Opinion: Town Board could hand developers a new gift

10/16/2013 3:49 PM |
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO

Election season always brings a flurry of legislative activity, demonstrating that our incumbent lawmakers are hard at work safeguarding our interests.  (Witness new buffer zones, even while damage done to the Costco site is unremediated.)

One such measure, about to sail through a Town Board vote, will reduce parking requirements at most new developments in Riverhead.  In many respects, it’s a great idea.  Resulting projects would be more attractive, builders would have considerably more flexibility in site plan design, lot coverage maximums would be easier to meet, & site prep & paving would cost less.  This change could save trees, improve drainage, & enhance aesthetics, all without inconveniencing users of these facilities, & at no cost to developers.

The group I represent, Save Main Road, believes that—done right—this change could benefit both taxpayers & developers.

It’s not being done right.

The best case scenario is that the Town Board is being casual, arbitrary, & thoughtless in its approach to this legislation.  The worst case is that this is a calculated move designed to let developers increase density on future projects, even as Councilmembers pretend it’s “green” legislation which is good for Riverhead.

I won’t speculate on motives, & will focus here on the law itself.

Unable to attend the mid-day Town Board session, Save Main Road expressed three principal concerns in a letter delivered to Councilmembers before the hearing:

A)   The level of parking reduction must be appropriate & safe.  Any change to existing law should be based on sound evidence & expert opinion, not arbitrary or seat-of-the-pants figures.

B)    The space freed up by this change must be used as envisioned.  If the purpose of the code is to make sure new development disturbs as little land as possible, this must be explicitly stated.

C)    The relaxed code must not be used to increase density.  Above all, we insist that this code change must not facilitate more building than would otherwise be permitted.

We included specific suggestions for addressing the deficiencies, & offered to work with Town Board members & staff to improve the language.  We’ve had no response to our concerns & questions, no one has called to discuss, & we believe the language remains unchanged.

The hearing confirmed our fears.  Town Planning Director Rick Hanley said simply that the current code is 40 years old, & “the thought is to change it.”  He cited the proposed requirements—which reduce office parking by 33% & retail parking by 25%—but offered absolutely no evidence or reasons to support those numbers…or to support any change at all.

Town Attorney Bob Kozakiewicz then characterized the town’s parking code as “anecdotal.”  He said “The parking that we require for both retail & office space is a great deal more than what is generally & usually necessary in order to achieve parking.”  Supervisor Walter concurred.  Yet—no support was offered for this statement, & nothing beyond this subjective & circular opinion was shared.

Mr. Kozakiewicz did mention that the consultant on the recent Wading River study observed that the parking schedule might benefit from some reductions…but apparently no one on the Town Board thought to ask that expert what the numbers should be.

[see the hearing video here, starting @ 12:25  http://bit.ly/GWStNd]

So—town hall staff & Councilmembers want to change the parking law because it’s old.  They’ve conducted no research as to what it should be, have not consulted experts, & have not drawn comparisons with other towns.  As with so many other decisions, they ignore facts & “go with their gut.”  It’s no wonder Riverhead so often gets the details wrong; that’s likely how the old buffer law was written.

Make no mistake—we think lowering the requirements is the right thing to do, & the proposed numbers don’t seem unreasonable.  If the proposed code were merely arbitrary & vague on how much less asphalt & how much more green we’d see, it wouldn’t be a big deal.

Read on to learn why this is a very big deal, indeed.

 

What can go wrong.

We’ve talked about how none of the things you’d normally do to set specific levels for a zoning code change were apparently done in this instance…but the problem is much larger than that.

Let’s look at what could happen.

The amount of building a developer can place on any site is principally determined by the FAR [Floor Area Ratio], which is set by the site’s zoning.  Let’s say you have a 5 acre site, & code allows FAR of 20% (some zones allow only half that); this means you can have 40,000 square feet of built space…not counting parking.  It’s pretty straightforward.

It gets complicated when you consider additional factors which can impact your site plan.  Setbacks determine how far from each property line your buildings must be, & they don’t vary with the shape of the lot; that means a long, narrow property will have a much lower yield than a square property of the same acreage.  Contours, nearby wetlands or tidal waters, & other factors can also reduce yield.  (And if you have commercial property adjacent to residential, you’ll now need bigger buffers.)

