
John Sheehan leads Gedney Association in its fight against the expansion of FASNY in White Plains.
Photos by ken gabrielsen
The defunct Ridgeway Country Club in White Plains is a tranquil, overgrown place. Unused for years, the golf course’s fairway has become unruly, the rough rougher, and the sand traps dotted with weeds. On a recent, breezy Sunday afternoon, there were no shouts of “fore!” or whirring golf carts — just the warbling of birds and rustling of trees.
The subdued landscape belies the site’s tumultuous recent history: a vicious fight over the future of its 130 acres. That melee, now about seven years old, has unfolded in packed city hall meetings, in multiple lawsuits, and in newspaper headlines. Key players include the French-American School of New York (FASNY), the Larchmont-based school eager to expand its campus; a passel of opposed and tenacious neighbors; and city officials whose yay and nay votes have drawn ire from both sides.
The dispute began in 2011, when FASNY purchased the property for $8.5 million, plus an additional $2.5 million upon plan approval. Initially, FASNY planned a $60 million campus for nearly 1,000 students. The plan was later amended to accommodate fewer students — about 640 — plus athletic fields, a gym, and other structures.
John Sheehan is president of Gedney Association, a 450–500 household neighborhood group in White Plains. “The vast majority of residents are opposed to the project,” Sheehan says. Their problem with the FASNY expansion? “Traffic and safety are paramount and have been from day one,” Sheehan explains.
“The property threads through the neighborhood,” he continues. “It’s not a [single] lot of land off a major road.” Neighbors are concerned about more cars on narrow roads without sidewalks. “Most of these homes were built when these streets were laid out, close to 100 years ago,” Sheehan says. “The local street network could never support this.”
This isn’t the first time the decades-old Gedney Association has fought against development. Sheehan recalls a battle in the 1980s, when the group successfully lobbied against proposed developments by NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
A rendering of the French-American School of New York’s (FASNY) campus on the former site of the Ridgeway Golf Club in White Plains.
To the distress of Sheehan and his neighbors, the FASNY project plan was approved by the White Plains Common Council in November 2017. “After almost seven years of public review and environmental review, the council approved it with a supermajority vote,” explains Michael Zarin, a partner at Zarin & Steinmetz, a land-use-and-environmental-law firm in White Plains that is representing FASNY.
The school can move forward with their plan, but the controversy continues. “We were the recipient of two lawsuits,” Zarin says. “One from Gedney Association and another from various individuals living in the neighborhood who are related to Gedney Association.” (In August 2018, the New York State Supreme Court dismissed the Gedney Association’s lawsuit against the city of White Plains.)
Paperwork from one of the lawsuits anticipates “severe traffic hazards, dangers and congestion, negative impacts on quality of life, [and] severe degradation of sensitive environmental features.” Elsewhere in the paperwork there’s more colorful language: The proposed expansion is like “attempting to stuff 10 pounds of potatoes into a five-pound bag.”
Geoff Thompson, of Briarcliff-based PR agency Thompson & Bender, disagrees. He has been working with FASNY since 2011, and recalls, “Virtually immediately, Gedney Association came out saying they were opposed, without seeing a plan.
“It was an instantaneous flash reaction of opposition,” Thompson adds. “And it became worse. It hardened.”
The FASNY conflict may seem exceptional, but “neighborhood disputes in Westchester are all too common,” says Zarin. “They’re unfortunate; they’re often protracted, and sometimes they’re emotion-based rather than factual. The parties spend more time fighting than addressing legitimate concerns and issues.” Zarin has a 30-year pedigree in land-use law and has represented all sides: “municipalities, applicants, community groups,” he says.
Heated conflicts between developers and neighbors can crop up just about anywhere, says John Nolon, a professor at Pace Law School specializing in land use and property. He is also a counsel and faculty liaison for the Land Use Law Center. “It’s built into the neighborhood psyche to not want anything to change,” he says, referencing the acronym NIMBY, meaning “Not in my backyard.” It’s an acronym that makes neighborhood groups bristle, suggesting that their concerns are trivial.
