The following letter was published in last week’s issue of the Gazette.
To the editor:
In 1980, preservationists mobilized to save architecturally significant grillwork and limestone relief friezes at the shuttered Bonwit Teller flagship store. The Metropolitan Museum of Art arranged with the real estate developer to acquire the friezes, and preservationists were seeking a home for the grillwork. Having lulled the preservationists to sleep, the developer quickly ordered his team to take acetylene torches to the grillwork and a sledgehammer to the limestone friezes.
Developer Donald Trump had lied, as he would do often in the years to come. That did not bother Trump: his eponymous tower still stands on Fifth Avenue, and Mr. Trump now lives in public housing on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Five years later, developer Harry Macklowe wanted to build a hotel and conference center in Times Square. The problem was that he was not going to be able to get the permits due to an upcoming change in the laws. So in the middle of the night, Macklowe destroyed four buildings without even turning off the gas lines. Rubble and glass lay in the street as people arrived at work that morning, but Macklowe didn’t care. He got his hotel, which still stands today. The city did get a token $2 million to pay for homeless housing, but Macklowe sued and got that money back four years later, plus interest.
Developers are a goal-oriented bunch. Often that trait is beneficial, but not always: It is common for them to confront an obstacle by destroying it—creating facts on the ground. You can’t put back together a limestone sculpture after the sledgehammer, and you can’t put back a 100 year old tree once it is cut down. A few weeks of uproar and the public is on to the next thing. A few dollars in penalties and that is a cost of doing business.
The most troubling aspect of this event is the action (or more accurately, the inaction) of our Board of Trustees and the Croton Village Engineer. During the time of massive clearcutting destruction, nothing was done by the Village of Croton-on-Hudson. Only after all hell broke loose was a stop work order issued.
The Croton Board of Trustees professed to know nothing about Piney Point and Nordica construction when residents showed up at their meeting a few weeks ago. There are two possibilities: either some or all of the trustees are lying, or some or all of the trustees were oblivious to a flagrant destruction of their village and creation of a condition threatening the lives of Croton residents.
Given past history, either possibility is equally likely and both of them are a sad commentary on our Board of Trustees.
I can understand the Board of Trustees not being bothered to care about what is going on in Croton: The Board of Trustees “think globally” and Croton is just a place to deliberate on the great issues facing the world. The Village Engineer’s office is a different matter. That is a staff led by a professional engineer, paid by our tax dollars to do a job.
The key function of Mr. O’Connor’s job is to keep Croton residents from being killed by hazardous conditions. He is paid almost $200k plus benefits. I think he can commandeer a car from the village fleet and take a quick spin out to eyeball a major project on a steep slope.
It may be that because this was a well-regarded local builder at the one site, some folks in the Municipal Building did not exercise the oversight that would have been done with an unknown developer or one with a shady reputation. From the Village Engineer’s report, it looks like the less well-known builder also took advantage of the fact that the village was not paying attention to what was going on at Piney Point. This case illustrates why the law should apply equally to everyone, and should be enforced equally against all residents.
In the cases of Trump and Macklowe, there was a hubbub for a few months but no consequences. In fact, both of those developers made millions of dollars from their projects. The public be damned, so long as the developer makes money. There are those in Croton who feel that this will happen again with the developers on Piney Point and Nordica.
One Croton resident spoke what a lot of us are thinking: “the damage is done and contractor(s) will laugh their way to the bank regardless of how much we complain.” Quite apart from the facts of these particular developments on Piney Point and Nordica, the perception that rules are different depending on who you know is causing long-term damage to our society both at the local and national level.
A big part of this problem is that there is no incentive for Croton politicians to change. In a few weeks, this will die down. A few weeks after that, residents will troop to the polls and dutifully vote the party line. Even where there is no opposition candidate, people will fill in the Row “A” bubble. This is not like the old Soviet days where people filled in the unopposed bubble under threat of the gulag. Nowadays people in Croton vote to support even an unopposed candidate because our fictive tribal loyalties are more important than our real local environment.
Even in the privacy of the voting booth, we think that we must support the team no matter how awful they are. Unfortunately that is not reciprocated in Croton: the team players and management don’t support us.
Our own Croton Board of Trustees claims to have been blindsided by the biggest environmental disasters since the closing of the garbage transfer station decades ago. First the Croton River, then clearcutting on Nordica and Piney Point.
Maybe they are telling the truth. Maybe the Board of Trustees is truly are oblivious to what is going on in Croton. What does it say about us when we take up pitchforks in September and then vote for them in November?
Granting steep slope variances, looking the other way when old-growth trees are cut down—oops!—this is normal business in Croton. If we are going to protect our environment, we need to beg our Board of Trustees to spend just a teeny bit of their important schedule dealing with local concerns.
The Planning Board needs to speak up and explain their position. It has been said that much of the uproar is over matters which were known by the Planning Board, and that some of the problematic behavior was approved by the Planning Board and Village Engineer after complications arose during construction. It is easy to blame the most prominent name involved, but it appears that this environmental and safety disaster was a group effort.
For decades, Croton has had a cavalier attitude toward the steep slopes law and to trees being clearcut as land is developed. There is a way to stop this problem: make violating the law unprofitable for developers in Croton.
This past January, Croton saw the case of the “Big Black Cherry Tree” (BBCT). A couple hired a tree company go onto the property of the couple next door and chop down several trees which were on their neighbors’ property (in Brooklynese: that’s chutzpah!). The aggrieved couple won their case and the issue was how much to award for the loss of the trees. In particular, the BBCT (as the judge called it) was 20 years old. The court awarded replacement value of $40,000 for just that single tree (To read more, Google “Salzberg v Sena”).
BBCT was a case involving adjacent Finney Farm homeowners. But the logic of BBCT applied to municipal penalties assessed for steep slope tree destruction will cause any developer to look twice at his village permit before cutting down a three foot diameter tree.
Croton should also adopt the practice followed in Yorktown, where the violator can be required to post a bond in sufficient amount that if any replacement trees fail to grow, the municipality has the funds to keep planting trees till they reach the maturity of the trees which were destroyed. Requiring a developer who decimates the landscape to post a large bond for the next 20 or 30 years will take away some of the developer’s economic incentive to destroy Croton’s environment.
There should be a special penalty for intentionally violating a village permit. There is a big difference between sloppiness and intentional violation of the law, and at very least the penalty should rise sharply after the first violation, with each tree being a separate violation.
If there is one thing the residents of Croton have learned this summer, it is that we cannot trust the Board of Trustees to do their job—we are lucky if they even know what is going on in Croton. And we can’t rely on the Village Engineer or the Planning Board to exercise oversight. But it is because there is no incentive on the front end that we must have very stiff penalties on the back end. That will at least take away the profit motive and thus guide future developers to be more compliant with the laws and terms of their permits.
Croton’s Board of Trustees is in a tough spot, and I sympathize with their difficulty. They want to line Riverside Avenue with apartments, starting with a massive building on the village-owned Katz property. Only the Croton powerbrokers know what is going to happen, but from publicly-released documents it appears that the Board of Trustees will allow clear-cutting and give steep slope variances to the developer who is given the Katz property.
It is a of bit awkward timing, since what will be likely be allowed on Katz looks very similar to what happened on Piney Point. The developers keep making money, the Board of Trustees keeps rolling along. We at the bottom of the heap are left with the New Croton.
Croton needs to put some teeth into the steep slopes law and demand that the Village Engineer monitor steep slope clear-cutting, or we need to eliminate the law.