In short, lots of constraints can keep you from building maximum allowed FAR.  That 40,000 square feet calculated above is a theoretical number; in practice, other factors could reduce it to 35,000, or 30,000, or even less.  FAR alone doesn’t determine the square feet of buildings you can actually construct.

At this point, it stops being an academic discussion.  We’ve seen large commercial projects, submitted to the Riverhead Planning Dept., that can fit the FAR allowed building footprint onto the site but lack the room to provide required parking.

If your 5 acre site will be offices, you’ll need—under current code—267 parking spaces to serve your 40,000 square feet of building.  If you can’t fit 267 spaces onto your site while conforming to setbacks & other codified requirements, you basically have 2 choices:  a) seek a zoning area variance, or b) make your building smaller, which requires less parking (& frees up site space).

Variances aren’t granted automatically, & it’s not uncommon for developers to make this compromise.  If constraints on your site allow a maximum of 227 parking spaces, that 40-space shortage means your building will max out at 34,000 square feet—a 15% loss of rentable space.

That’s how it works today.  Under the law the Town Board has indicated it will pass, parking requirements are sharply reduced.  As offices will need 1/3 less parking, your 40,000 square foot maximum FAR building needs just 200 parking spaces, meaning the building fits, as originally planned & without variances.

Thanks to this gift from the Town Board, your commercial development just grew 18% (6,000 square feet) larger.  The code change which we’re told was intended to eliminate excess parking will actually increase density for many future projects.

Fortunately, if this is not what our Councilmembers intend, there’s an easy solution.

 

A simple way to fix the code.

This bears repeating: The new parking code must not allow more building than would otherwise be permitted.

While we believe many sites could benefit from less parking, we’ve seen that the new code proposed might, in some cases, allow builders to increase density.  Development is sometimes limited not by FAR, but by the inability to supply requisite parking to suit the occupancy of the developed space.

Instead of the proposed code revision, we suggest—after establishing appropriate new parking levels—proceeding in this simple fashion for planning:

Step 1:  Leave current parking requirements in place.

Step 2:  Calculate maximum built size for each project, without variances.

Step 3:  Once the built footprint is set, apply the new requirements [though not as minimums].

Step 4:  The area representing the difference between old & new parking figures shall be left as open space, or prepared as landscaped space with native plantings, but in no case may be impermeable, & may not be used for occupied space.

Harking back to our hypothetical 5 acre site, this means you’ll be able to build the same 34,000 square feet of offices you can build under the current parking code.  However, you’ll only need to provide 170 spaces, not 227, & the roughly 15,000 square feet which would have been paved will now be natural or landscaped open space.

Isn’t that the outcome we want from parking code reductions?

As here described, this code revision will benefit the community without cost to, or downside for, developers.  Resulting projects will be more attractive, builders will have considerably more flexibility in site plan design, lot coverage maximums will be easier to meet, & site prep & paving will cost less.  Save Main Road  strongly endorses this change.

Just one more point: suppose we’re wrong.  Let’s say (as some surely will) that our numbers don’t add up, or that scenarios such as described here—where FAR can’t be maximized—will never happen.  Where’s the downside?

Where’s the downside in clarifying the intent of a change to town law?  Other towns do it routinely.  In addition to promoting better understanding, it precludes problems (& often, lawsuits).

Where’s the downside in stipulating that space freed up by eliminating excess parking can’t be used to make more or larger buildings?  If we don’t say this explicitly, it’s the same as saying “if you can find the loophole here & make more money, you win.”

And where’s the downside in making crystal clear that builders cannot use this code change to increase built density on their parcels?

Please, Councilmembers—remember that we think reducing parking requirements is a good idea, just as you do…but let’s take the time to get it right.  We’ll be happy to help.

Larry Simms owns a home in South Jamesport and is a principal in a firm that licenses commercial flooring technology. He is active in savemainroad.org, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving the character of the Main Road corridor and surrounding areas.