With the Democratic Primary less than a month away, we asked Mayor Josh Cohn and his challenger, former City Councilwoman Danielle-Tagger Epstein, several questions covering a range of issues from inappropriate development to the future of Milton Harbor to whether the closure of Purchase Street is warranted or in the best interest of most businesses.
Rye Record: During the current housing boom, lot after lot has been clear cut of native deciduous trees. The oak, maple, locust tree canopy, that is the native habitat of Rye, is being destroyed. What will you do to prevent the unnecessary removal of trees by developers?
Tagger-Epstein: We need to update Rye’s tree ordinance to encourage preserving the character of the community while working with the needs of the property owners. This is an issue we began discussing as a community a decade ago. The first way to strike this balance is to make sure that review of any important land use policies occurs in an open process where all voices are heard. In 2011, a collaborative effort was undertaken by members of the City Council, City staff, Conservation Commission Advisory Council, Rye Sustainability, and the public to craft an ordinance that would help protect our trees while protecting the rights of property owners. Unfortunately, their work was tabled indefinitely.
We need to revisit and update those proposals and get the public involved again. We need balanced solutions. Many new developments would benefit from retaining mature trees on the property. As Mayor, I would immediately restart that process and involve the public from the outset.
I firmly believe that responsible development and protection of our natural assets can be achieved. We just need someone willing to advocate for better ways of approaching issues like this, and I believe I am that candidate.
Cohn: A trio of City Council members have been looking at the issue. An early conclusion of this group is that the worst clear-cutting has been done under color of the subdivision law. That was one reason for the moratorium we recently put in place on certain subdivisions, and I believe that a recommendation for change in treatment of trees in the subdivision context may come from study during the moratorium. The tree law needs revision, too, to protect against unnecessary removal of trees.
Rye Record: Dozens of residents, especially after the blasting, rock removal, and overall disruption to the Oakland Beach neighborhood in recent months, proffer that the only thing that will preserve Rye’s remaining character and open space is a dramatic revision of our Zoning laws. What is your view and what will you do to limit inappropriate development?
Cohn: I understand the distress felt by many residents throughout the City. We have initiated a moratorium on certain subdivisions, steep slope development, “gerrymandered” lot lines, and “sideways” houses. This is intended to be a first bite at the question of inappropriate development. Much of our older housing stock was not built out to the full extent our zoning laws permit, allowing for the replacement of old houses with larger new ones. When the City established limits on house height, builders in search of square footage began to rock chip or blast deeper and wider.
A real community conversation is needed to establish new zoning standards that create a better accord among the wishes of existing residents, residents wishing to sell, developers, and new home buyers. Ideally, substantial changes in zoning law should follow a master plan, but given the time required to do a master plan and the pandemic’s disruption of our master plan effort, we should pursue zoning review first.
Tagger-Epstein: Whether it is our tree ordinance, our zoning laws, or concerns of over flooding, much of this comes back to our need to revisit and update our master plan, which was last updated in 1985. We need to take a more holistic approach if the blueprint for our future is to retain the elements of Rye we value today.
Up until now the current Council has not demonstrated an interest in pressing land use issues. Many of these issues cannot wait for a master plan process. The city can review some of these policies on an expedited basis while restarting the master plan review. The tree ordinance, flooding policies, and out-of-scale development issues should be reviewed now. Sound development should be consistent with the existing scale of a neighborhood. Developments like the one on Oakland Beach Avenue that has caused such controversy highlight the challenge. When you take one 17,000-square-foot lot and turn it into two lots, each with homes of 6,000 square feet, something about that seems wrong and out of character for our town.
Character is what attracted many of us to Rye. We have to respect that our residents have been clear that they want green and open spaces. Out-of-scale developments run the risk of diminishing the value of neighboring properties. We need to strike the right balance.
We also need to update our rock chipping and blasting law, which is not protecting nearby property owners from damage or excessive interference with use of their property. We need to look at the best practices for chipping and blasting used in other communities and see how our approach can be improved. This is just another example of where the City Council and Mayor need to do a better job of protecting residents. As Mayor, I will make thoughtful review of land use policies a priority, conduct these reviews in the open, and make sure all voices are heard.
Rye Record: The Blind Brook harbor has been at the center of Rye commerce and enjoyment for over 250 years. It is now silting over, and there is no concrete plan to save it. Will your Council be the first municipal body in a quarter of a millennium to let it die through inaction?
Tagger-Epstein: Milton Harbor water flow is vital for many reasons, yet this issue has been ignored for years at Rye’s peril. Addressing the dredging problem affects flooding in Rye upstream and heightens the risk of private and public property damage. At stake is much more than the viability of our marina.
The solution to this issue demands a collaborative approach – not working in silos without the benefit of professional input and engagement. We all have a vested interest in protecting the harbor from degradation and I am confident we can be successful in finding a solution. I know this is a priority and will restore focus from City Hall to address this challenge.
More broadly, I will be engaged in the environmental issues that are so important to Rye residents – open space, flooding, water quality, recycling, and food waste composting. Rye has great parks and natural areas. I will work with the many environmental and Friends groups to make these resources shine.
