For the past seven years as a member of the Great Neck Village Planning Board, and for four days before that as a member of the village Architectural Review Board, I have been present at countless hearings on plans for subdivision, demolition and reconstruction of property in the Old Village. Every so often a proposal that has touched a nerve, will draw a large crowd of neighbors to the public hearing. Again and again the board is asked, "How can you approve this? You are sacrificing the quality of life here for the benefit of a developer who won't even live here."
Time and again, the board explains that we are not in cahoots. All members of the boards live in the village. We serve without pay, and we are there to make sure that the proposal complies with village code. We work with the architects, engineers and yes, developers, to mitigate the adverse impacts of the plans on the neighborhood.
Recently, a proposal has surfaced that, in my opinion, has violated this process and this trust from the community. Ramin Rezai, developer of the Steamboat Road property known as the Wesey estate, asked the planning board for a subdivision of three houses. This property, familiar to gardeners and homeowners, had one house situated on a lovely hillside that was covered with plants for sale and those that had simply taken root and were growing there: evergreens, fruit trees, berry bushes, and ornamentals.
The planning board approved the subdivision over the objections of many neighbors, as it complied with the village code.
What happened next is not usual. Encouraged by the approval for three houses, the developer drew up plans for five houses on a cul-de-sac, that required multiple variances from the requirements for front, side and backyards. He took this plan to the Village Board of Zoning and Appeals and was granted at least four significant variances that reduced the space required between houses, and the proximity to the street.
At this point the proposal was returned to the planning board for final approval of the subdivision plan with the variances.
Having voted for the original three-house plan, and being opposed to the granting of variances except for very exceptional cases, I announced that though unable to stop the plan, I would not be able to vote any kind of approval, and I would abstain in the final vote.
The meeting commenced. It was to be a simple matter of approving minor details. It turned out quite differently. There was some confusion over the site plans and setback margins. Mr. Rezai, a resident of Katonah, had driven down for the meeting. He and his engineer were the only individuals present, aside from the board and village personnel. In a rather informal atmosphere it became clear that the details were not minor and that the plans would require specifics and drainage calculations not possible to do on the spot. Basically, the problem was that even with the liberal variances, it was hard to fit five houses, driveways and garages on the plan.
One issue was the juxtaposition of two driveways, a less than desirable aesthetic feature. Mr. Rezai indicated that this whole thing would never have been approved in Katonah, where he lives. He also indicated that he himself would never live in such a house.
Upon hearing these comments, I stated that it was either lucky or unfortunate that the public was, in fact, not present. I also stated that I had never heard such openly expressed disrespect and disdain for a community, and I left the meeting.
My purpose in writing is to alert the community and to charge the village officials with their responsibility to uphold and even strengthen zoning codes. The message is clear. Variances result in disregard for the standards. Scrupulous adherence to existing code is the only protection a community has from overcrowding, insensitive development and exploitation, particularly from those who do not plan to be part of the neighborhood they are "developing" or, an even worse euphemism, "improving."