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Environmental News

County Weighs Bid for Disputed Pocantico Lake Property

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July 10, 2022

By Jeff Wilson–

       Members of Save Pocantico Lake (SPL), the grassroots organization vehemently opposed to the proposed construction of a 31-home cluster subdivision on the pristine lake’s northwestern corner, got a glimmer of hope late last month. At his June 27th Weekly Update briefing, County Executive George Latimer responded to a question posed by The Hudson Independent by acknowledging that the county is considering entering into discussions with the developer, Zappico Real Estate Development LLC, about a potential purchase of the 36.8-acre property in question – if the price is right.

     This is welcome news to the project’s many opponents – especially those living nearby – who worry about ruining Pocantico Lake as well as the adjoining Pocantico Lake County Park. The lake is a backup source of drinking water – until 1977 it served the city of New Rochelle – and a tributary to the Hudson River, with beautiful views and abundant wildlife.

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     “Such a resolution, one that benefits all parties, is exactly what county residents are hoping for,” said local resident and attorney Charlie Sanders, a key member of SPL who does much of the heavy lifting. “Nobody’s saying they don’t want development in Westchester in a responsible way – just not there,” he said in a telephone interview.

    Latimer’s statement was well short of a commitment, but it was a clear signal that the county is assessing the land’s value before approaching the developer. “Depending on how [Zappico] prices it – it could be as high as ten, twenty million dollars,” said Latimer. “We don’t know that they’re willing to sell it in a voluntary sale, but we’ll try to get an estimate of the price on our own side of the coin.” He insisted, though, that any talks would take place behind closed doors. “Whatever dialogue happens, you can appreciate that we’re not going to negotiate in public; we’ll have private conversations as is necessary.”

     Latimer’s interest in securing the property comes on the heels of a resolution issued by the Parks, Recreation and Conservation Board on March 17 in which it recommended the county consider acquiring the parcel. The resolution stated that the park’s natural habitat, wildlife and water supply “could be vulnerable to changes in use of nearby land.” Finally, the resolution urged that consideration begin “without delay.”

     And more help could be on the way. State Assemblyman Tom Abinanti, who represents Mount Pleasant and Greenburgh, has also called for the county to make the purchase and pledged his efforts to get state support. Yet he too warned about the danger of waiting. “If anything is granted to the developer it could very well raise the value of the property,” he said in a phone interview on June 29. “If the county moves quickly, I’ll work as hard I can to get the state committed, financially and in any other way necessary.” (Note: Assemblyman Abinanti lost a primary election to County Legislator MaryJane Shimsky in June and thus has only six months left in office to deliver on his promise.)

     The county’s consideration to buy is just the latest chapter in a running battle that began in 2020 when Zappico, co-owned by brothers Brian and Brandon Zappi, paid $2.4 million for a 42.6-acre parcel at 715 Sleepy Hollow Road in Briarcliff Manor, six acres of which they immediately sold to Briarcliff Manor for slightly over $1 million. In March 2021, the firm submitted plans to the Mount Pleasant Planning Board for a 36.8-acre subdivision they are calling the Meadows at Briarcliff, consisting of 29 new homes in addition to two existing structures. The Comprehensive Site Analysis provides reassurances that the project would not upset the bucolic environment: “The proposed plan set was designed specifically around preserving and protecting the natural character around the lake,” the document reads. Maps depicted the entire subdivision situated on the inner half of the property, 400 feet away from the lake, with the remaining area – approximately 20 wooded acres – separating it from rocky cliffs overlooking the lake.

     After watching the Planning Board’s June 3, 2021 Zoom meeting in which Zappico presented its plans, local residents expressed alarm about the threat to the lake’s habitat. They weren’t buying Zappico’s claims of “preserving open space and minimizing tree clearing and disturbance.”  Recognizing their common ground, they founded Save Pocantico Lake. The coalition now boasts 468 members, according to its Facebook page (largely managed by Sanders). Advocacy has only mounted from there, including impassioned letters to Mt. Pleasant’s Planning Board and to the editor of a local newspaper, regular attendance at board meetings, petitions and videos. Select members went so far as to study and photograph the lake’s wildlife as evidence.