Cohn: The Milton Harbor boat basin is an “enterprise fund” similar to the golf club. This means that these facilities are to be maintained at the expense of those who use them with no support from the City. While the golf club has been self-sustaining, the boat basin may not be. We are dealing with an accumulation of changed circumstances: silting may be greater now than in years past as a result of development; the Army Corps, which regularly dredged the channel, will no longer do so; and dredging costs have increased tremendously in response to pollution concerns. Therefore, the boat basin’s financial structure and its status as an enterprise fund may no longer be adequate to sustain the increased cost of dredging.
One needs facts to have a concrete plan. We moved early to try to resolve three basic questions: how much of a dredge is required, how quickly does the silt return, and how much does it cost to dredge? The Boat Basin Commission, aided by a subcommittee of the Finance Committee, has pursued this inquiry. A key part of the inquiry — cost — is dependent on testing the pollution level of silt. That testing was delayed during the pandemic. We will soon have answers to our three questions and then can begin to understand the costs and their periodicity, and the planning possibilities. Out of this, a plan must be made.”
Rye Record: Merchants sign long-term leases with the understanding that Purchase Street is a busy thoroughfare. Many of them have appealed to the City Council, last year and this, not to close the street to vehicular traffic until 5 p.m. One way to accomplish is quickly and inexpensively would be to park a vehicle at each end of the street, as has been done in many other communities.
Cohn: The street cannot be easily closed at 5 p.m. daily for use by restaurants. In the first instance, the restaurants do not have the employees to set up each night or the storage space for the equipment that would be deployed in the streets. On a daily basis the City would need to block access, reroute traffic, change signage, and tow parked cars that overstay, with concomitant commitment of personnel and other resources. The City would then need to reverse by early in the morning.
The City worked hand in hand with the Chamber of Commerce to craft last summer’s Purchase Plaza and to modify it several times in response to merchants’ requests. Before making recommendations for 2021, the Chamber has ertaken a survey of downtown merchants. It is my understanding that the Chamber found that two out of three of our merchants (including many retailers) liked Purchase Plaza and want to see it return in some form, but that the minority who oppose it, oppose it very strongly, indeed. Additionally, I’ve heard more positive feedback from residents on Purchase Plaza than any other action of the City. By the time readers see this article the Chamber will have made its presentation to the City, merchants and residents will have weighed in at a Council meeting, and the Council will have taken up the difficult decision of trying to figure out how to do the greatest good for the largest number of stakeholders.
Tagger-Epstein: If 2020 taught us anything about our cities and neighborhoods, it is that commerce is an essential part of the fabric of our communities. Our restaurants, clothing stores, pet supply retailers, florists, and others are important parts of Rye. And while Covid-19 forced us to radically change our approach to business last year, 2021 is not 2020. We can support Rye’s businesses, and I believe we can do it better.
What was extremely upsetting to me about the Purchase Plaza story last year was that merchants approached the mayor and asked for help. They asked for plans to be modified to help them survive, and they were ignored. As Mayor I will not ignore residents, businesses, or not-for-profits looking for help.
The business district discussion for 2021 and beyond should be an open and broad one. While it may be a challenge to address everyone’s needs, we should never benefit some businesses to the severe detriment of others. We need an open discussion with everyone involved– restauranteurs, retail business owners, public safety officials, the Council, residents – to make our downtown business district succeed. This is a discussion that has to happen in full view, not behind closed doors.
As the candidate for transparent and respectful governance, I will always advocate for bringing the public into discussions that affect the public as well as our business owners. What I believe we cannot do in 2021 is close Purchase Street for months at a time as we did in 2020. There are solutions we can explore to support our restaurants seeking great outdoor dining experiences – while also support our retail stores.
Rye Record: This Democratic primary has been particularly nasty. Charges of being “unfit to serve” and baseless innuendo about matters of public record have flourished, particularly on social media. Do you each affirm that your opponent is fit to serve as mayor. If not, why?
Tagger-Epstein: Rye is a small town with a New England feel and a neighborly charm. Respect is an important value for our town, respect for each other, respect for those that need help from the City Council, and respect even when we disagree.
I have run a positive campaign based on issues, my record of service and what I hear in Rye about what needs to be improved on the City Council. If others use negative tactics, everyone in Rye is the lesser for it.
I am for transparent, respectful, and collaborative local government that is responsive to the concerns of individuals, organizations, and businesses. I will address their concerns with respect, protect your tax dollars, eliminate wasteful spending like unnecessary runaway costs on consultants and lawyers, and make sure residents have access to the information they have a right to regarding City Council decisions.
I believe we have an obligation to ourselves and our children to protect this community’s valuable open spaces and its environment. Most importantly, I am convinced Rye needs a mayor who will listen with an open mind, involve city staff, the public and interested stakeholders in the process of governing, and who will serve with compassion and respect.
Cohn: My opponent has been the subject of a LoHud article entitled “Rye mayoral candidate faces heat for intervening in 2017 criminal case while on council.” She has been the subject of a formal complaint by the PBA which said, “These actions of Councilwoman Tagger-Epstein are seen as anti-police, unprofessional of a Councilwoman, and unsupportive of the job the City of Rye Police Officers do on a daily basis to protect our residents. Again, I can’t emphasize enough these [weapons possessed by the defendant on whose behalf Tagger-Epstein intervened] were illegally possessed handguns, loaded, and ready to be used in a school zone.” She has been the subject of review by members of the City’s Board of Ethics; their findings are confidential, but her using a law firm in an unsuccessful attempt to have those findings withdrawn is public. Whether this behavior indicates fitness to serve as mayor will be up to the voters.