By Don McHugh
Teardowns are changing the character of neighborhoods.
Clearly, we need a more rational, long-term, sustainable approach to residential building in Rye.
Privacy and sunlight are sacrificed due to inappropriate oversized homes being allowed on small lots.
At the start of each year, our country, state, county, and city all appropriately take time to reflect on their state of affairs. At the national level, there are numerous takes on the new administration, which need no amplification. My current focus is local. I am greatly concerned by the recent flurry of home construction sanctioned by the City of Rye, presumably for the sake of “progress”. Unfortunately, my comments arrive too late to spare my immediate neighborhood. I simply never anticipated the speed or furor with which the City would allow an entire area to be bulldozed and replaced, or how little attention would be paid to the concerns of those most heavily impacted. But, perhaps some reflection will lead to better planning elsewhere in the City, and avoid some long-term unintended consequences.
Since last summer I’ve found myself in a situation not unfamiliar to my neighbors, with construction projects on two adjacent properties: one to the left and one behind. Both involved “teardowns,” where the new construction is dramatically larger than the old (the house to the right — a partial teardown — was replaced two years ago). Similar projects have dotted almost every block of Glen Oaks for each of the past few years; and they have greatly changed the character of the neighborhood. The new home designs are beautiful on paper, but they are not appropriately scaled to the lots on which they stand or neighborhood in which they reside. Multiple colonials with four to five bedrooms and an equal number of baths are misplaced, in a neighborhood consisting largely of ranches and Cape Cod homes that sit on properties an eighth- to a quarter-acre in size — especially when the new homes include three floors of living space, each with ceilings up to 10 feet high that clearly dwarf nearby homes. I am uncertain as to the angle created by the line-of-sight from the sidewalk to the roofline (perhaps a reasonable addition to zoning considerations), but the structures are uncomfortably imposing to passersby.
My list of personal grievances is long:
• A loss of privacy, as admittedly modest homes, previously barely visible through mature native foliage, are replaced by massive modern structures with multiple windows peering down on my previously private backyard, from their raised vantage point atop newly denuded properties.
• The impact of reduced sunlight on my lawn, flowers, trees, and bushes planted and nurtured for over 25 years, that now lay in the shadow of these structures.
• Almost certain water run-off thanks to the vastly expanded foot print of the new homes, steep pitch at which earth is re-distributed around the small remnant property, and radical reduction in vegetation.
• Seemingly careless construction that involves excavation on the bulk of the subject property, that not only removes most previously existing small trees and shrubs, but threatens the root system and viability of the few mature trees on each property. I am especially concerned regarding the health of two rare American Elms that have graced and defined my property, even well before my purchase over 25 years ago.
Our City zoning laws and permitting process fail to adequately address neighbor’s concerns. Building plans are seldom materially altered based on community feedback; there appears to be limited monitoring once construction begins; and no recourse is provided if a builder fails to adequately comply with approved plans. Height differentials between new and existing homes appear far more dramatic for houses that were once separated by a natural landscape, but are now side by side. They are further aggravated by the fact that new home heights are measured from an elevated topography, as earth is redistributed around the construction site, creating a mound around the new home — perhaps not by design or statute, but certainly in practice.
Prior to construction, I never saw a hair on the head of my neighbors, over the six-foot fence that separates our yards; now I gaze into the chest or waist of construction workers as they walk about the property.
My personal issues are just a microcosm of a broader issue our community should consider, long term sustainability. Affordable housing is a huge issue for Westchester County. While Rye has never ranked high on the affordability index, do we really want the entry point for our community to exceed $2,000,000? When I first moved to Rye, Glen Oaks offered a relatively modest entry point to an affluent, but diverse community. I was attracted to the area because of its proximity to affordable Rye Golf Club, Osborn School, and growing number of budding young families that could afford (likely by stretching) the ranches and Cape Cod homes that dotted the neighborhood. The wide streets and spacious green yards with established trees were inviting, as were the longtime residents. I appreciated the strong sense of community and continuity. My elderly neighbors shared stories of growing up in Rye with me and my children. “The Burgess Bird Book” that they gave my son sparked an appreciation of birds and nature that exists today. Neighbors included local policemen, firemen, and schoolteachers, each with their own stories of growing up or working in town. Many families had roots going back generations.
