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Sleepy Hollow Boards Wrestle With Proposed Zoning Changes

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May 19, 2022

By Barrett Seaman–

When a Sleepy Hollow resident voiced concern that the village’s plan to “repeal and replace” the zoning scheme for the inner village would be tantamount to “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” Planning Board chair Marjorie Hsu assured her and other skeptics that they were keeping the baby, “just changing its diaper.”

More than four months into the process of swapping out a detailed development prescription (one enacted only last August and designed to encourage the revitalization of the inner village) for a new and less confusing plan, the old diaper appears to be still in place.

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On May 10, a draft version of a new plan created by a task force but only partially discussed by the Board of Trustees was forwarded, as is, to the Planning Board for its members to critique, amend and return to Trustees within 45 days. At that point, the revised plan, however modified, will be subject to another public hearing that will extend the process at least through the summer.

Meanwhile, observers are wondering what impact the changes will have on current building applications—one in particular for a multi-family residence at 135 Beekman Avenue. That project, which calls for a 14-unit complex, appeared to face smooth sailing last December when Planning Board chair Hsu stated that it adhered to current village code and that “no variances will be required.” However, it faces a potential lawsuit by a neighbor, Maria Pinho Martins. She claims that the building’s design violates a provision of the old (and still applicable) zoning code, called the “Sky Exposure Plane,” that was intended to protect neighbors’ access to natural light and air. The building’s design, she alleges, would deprive her garden of afternoon sunlight.

In the draft task force proposal, the Sky Exposure Plane is no longer mentioned, its reference stricken out in its entirety. Indeed, most of the erstwhile requirements stipulated in the Lower Beekman Avenue Design Standards Overlay District (LBADSOD) are categorized as “Design Guidelines,” arguably more akin to suggestions than rules.

Maria Pinho Martins is not happy with the direction the replacement project is headed. Village officials, she charges, “are going out of their way to ignore the marginalized community” (the neighborhood is largely Hispanic), and that “before we know it, every empty lot will be turned into massive building boxes.”

Clearly, that is not the intent of village officials who have stated repeatedly that their goal is to clarify zoning in order to encourage attractive and creative development. “What I thought we were trying to achieve here were two things,” said Mayor Ken Wray at the May 3rd board work session, in what was the most detailed public discussion of the proposal to date. “One is to provide incentives for people to build new structures in our downtown where we thought there were things that stood in the way of that (parking regulations for example), but then to have continuity—not a uniform look, which we can’t achieve anyway.”

“I like having architectural standards as part of guidelines as opposed to rigid rules,” said Wray. “I would rather have the Planning Board and the ARB (Architectural Review Board) in a position to say ‘it doesn’t have to be exactly like this.’” As for the Sky Plane Exposure standard, Wray opined that it “seems needlessly confusing to me.”

Challenging this view and the general shift of the code away from requirements toward guidelines, was newly elected Trustee Lauren Connell, in her day job an attorney specializing in regulatory compliance. “By making them guidelines instead of regulations,” Connell said of the task force report, “you are essentially invalidating their force.”

She went through the 16 pages of revisions and pulled out specific issues she believed were better and clearer as requirements, among them rules for porches, stoops, street parking, trees, fenestration, roof angles—and the Sky Exposure Plane.

With the issue now before the Planning Board, Connell conveyed to that body a series of questions designed to encourage them to think through the implications of the proposed changes, among them:

What current projects have been reviewed under the proposed zoning regulations?

Are there any sections of the new guidelines that would always be applied; are there ones that would rarely or never be applied?

Are you aware of any contiguous lots that have been purchased by the same owner where a building would be able to straddle multiple lots? How do the maximum building envelopes differ between the current vs. proposed zoning?

Why is the current Zoning Board of Appeals process insufficient to deal with proposals not in compliance with village standards?

How these and other questions will be addressed between now and when the Planning Board returns the matter to the Trustees sometime in mid-to-late June—and how, if at all, the outcome affects plans for 135 Beekman and Maria Martin’s backyard garden—are likely to spawn lively debates in Sleepy Hollow over the summer.

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