The Chappaqua Crossing development is only now moving forward on the former Reader’s Digest campus after more than a decade of disputes.
Currently, the FASNY-Gedney conflict is one of many in the county. A few miles away, in Harrison, a group of residents is fighting a senior-living complex. Up north, in New Castle and Cortlandt, residents are pitted against a hospital’s expansion and the opening of a rehabilitation center, respectively. And Chappaqua Crossing — a redevelopment of the sprawling former Reader’s Digest campus — is only now moving forward after more than a decade of fighting.
In the neighbors’ opinion, developers arrive with deep pockets, skewed data, and little or no regard for local character. “Most of the developers have come in way ahead of anything we see in the public,” one neighbor says, hinting at backroom meetings, and pointing a finger at “inept, incompetent, or corrupt [town governments] that will not follow their own laws to protect the citizens in the area.” One of these neighborhood groups’ most powerful weapons is the Article 78 lawsuit — a means to appeal a local government’s decision.
Among developers and some lawmakers, a different opinion reigns: They believe they’re encountering blind resistance. As one local land-use attorney says: “Too often, opposition groups today don’t realize they are living in the homes, shopping in the stores, and recreating on the fields that yesterday’s opposition groups fought vociferously to keep out.”
In the Teatown region of Westchester — the wooded swaths of land in and around Yorktown, Cortlandt, and New Castle — a coalition of neighbors is battling not one but three projects: a hospital expansion in New Castle, a rehabilitation center in Cortlandt, and a Verizon cell tower in Cortlandt. That band of neighbors goes by the name Greater Teatown and says they’re protecting some of the county’s most precious land. “We’re a grassroots organization,” explains Karen Wells, who leads the group and lives in Cortlandt. Many members of Greater Teatown are residents of the area but not all; others are hikers, joggers, and environmentalists devoted to the land.
“[The proposed developments] we’re facing are in a very small geographic area,” Wells continues. “The closeness of these proposed projects is one of the prevailing issues.”
“It’s an infestation,” adds Laura Whitlinger, an Ossining resident and Greater Teatown member.
The project most contested by Whitlinger is the expansion of Sunshine Children’s Home & Rehab Center in Ossining, which intends to significantly increase its square footage. “The improvements to the facility include long-needed additional beds, a therapeutic gym, areas for expanded therapeutic services, a therapy pool, space for essential specialty medical care and medical equipment, improved classroom spaces, and room for visiting family members,” reports Linda Mosiello, an administrator at Sunshine.
In September 2016, the expansion of the Sunshine Children’s Home & Rehab Center gained the approval of the New Castle zoning board of appeals (ZBA). In May of this past year, the court upheld the ZBA approval and dismissed two related litigations that had been filed against the ZBA. And this past August, the court dismissed another, separate litigation that challenged approvals made by New Castle’s planning board, according to Edward Philips, New Castle town attorney. “Under our town code, Sunshine was required to seek an amendment to its existing special-use permit from our ZBA. They needed certain variances from our ZBA and certain permits from our planning board. I am confident that both boards reviewed Sunshine’s application in a diligent and responsible manner. So far, the Court has agreed,” explains New Castle town supervisor Robert Greenstein. Mark P. Weingarten, a lawyer representing Sunshine, says, “Construction is expected to begin in January and continue for a period of 18 to 24 months.”
Despite the approval, Whitlinger and others are concerned about environmental impacts. “Two hospitals going in on well water is not okay,” she explains. She notes that local wells are already strained during the hotter months — she won’t run her dishwasher and washing machine in the same day: “You learn to alternate in order to conserve water during certain times of the year.
“In order for all these houses to have water — or otherwise become absolutely worthless,” Whitlinger continues, “we have to dig deeper [wells]. Sunshine did that, and they hit radium.” In 2015, testing revealed elevated levels of radium, a radioactive element, in one of the center’s wells. More recent tests have shown that the amount of radium has returned to suitable levels, according to a Westchester County Department of Health (WCDOH) document.