     “We spent a lot of time at the lake observing the pattern of the birds living there, especially the predatory birds,” recalled Sanders. “The otters come and go but we were able to get those shots too. I just wanted to make sure they (the board) knew – and that Zappi knew – that there were folks on the other side who were not just casually objecting…(We) were professionals who were going to follow through on this no matter how long it takes.”

     Late last year the group submitted an exhaustive 100-page document to the planning board focusing on issues to include in the DEIS (Draft Environmental Impact Statement) Scoping Document required of Zappico by the State Environmental Quality Review Act or SEQRA. The developer is currently preparing the DEIS and is expected to submit it sometime this summer.

      SPL member Maureen Petry reflected on the success of the organization’s hard work. “The Save Pocantico Lake group has reached out and engaged residents from all over Westchester,” she said in a statement by email. “In gathering signatures for our petition (circulated by SPL to advocate for expansion of the county park) we have received an overwhelmingly positive response from county residents who want to save this pristine woodland and emergency water supply.”

      Older residents may have a feeling of deja-vu over looming suburban sprawl. In the late 1980’s a43-home development was proposed for the Briarcliff Manor side of the Lake, but opposition from the Pocantico Lake Civic Association and government officials seeing a danger of water contamination prevailed, scuttling the proposal. Both Westchester County and the Town of Mt. Pleasant passed resolutions protecting Pocantico Lake from any further development. In 1990, Pocantico Lake and the area surrounding it were designated a Critical Environmental Area (CEA) by the county for its “exceptional and unique character,” granting it strict protections. Two years later, in 1992, Westchester purchased the lake outright, along with 164 acres of land on its eastern bank. The land became Pocantico Lake County Park, which has been maintained at considerable expense ever since.

     Two high-profile conservation organizations dedicated to saving the Hudson River and its environs have also made their voices heard. Nonprofits Scenic Hudson and Riverkeeper each weighed in with letters to the planning board – Scenic Hudson spoke at a meeting as well – imploring it to reject the housing proposal. In a telephone interview, Riverkeeper President Tracy Brown had this to say regarding a possible public acquisition: “As we prioritize clean water and green spaces, purchasing and preserving existing pristine land is the most cost-effective way to meet those goals. We urge the county to move forward with the preservation of this land.”

     The Mt. Pleasant Planning Board, which has the task of approving or rejecting the project, has let it be known that it means business, with Chairman Michael McLaughlin admonishing both sides at different times. On one occasion the chairman asked the SPL group not to be so “emotional;” at another meeting he admonished Zappi for what he perceived was a lack of candor.

     Brian Zappi denies that Meadows at Briarcliff is detrimental to the habitat in any way. “I can tell you this development will have no impact on the lake at all,” he stated in a June 10 email. And the SPL “neighbors” are “misinformed, do not understand the project and are just anti-development,” Zappi also claimed.

     Zappico representatives did not respond to requests for the company’s reaction to reports of a possible deal to sell the property.

     In his briefing, Latimer stated that if Westchester acquired the property, it would be annexed to Pocantico Lake Park. “We have to make the decision as to the land that we attempt to purchase that it attaches to a county park—that it has an environmental benefit and a park-related benefit,” he said.

     Henry Neale, Chairman of the Parks Board, reiterated his support – he and his fellow board members did write the resolution that set everything in motion – but questioned Latimer’s estimate of a $10 million price tag, noting that their earlier sale of a piece of the property reduced Zappico’s net outlay to just over $1 million. Whether that will persuade the Zappi brothers to abandon Meadows at Briarcliff in favor of cash remains to be seen. As the saying goes on Wall Street, a deal is never done until money changes hands

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