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  • Archive for June, 2012

    SEQRA Reform Makes Bad Situation Worse

    Tuesday, June 26th, 2012
    Frank McCullough photo

    Frank McCullough

    It seems like only a few years ago that Westchester’s office park campuses were the envy of counties across New York State.  The Cross Westchester Expressway Corridor (Interstate 287) in particular symbolized the success the county enjoyed in attracting some of the biggest names on the Fortune 500 list. The nickname for the stretch of 287 from White Plains to Rye seemed to be perfect: The Platinum Mile.

    The high-profile corporate names carried with them more than prestige. The office buildings they occupied generated substantial real estate taxes that benefitted the municipalities and the school districts in which they were located while demanding little in municipal services.

    But times change, especially in the world of business and the vibrant economic fabric of the Platinum Mile of the 1970s and ‘80s began to change as a result of a seemingly endless list of corporate mergers, acquisitions and restructurings.  Thirty years later there are fewer tenants occupying smaller amounts of space and that trend shows no sign of a major reversal.

    Until recently the question of how to react to the change was not clear. However, a movement that has been building slowly over the last five years is now beginning to accelerate as the Westchester communities with the biggest stake in the office-based economy have started taking a hard look at new approaches to these properties.

    Fortunately, with Westchester’s economic future at a crossroads, insightful municipal planners and elected officials are now actively looking at and encouraging “adaptive re-use” as a means to facilitate needed investment and new business models for their office parks zones. A growing number of communities are reviewing their zoning codes, updating their master plans and drafting legislation that will allow property owners to move in new directions and that give developers more flexibility in approaching the redevelopment of underutilized office properties.

    Unfortunately, these much-needed efforts are facing a serious obstacle. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), in a well-intentioned attempt to reform the controversial State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), has instead proposed a set of administrative amendments that make the situation untenable. If implemented on October 1, 2012 as is now planned, the new regulations will cause extensive, unnecessary and costly approval process delays that will likely deter developers from investing in adaptive reuse projects here in Westchester and elsewhere in New York State. In other words, New York, which is making the case that it is “Open for Business,” will effectively be shutting the door on new projects that will help revive the economy in Westchester and across the State.

    This is especially troubling when considering some of the important changes that have already taken place or are in motion. For example, the Town of Harrison is in the midst of updating its master plan to provide for certain smart growth-oriented adaptive reuse projects along the 287 corridor. Previously, the Town of Harrison considered these types of proposals on a case-by-case basis.

    White Plains is considering legislation that would allow for greater flexibility in its zoning, particularly for properties that are zoned for campus/office use. Mayor Tom Roach commented during a recent economic development tour of White Plains that the city intends to streamline the approval process in cases where alternative uses for commercial properties in the eastern section of the city are being proposed.

    SEQRA has been controversial since its passage in 1975.  The Cuomo administration has attempted to reform the process through the DEC administratively rather than by legislative action.  But after evaluating the proposed amendments, a review committee of the Westchester County Association concluded that the DEC revisions will actually make the problems worse by requiring “a level of detail and study from the applicant that is costly and often impossible to obtain at the conceptual stage of the development process.” The WCA found that the proposed application forms “will cause any applicant a significant investment in consultants to merely complete them, and will serve to deter development projects across the state.”

    At this stage it is incumbent on the Cuomo administration to send the DEC back to the drawing board if the State is serious about making the kind of reforms to the SEQRA process that are imperative if new development and re-adaptive uses that municipal governments across the state are calling for are to be achieved. Without truly streamlining of SEQRA process, the Westchester and the State’s economy will unnecessarily continue to struggle.

    Mr. Frank S. McCullough, Jr. is a senior  partner in the White Plains law firm McCullough Goldberger & Staudt, LLP. His law firm has handled and continues to handle zoning issues involving several major parcels along the I-287 Corridor. The above piece was as submitted as an op-ed for (June 23, 2012) and The Journal News (June 24, 2012).