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Irvington Planning Board Close to A Deal On Halsey Pond Development

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December 6, 2021

By Barrett Seaman–

After more than 30 years of on-again/off-again plans and disputes, a picture is nearly complete of what three acres of currently wooded property on the northern border of Irvington’s Halsey Pond will eventually look like.

At its January meeting, the village’s Planning Board is expected to take one more round of public comment before reaching at least a verbal agreement with the developer, Mar-Vera Corp., on such granular issues as the type of planting and topography that will be permitted along a buffer zone separating three planned single-family homes from the parkland and path that surround Halsey Pond.

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The pond is considered by many to be one of Irvington’s open space gems.

Key participants agree that, as Chet Kerr, representing the Greater Irvington Land Trust (GILT), put it, “the framework is pretty well set.” Still to be inked before Mar-Vera can prepare the three lots for sale are a conservation easement buffer agreement, a subdivision plat, a limited site development plan and, if necessary, a final negative declaration of the plan’s environmental impact (SEQRA). Even then, it could be years before actual houses are built.

Controversy over the future of this remaining patch of undeveloped land was revived over this past summer when Mar-Vera applied to the village for permission to develop the site for three houses overlooking Halsey Pond. In response, GILT petitioned the village to require a large natural vegetative buffer, a protective landscape plan and greater setbacks in order to prevent the development from causing both aesthetic and environmental damage to the pond. Some 170 local residents endorsed that petition. A later public petition asking the board to block the plan altogether gathered 220 signatures. Environmental powerhouse Scenic Hudson weighed in, warning the Planning Board that the three-home plan “has the potential to adversely impact water quality in the pond and its downstream watershed and impose adverse visual impacts on visitors to the park.”

Even the village’s Parks & Recreation Department wrote to say the development “could jeopardize much of what makes Halsey Pond so special.”

Nestled on a plateau bordered in part by the Ardsley Country Club golf course, the estates of Legend Hollow, and 29 acres of wooded parkland, Halsey Pond is adorned with a turreted stone “teahouse” that was once part of a large castle-like mansion, built in the early 1900s by cotton magnate Melchior Beltzhoover. The estate, called Rochroanne, was subsequently bought by Benjamin and Katherine Halsey from whom the pond gets its name. In the mid-seventies, after the castle burned down, land developer Reynold (“Rey”) Gheduzzi, founder of Mar-Vera Corp., had the foresight to buy the estate, by then owned by the Immaculate Conception Church.

In the years since, the fate of the property has become entangled in land swaps and litigation that forced Rey Gheduzzi to alter his original vision from what it was when he bought the land in the mid-1970s. In 1979, he won Planning Board approval for a project he called Halsey Pond Estates: 14 townhouses, two tennis courts and parking for 28 vehicles—all on four and a half acres overlooking the pond.

However, Mar-Vera waited until 2000 to apply for a building permit. By then, Irvington had adopted new zoning laws that ruled out the project, prompting the village building inspector to turn them down. Gheduzzi sued but the village prevailed in court. With the lucrative townhouse project no longer possible, he settled on a plan to build three single family homes, which under current zoning he has every right to do.

Rey Gheduzzi passed away in 2016, leaving his son Mark in charge of Mar-Vera. Mark Gheduzzi brought in a team of consultants led by David Steinmetz, one of Westchester’s top land use lawyers, to seal a deal with the Planning Board. On the other side were hundreds of alarmed residents, among them Chet Kerr, an attorney himself and chairman of GILT.

Throughout the fall, Kerr, Steinmetz and Planning Board chair Cesare Manfredi traded proposals in search of common ground. The core issue was how much these houses were going to intrude upon what some were calling “the Halsey Pond experience”—the ability of Irvington residents to walk around the half-mile crushed stone path that wreathed the pond and hear birds chirp, rather than the splash of kids playing in a family pool a few feet away. There was also the question of whether landscaping and planting done by new homeowners would allow fertilizer and other pollutants to drain into the pond.

A preliminary map of the three lots (Halsey Pond is at the bottom)

Key to the having the project proceed was an agreement that there should be a substantial buffer zone between the edge of the park and the private lots. Kerr wanted 50 feet of buffer; they settled on 40 feet with a vegetation strip on its border. There were also questions about where on each lot a house could be built (the primary envelope) and its relation to the secondary envelope that could house a pool or a patio.

Such granular details are typically not part of a normal limited site plan approval, but the presence of Halsey Pond was clearly driving the board to a higher level of specificity—long before a buyer would have to come before the board with a specific design. As chairman Manfredi put it at the December 1st meeting, “We want to see the skeleton now, and then the flesh comes on when the individual lot owner comes along.”

Yet as village attorney Marianne Stecich pointed out during that meeting, even with an agreement that seemed likely to come together early in 2022, “these lots may not be developed for years.”

There are still those in Irvington who hold out hope that the three houses will never be built—that a major land trust will sweep in with a seven-figure check to pay off Mar-Vera. Or perhaps a group of wealthy, environmentally conscious Irvingtonians might cobble together the funds necessary to take Steinmetz up on his offer to sell to the highest bidder. (“It’s free market,” he said at the December meeting.)

Knowledgeable observers doubt that will happen. The lot in question is too small for the big players like Scenic Hudson to invest in. But the price tag on land that will soon have limited site approval (in this case somewhere in the $1.5 to $2 million range) is too rich for a local trust like GILT and probably beyond neighborhood fundraising potential. Time will tell the extent to which three houses on the northern quadrant will affect “the Halsey Pond experience.”

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