(L to R) Greater Teatown’s Heidi Hungerbuhler, Laura Whitlinger, Karen Wells, and Jill Greenstein are fighting against three separate projects in the Teatown area. They cite concerns about environmental impacts and safety issues.
“We are being threatened by commercial developments that dramatically change the character of this neighborhood. My feeling is, once one comes in, that opens the door.”
—Jill Greenstein, member, Greater Teatown
This summer, Whitlinger and neighbors said they spotted tanker trucks delivering water to Sunshine. “We have been documenting the deliveries with photographs,” Whitlinger says. Greater Teatown reported the deliveries to the county in August via a letter. It reads: “Sunshine’s reliance on the delivery of outside water raises a number of concerns.” Among them? “Sunshine has been getting water deliveries in order to skew their tests,” Whitlinger alleges.
Sunshine disputes this. “Outside water was delivered only during the time that Sunshine was awaiting permission from WCDOH to put one of their wells back online,” a spokesperson says.
There are also safety issues, according to Whitlinger. The terrain — narrow and hilly roads, thick forests, and fickle power — is hardly the place for a hospital, especially in a storm, she says. “Ambulances and emergency vehicles cannot get in or out.”
The problem, she continues, is that the local governments overseeing project approvals don’t have the expertise to assess environmental data. “These people aren’t hydrologists; they’re not geologists,” she says.
Heidi Hungerbuhler, another Greater Teatown member, is facing a similar challenge, she says. Hungerbuhler’s home in Cortlandt is 600 feet from a proposed Verizon cell tower — one that she says will decrease her property value, displace local wildlife, and may impact her family’s health. “There are no safety studies that examine the effects of long-term exposure to RF radiation continuously at a distance of less than 1,000 feet,” Hungerbuhler explains.
Despite attending frequent zoning board meetings, Hungerbuhler says her voice is seldom heard.
On a recent gray and rainy Saturday, Whitlinger and a handful of neighbors had moods that matched the weather. “I’m a little dark right now,” Whitlinger says. “We just lost our first Article 78. You’re talking to someone who’s a little jaded.” That lawsuit, filed against Sunshine, had resolved just a few days earlier. “We are in the process of filing an appeal,” Whitlinger says.
Driving from one project in Teatown to the next, a route that takes about 10 minutes, she remarks, “If you’ll notice, there are a lot of for-sale signs. People are leaving the neighborhood. They don’t want to lose their wells.”
The Sunshine team has a different opinion. “All material concerns raised during the lengthy review process by neighbors, the County of Westchester, town boards, professional staff, and consultants were examined and addressed,” says Dawn Dankner-Rosen, a spokesperson for the facility.
Greenstein, the New Castle supervisor, hasn’t been able to escape the fray, despite the fact that the town board does not have jurisdiction over the matter. “Sunshine dealt exclusively with the zoning and planning boards, both of which are independent boards. Their role was to follow the law,” he explains.
He is understanding of the opposition, saying, “Land-use decisions often are controversial, and this application was no exception.” But, he adds, “In terms of the review process, we no longer have to deal with opinions. To date, the court has upheld every decision made by [the zoning and planning] boards.”
Jill Greenstein [no relation to Town Supervisor Greenstein] is another Teatown resident who was along for that Saturday drive. Her property line is just feet away from one of the buildings for the proposed Hudson Ridge Wellness Center, a substance-abuse rehabilitation center that is aiming to take over a vacant, sprawling campus in Cortlandt. The approximately 20-acre property, located on Quaker Ridge Road, was formerly home to the Hudson Institute, a public-policy research group, and has been unused for years.
The application for the center was first introduced in the summer of 2015. Since then, there have been two lawsuits — Hudson Ridge has pursued its application before the town of Cortlandt. In doing so, it has raised the rights of patients under the Americans with Disabilities Act. And neighbors have sued (unsuccessfully) the local government and the developer in an effort to halt the project. Currently, Hudson Ridge is before the Cortlandt zoning board and planning board, which is conducting an environmental review. An attorney for Hudson Ridge estimates the review process will likely finish in early 2019.
