Village's rushed and hushed actions do not inspire confidence

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Editor's note: The following letter was sent to the Village Board of Trustees by David Stevenson, chair of the Village of Chester Zoning Board of Appeals.

To the Village of Chester Board of Trustees:

My name is David Stevenson, Chester village resident and current Chair of the Village Zoning Board of Appeals. I want to submit my comments regarding the pending zoning law change #4. But before I get into the proposed change, I have to say a few things:

To be honest, the way in which this legislation has been advanced does not portray our village in the best light. A policy change like this requires open input and reasoned discussion but the progression here has been ominously opaque.

The recent public hearing was publicized once, four days earlier, in the fine print of a regional newspaper. The Chronicle, a local paper far more in tune with Chester issues, was not included in the notices. You owe it to your constituency to advertise a hearing like this more broadly to collect as much feedback as possible. Why exclude another outlet of information, a free one no less? This action suggests the goal was to suppress, rather than encourage resident input. Further, if you look on the current front page of the Village website, nowhere does it say comments on this proposed law are now being solicited, what the deadline is, or to whom comments should be directed. I looked everywhere and found no mention of it. This is an important issue; it should be there.

The latest version of the proposed change was made available to the public less than a day before the public hearing on March 10, and this includes providing the paperwork to the Planning Board Chairman, Richard Ramsdell. Let me repeat that: the Chairman of the Planning Board received his updated copy of legislation that will directly impact his agency less than 24 hours before a discussion/vote on it. Why anyone would want to treat their Planning Chairman so dismissively is beyond comprehension. Both Boards should be working in concert toward the good of the village and need to be on the same page at the same time. Anyone in the public sector knows that withholding information in this way is no mere oversight and in fact invites negative speculation. Please treat the Planning Board, and the recommendations they make, with more respect. The public hearing should have been tabled until April to allow the public to digest and analyze the changes. At the very least, the public hearing should remain open for April to allow for more public comment.

So, strictly from a procedural point of view, the cumulative effect of the Trustee Board's rushed and hushed actions do not inspire confidence. I say this as a fellow public servant, one who worries that he will find the execution of his duties increasingly difficult if the public trust in our transparency is eroded.

Regarding the proposed zoning change: There are others in the community who have addressed the incongruities of the specific numbers, and the troubles they will usher in. I would like to address the overall strategy of this legislation.

I have a hard time understanding the pressing need to expedite this change on such a compressed timeline. This is a change that has far-reaching consequences for the village and, in a related way, the Town of Chester. We seem to have an antagonistic relationship with the Town but, being within the donut of the town, we need to work in closer conjunction. The Village needs to have a deeper conversation about the true need for this change, the parties with a vested interest in it, and the full ramifications of the measures. Frankly, I see no reason why this change needs to happen. Doing so will take the teeth out of our Village Code, weaken the Planning Board's ability to regulate smart, controlled growth, and gut the purpose of the ZBA to act as a pressure valve in giving relief to developers on a case by case basis. This flexibility is of utmost importance to regulate to what extent variances can be granted. To change the zoning as proposed will give carte blanche to developers to ramp up and overload property that cannot support it. And this will overburden a community at large that also cannot support it. One glance at the Shop-Rite parking lot, the overflow of the Chester Park and Ride commuter lot, the traffic on the Rt. 17M and Rt. 94 corridors, and the overpass intersection provides sufficient evidence of this. The carrot that developers traditionally dangle (jobs, housing, economic stimulation) often do not pan out as planned and in fact become a Trojan Horse of future problems (congestion, plummeting real estate values, quality of life erosion, overburdened schools). We are under no time constraint to pass this measure immediately so let's take the time to do it right. Development in our community needs to be done on our timetable and under our conditions, not those driven by a developer. We need to reassert our role as the authoritative agency and not let outside forces dictate legislation.

In recent years and in neighboring towns, we are seeing more cases of thoughtful reconsideration of the effects of rampant growth. The general procedure has been for developers, when not getting their way, to threaten litigation, forcing shallow-pocketed towns to back down. This has been going on for awhile. Lately, we are seeing some pushback as more municipalities are exerting their right to home rule in dictating how their village/town expands. It is my hope that this will embolden our village to exercise that right as well. The annexation of the BT property into the village felt like a rather unsavory land-taking but was mitigated by the village's promise to tightly control the development under its close scrutiny. Now, with the proposed change, we seem to be giving away the very equity we have at stake.

Speaking to that, there has been much speculation about BT Holdings' role in this proposal. The Mayor may claim that the two are unrelated but the wording of the measures and the timing hint otherwise. The proposed changes are so tightly worded to conditions currently faced by the BT Holdings project that the connection cannot be considered a mere coincidence. It almost feels as if the BT attorneys drafted the measure, submitted it to the Board, and told them to pass their "wish list." A change with such wide-ranging implications, far beyond BT Holdings, should not be passed under such duress. I certainly hope this Board does not want to preside over such a legacy.

So, please, resist pressure, take your time, be judicious, examine all the evidence and input from affected parties, including Village residents and your thoughtful Planning Board. I see no reason why we shouldn't decline to weaken a very effective Village Code, and respectfully require developers to operate under our guidelines. We can do this, and so can they.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

David Stevenson, Chair
Chester Village Zoning Board of Appeals

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