Wesley Hills zone ruling a courageous compromise

Community View in The Journal News

By Frank I. Brown (Original Publication: March 21, 2007)

A March 11 letter from county Legislator Ilan Schoenberger, "Wesley Hills zone ruling disappointing," attacked Wesley Hills Mayor Robert Frankl for "(his) downzoning" of property on Route 306 in the village. The property in question is a 10.5 -acre site in the center of the village, directly across Route 306 from the Wesley Hills Plaza Shopping Center. The zoning action referred to is a change from an R-35 District (one-family house on 35,000 square foot lots) partly to an R-20 District (one-family houses on 20,000-square-foot lots) and partly to an R-15 District (one-family house on 15,000-square-foot lots). The net effect of the zone changes will be an increase of approximately eight one-family houses that can be built on the site.

Mr. Schoenberger characterizes the zone changes as a sellout to developers, which has "substantially increased the housing density in the village." How any reasonable person can consider the addition of eight houses in a village with a housing stock of approximately 1,600 houses (an increase of approximately one-half of 1 percent) to be "substantial" is a mystery to me.

Mr. Schoenberger's letter also describes the zone change as "solely a failure by the mayor to defend and protect the Village of Wesley Hills' zoning codes." This is an amazingly inaccurate statement. As Mr. Schoenberger well knows, and has been reported in The Journal News, the zone change is a result of a settlement of a lawsuit brought against the village by Kwilecki Enterprises Inc. That lawsuit claimed that the village was engaged in exclusionary zoning because it did not include a zoning district that allowed multi-family housing, and it sought a court order that would require 120 units of multi-family housing to be constructed on the site in question. The village spent considerable time and money vigorously opposing the lawsuit. It opposed the developer's motion for summary judgment and it made its own motion for summary judgment. Both motions were denied, which meant that the next step would have been a trial. Any knowledgeable attorney will confirm that the outcome of that lawsuit, if it had been fully litigated at a trial, would have been unpredictable. In the face of that uncertainty, the entire village board (not just the mayor) reluctantly agreed to a stipulation that allowed a 20-lot subdivision of single-family houses on smaller lots (and only after a thorough environmental review extending more than one year was conducted). In making that decision, the Village Board decided that avoiding the risk of having to accept a huge increase in density was worth accepting a much smaller increase in density, specifically in order to be able to maintain quality of life and limit growth in the village.

If Mr. Schoenberger is so concerned about the downzoning of the Route 306 corridor, how does he feel about the real prospect that the litigation could have resulted in 120 housing units instead of only 20 on the site? Under the circumstances, I submit that the zone change can more accurately be characterized as a courageous act of statesmanship by the Village Board than a sell-out to developers.

Does Mr. Schoenberger really believe that it is the duty of elected officials to protect their constituents by fighting requests for downzoning, including litigating if necessary? If that is what Mr. Schoenberger believes, how can he not complain about the many downzonings made by the Town of Ramapo under the guise of its Comprehensive Plan? How can he remain silent as the town accepts high-density multi-family "adult student housing" in the middle of established low-density neighborhoods of one-family houses without challenging in court the excessive claim under RLUIPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) which are the purported justification for such zone changes? And if Mr. Schoenberger does not believe that the Town Board should fight for the majority of its residents and against the adult student housing downzonings, how dare he attach Mayor Frankl's principled efforts to defend the village's zoning?

Unfortunately, Mr. Schoenberger's deliberate and hypocritical misrepresentation of the village's actions illustrates everything that is wrong in Ramapo politics today.

The writer is Wesley Hills village attorney.