Jill Greenstein says the region’s narrow roads — already vulnerable to winter storms and often teeming with pedestrians — cannot accommodate a functioning hospital. “We feel the commercial development is out of step and not appropriate for this neighborhood, due to traffic issues, water usage, and safety,” she says. “My feeling is, once one comes in, that opens the door.”
Robert Davis, an attorney at Singleton, Davis & Singleton in Mount Kisco representing Hudson Ridge, says it is their position that the project should not be characterized as a “development.” “This is not a new development. There’s no new construction involved,” he says. “Only existing buildings are being used.” Additionally, he says the property has been used for hospital and other institutional use for over 60 years and the 75 percent of the property which is open space (and 27 adjoining acres) are being preserved.
This old quarry on Lake Street in Harrison is the site of another land-use dispute: The Brightview Senior Living Center wants to build a 165,000 sq. ft. facility with 150 units; neighborhood group Save Harrison has sued to stop the project, hoping to limit commercial development in the area. Photograph by Vinny Garrison/Flying Films NY.
“Too often, opposition groups don’t realize they are living in the homes, shopping in the stores, and recreating on the fields that yesterday’s opposition groups fought vociferously to keep out.”
However, says Davis, he’s not surprised by the resistance: “I’ve been specializing in zoning law for 35 years. I anticipated that there would be significant opposition.”
He feels that much of the opposition is largely “misguided and misinformed,” and can emit inaccurate statements. Davis characterizes Hudson Ridge as a “high-end hospital. There’s no such facility as ours in Westchester County at present,” he says.
Another drama is unfolding in Harrison, where the proposed Brightview Senior Living Center is squaring off with the neighborhood group Save Harrison. The project aims to build a facility with about 150 units on Lake Street, in an old quarry.
About two years ago, the 165,000 sq. ft. project was able to move forward but soon met resistance. Save Harrison sued both the town and Brightview, via Article 78.
David Steinmetz, a managing partner at Zarin & Steinmetz who represents Brightview, characterizes the opposition as “misplaced.”
“While neighbors and civic associations have every right to participate in the land-use process, voice their opinions, and present arguments based upon empirical data, that exercise of a constitutional right becomes abusive and misplaced when it is designed and targeted simply to delay a project,” he says.
Jennifer Spana, a member of Save Harrison, doesn’t believe her opposition is misplaced. She thinks the development is a “wonderful idea but in the wrong location.” Spana says, “We want to preserve the character of our neighborhood and limit commercialization in our rural area of Harrison. Equally important, [we want to] ensure the project is environmentally safe and that all pertinent aspects of the State Environmental Quality Review Act have been explored.” Then, more directly: “[It’s a] four-story monstrosity, right here in our backyards.”
Save Harrison’s Article 78 lawsuit was dismissed in 2017, But Spana and like-minded neighbors aren’t deterred. “The lawsuit is on appeal, and we are waiting for a final determination,” she says.
Steinmetz is confident the project will move ahead. “Westchester County is poised now for repurposing and redevelopment as we approach almost 100 years since zoning and land-use protections went into effect originally,” he says. “Circumstances have changed; usage patterns have changed; transportation options have changed; progress now awaits.”
Will the broader culture of disputes here in Westchester end anytime soon? Not likely, says John Nolton, the Pace professor. When the latest lawsuits conclude, and developers either break ground or take their projects elsewhere, new conflicts will inevitably arise. “It’s almost a mathematical formula: The greater the change in circumstance, the greater the opposition,” Nolon says.
Zarin says, “The lines get drawn, and they get drawn way too quickly.” From there, the situation can devolve: “The whole process loses its grounding. It’s not good for anybody.”
Further, there’s no playbook for resolutions. “There’s nobody out there to mediate these disputes and to try to keep them on a constructive track,” he explains.
But at its heart, the problem is more primal. Zarin notes: “When you deal with land, it’s where all these different forces converge. It’s the most sacred and personal area.”
Kevin Zawacki is a Westchester-based reporter who’s lived in Briarcliff, Yonkers, and Dobbs Ferry — villages and cities with their own complicated, messy histories of development.