Some might claim that the high tax bills on the many replacement homes benefit the City. But they also create tremendous burdens, straining our school system, municipal services, and ecosystem. Higher home values reduce affordability for young and the old alike, and tend to promote a very homogenous community of wealthy families with school-age children, some of whom are likely to remain only for those school-age years. What are the odds that your children will have an opportunity to settle in this City that you love, or that even current residents can successfully downsize and find an affordable home to live out their retirement years? Without young couples who do not yet have school-age children, or the elderly whose children have long since left the system, the City will become increasingly populated with heavy consumers of services. It is also possible that some of these new homes with $2 million+ mortgages, $30,000-$40,000 tax bills, and four to five baths will be easily converted to multi-family homes (legal or otherwise), simply as a means of keeping them affordable to overburdened homeowners, which could further burden the system.
Finally, consider the strain on our ecosystem. Rye is a community with a long history of flooding, which has worsened considerably with development in upstream communities, so we should be particularly sensitive to the perils of over building. The watershed for Glen Oaks is Beaver Swamp Brook. Like Blind Brook, it has a history of flooding, which has been aggravated by development (primarily on its western bank, in Harrison). While the new homes in Glen Oaks require catch basins and leaching systems for improved drainage, how effective can these be when stacked one on top of another, on ever-shrinking properties with vastly compromised surface areas, in an area known for its high water table that is already under significant demonstrated strain? When I purchased my home, I was required to replace the exit line for my sump pump so that it would not feed into the street. But, I recently heard from a neighbor that some contractors have been authorized to link their new sumps directly to the City sewer system for a modest fee.
Like Westchester County, Rye also has a significant number of old-growth trees that are not likely to be adequately replaced as they reach the end of their natural lifecycle. In addition to their ascetic appeal, trees reduce storm run-off, prevent soil erosion, reduce carbon dioxide and pollutants and offer numerous physiological and psychological health benefits. They also provide shade and wind breaks, which can reduce electricity and heating oil consumption. Property-to-property-line excavation, which severely compromises root systems of mature trees is therefore detrimental to individual properties and the entire community.
A former arborist for the Bronx Botanical Garden, who has cared for my rare Elms since I purchased my home, says the odds are slim that the tree closest to construction will survive the carnage that tore up the root system to within a few feet of its base. He expects the Elm, which shed leaves prematurely this past year, to leaf out in the spring, and then be unable to sustain its new growth. He says I’ll be extremely lucky if it survives the stress of this summer. A similar fate may await a large (less rare) maple in the rear yard, where the roots were ripped out to accommodate a drainage system. Will the City, which approved these plans, pay to remove and replace my trees, or countless others that may have been damaged?
The City needs to consider more than the pretty parchments placed before it by builders and contemplate the impact to neighboring properties, as well as the long-range effects on the broader community. Just because the bare-minimum setbacks of our building code have been observed, does not mean that submitted plans are appropriate or worthy of approval. We must also provide recourse to neighbors throughout the building process, who often feel hopeless when plans stray from those approved. I’m not a surveyor, but I can’t imagine the house next door, which towers over all those nearby, conforms to approved heights constraints. The pitch of the land also appears extreme, especially the closer it gets to my property. Only the threat of a lawsuit deterred my new neighbor from clear cutting all the branches of the Elm that overhang his construction site. While he correctly claimed a right to cut any limbs overhanging his property, I explained that I also had the right to sue him, if he compromised the health of my tree.
In a span of a few years, we’ve lost our quaint, once bucolic green neighborhood that served as both an entry point for young couples hoping to raise a family, as well as, an affordable place for longtime residents to reside in retirement. Large homes are now stacked side-by-side on stretches of Florence and Coolidge Avenue, where neighbors can borrow a cup of sugar without either resident leaving their spacious new homes. They resemble parts of Queens, rather than the humble rural green residential community of just a few years ago.
I am generally in favor of small government; and I don’t want to unnecessarily constrain homeowners from making proper use of their valuable land. But, we clearly need a more rational, long-term, sustainable approach to building in Rye. The only ones served by the current craze are builders.
<The author has reached out to the City Council and the Rye Sustainability Committee, as well as The Rye Record.>