By Eileen Gallagher
In February of 2014, I wrote an editorial about affordable housing in New Castle, specifically the Conifer proposal for 54 Hunts Place, which had first been brought to the public’s attention in 2012. Four years later, this project is still under vehement discussion.
It is fair to ask why this project has been taking so long to get the required variances and permits. After all, in the span of about 16 months, two affordable housing units are already underway at 300 King Street in town, and 28 units are set to go at Chappaqua Crossing. Why has it taken more than four years for Conifer to get the go ahead?
The answer can be found in one word–safety. There are a myriad of safety issues, stemming from a plan to shoehorn 28 units into a tiny plot of contaminated land literally hemmed in by a bridge, highway, and railroad tracks, and at a current cost of $17.2 million and rising.
The numbers are staggering, as are the issues. Equally distressing is the fact that this location defies just about every stipulation of the 2009 affordable housing settlement, which called for seamless integration into the neighborhood and the avoidance of isolation or stigmatizing the units as affordable housing. Clever interpretations of wording can help to steer this project forward, but cannot overcome the known safety issues.
At Conifer’s most recent appearance before the town board on February 9, several residents, myself included, appealed to the town board to carefully consider the latest decision by the NYS Department of Transportation to not allow the construction of a fence along both sides of the bridge, which the board of 2013 had required as part of the special permit. The DOT cited dangers of such a fence in case of a car accident, for example, which would pin a car to the fence and not allow for removal of an occupant of the vehicle. With the fence out of the question, there is nothing currently in the proposal to ensure the safety of the residents of the building who would be tempted to cross in the middle of the bridge to get into town, especially children on their way to the park, to school, to the library, etc.
Nor is there a plan for an emergency generator for the building. One reason might be the lack of space (other than on the already-crowded roof) due to the plan to build lot-line to lot-line. When asked about the lack of a generator and what the contingency is during a power outage for the 14 apartments steps from the tracks that will be built with inoperable windows, an architect hired by Conifer replied, “As far as I am aware, emergency generator operation is not required for the mechanical ventilation of those units.” Their attorney’s comment during that same Board of Architectural Review meeting, “I hate to deal with hypotheticals,” speaks volumes.
Unfortunately, this has been a pattern throughout the years Conifer has come before the town board. Minimum requirements take precedence over safety and comfort. Loopholes in the wording of permits and variances give rise to victories for them, but not for our community.
Both our police and fire chiefs have conveyed to the board that this project continues to be dangerously located with major safety flaws. Fire Chief Russell Maitland characterized his department as having been “waving the flag,” describing his writing letters, appearing before the state Board of Review, meeting with the developer and the town board, and asserting that “not a lot has changed from our perspective.” At the town board meeting on Feb 9, he reminded the board, and all who were watching, that the fire department has no political agenda. “We’re not elected. We’re not paid.” Maitland ended with a plea to the board to do the right thing to ensure the safety of all.
The sad truth is that this misguided, misplaced project with its skyrocketing costs and ever-mounting obstacles will cost us way more than the monetary price tag. Fortunately, we are in the process of building two lovely, safe, and welcoming affordable homes at 300 King Street with Habitat for Humanity of Westchester.
Additionally, 28 affordable housing units will be built in the cupola building at Chappaqua Crossing. Both of these projects are being designed with the comfort and safety of all involved. They speak to the warmth, care, and generosity of time and talent within our community. But 54 Hunts Place would tell a different story.
Conifer continues to pursue 54 Hunts Place for their building, despite being offered an alternative site with the potential for even more units. Their claim is that they have already spent too much money on plans at the current site.
A commenter on Facebook said she feared if we put the brakes on Conifer, a potential lawsuit would cost our town too much money. My question to Conifer, and to everyone, is this: how much money is a life worth? The lives of families, of volunteer emergency responders, of the community?
When you take a step back, clear away the social media frenzy, and consider the lives that are at stake, can you truly believe that 54 Hunts Place should be the home for 28 families?
Eileen Gallagher is a 13-year resident of Chappaqua with her husband and two sons. A member of CFRAH, Chappaqua for Responsible Affordable Housing, she has been working diligently for the safety of future residents of our town. Her latest volunteer efforts include working with her husband at 300 King Street–the site of two Habitat for Humanity affordable housing condominiums.
Save the Date
Conifer promises to return to town on March 29, when they will continue their efforts to obtain the necessary permits. Please consider attending the meeting that evening and/or writing to the town board at the addresses below to add your voice to this important issue.
Jeremy M. Saland