July 21, 2015
Mayor J. Michael Cindrich and
Members of the Board of Trustees
Village/Town of Mount Kisco
104 Main Street
Mount Kisco, NY 10549
Re: Mount Kisco Planning Board and Building Department
This letter is from a group of concerned local business and commercial property owners who collectively comprise the ‘Alliance for Mount Kisco’.
This diverse group of local business and property owners has come together to discuss possible steps that can be taken to improve the relationship between the business community and the Village of Mount Kisco, with a particular focus on the Planning Board and Building Department.
As a group we have chosen to make Mount Kisco the home of our businesses, and some of us have lived in Mount Kisco our entire lives. Many of our businesses have been awarded commendations for their contributions to the community by Mount Kisco, neighboring towns, Westchester County, and the State of New York, as well as by numerous charities and environmental organizations throughout the area.
Together we operate numerous local businesses employing hundreds of people, and we own a substantial portion of the commercial square footage within the municipality. We are emotionally and financially invested in this community, and we want to see it succeed. We are all proud of the role that we play in contributing positively to the Village of Mount Kisco.
In the opinion of this Alliance, the Mount Kisco Planning Board and Building Department have become major impediments to successfully operating a local business, and a threat to the future success and prosperity of the downtown commercial center.
We are all interested in ensuring that the municipal land use process is thoughtful, with a thorough review of the possible environmental impact of new uses coming to town. But it is a problem when the process itself becomes so tangled and unpredictable that a business is either discouraged from coming here or gives up altogether after many frustrated months of little progress in a municipal review process. The environmental review process should be thoughtful, but it should also be fair and expeditious. Many residents of Mount Kisco may not realize that it can take in excess of one year of Planning Board review for a new restaurant or other business to move into town. This administrative review can cost tens of thousands of dollars, with even small restaurant owners often forced to hire a team of professional consultants and attorneys to navigate through an often unpredictable process that is subject to multiple delays along the way. From start, until the time when a business owner has a building permit to commence construction, can easily take 12 – 18 months, or longer. In today’s fast paced world when goods ordered on Amazon today arrive at one’s doorstop tomorrow, even a 6 month process is unreasonable.
It is unfortunate when we hear that real estate brokers sometimes advise their clients to not consider Mount Kisco as a possible location for fear of falling under the jurisdiction of a painfully difficult and seemingly arbitrary Planning Board and Building Department.
Likely every real estate owner that co-authored this letter can recite examples of prospective tenants we have been forced to turn away simply because we could not stomach or dedicate the mind share that would have been required to get a tenant through the approval process. For every prospective tenant we turn down, the jobs and tax revenue that would come with that tenant evaporate as well.
Unfortunately, the way the current structure of the planning and approval process is set up, there are a very small number of gatekeepers for all residential and commercial activities. A Building Inspector, Assistant Building Inspector, and any 3 out of 6 people on the Planning Board have the ability to kill, or delay indefinitely, any project in town.
With an ever greater percentage of hard and soft goods moving to online sales, the future of any vibrant downtown community will be anchored in a strong service based economy, since this is one category that the Internet cannot completely displace. However, it is still a very difficult economy for a new restaurant or service based business, and Village officials should be finding ways to help and/or encourage entrepreneurs that want to risk their time and resources to open up a new business here. But exactly the opposite is happening. Within both the Building Department and the Planning Board, where a 1 year approval process for routine change of use applications is viewed as reasonable, there is a lack of concern regarding the importance of time and a disregard for the fact that such delays can easily force a tax paying and job creating enterprise out of business.
We believe the below recommendations, if correctly implemented, would help to correct these serious problems and begin the transition of Mount Kisco back to an attractive destination for entrepreneurial activity.
- The Planning Board should have two alternate members so that at every meeting there is a quorum present that enables the meeting to proceed and action to be taken. Given how difficult it has been to find volunteers, consider reducing the size of the Board from 7 to 5 people, with two alternates. As anyone who has had an application pending over the last several years knows, a lack of quorum is a frequent board issue, and one which results in applications getting delayed for weeks and months pending the need to have a majority of the Planning Board members in attendance at any meeting. There are 5 Village Trustees, and 5 Planning Board members would likewise make sense. One of the current six members could be made an alternate member, and then only one additional member would need to be appointed. Of course, with a reduced board size it becomes even more important that the right skill sets are represented on the board, and it should be a goal for the board to have at least one architect or engineer serving, since they have expertise in land use issues. Currently, there are no architects or engineers on the board.
- Consider term limits for Planning Board members. This proposal needs to be thoughtfully considered in the context of the difficulty of recruiting new members. However, most non-profit boards have shifted to a term limits model for their boards. The conclusion has generally been that the loss of institutional knowledge over time is outweighed by the benefits that fresh ideas bring to an organization See http://nonprofitimpact.com/2012/11/eight-reasons-for-term-limits/ for eight reasons for term limits, including: term limits uphold the public trust; term limits undercut dictatorships; term limits broaden thinking; term limits expand constituency; term limits ensure appropriate skills; term limits signal openness; term limits lessen burnout; term limits thin the deadwood. There are highly capable members on the current Planning Board and given the need for continuity this change would need to be phased in gradually over time as staggered terms expire.
- Eliminate the Planning Board Conceptual Application process. Mount Kisco has a Conceptual Application followed by a Formal Application process for the Planning Board. In certain case the Conceptual can be waived but filing a Conceptual Application is the norm, and this adds unnecessary time, cost, and municipal fees to the process. We do not understand the need for a Conceptual Application and believe that it can likely be eliminated, thereby helping to streamline the process.
- The Planning Board review process should be thorough yet linear in progression from start to finish. It is important for the Planning Board members and their outside consultants to put all issues warranting further review on the table at the start of the process, enabling the applicant to address them as early in the review as possible.
- Minimize additional delays by encouraging the Building Department to begin reviewing building plans prior to having Planning Board approvals in place, or in the alternate encourage an expeditious review of plans following Planning Board approval. All of us can attest to having had to wait weeks and months after Planning Board approval for the Building Department to then review and approve plans for permitting. After having spent many months in the Planning Board approval process, waiting additional months for a building permit can be particularly frustrating, and further delays businesses looking to open and begin generating economic activity.
- Building Department inspectors should be required to have engineering degrees, construction expertise and a strong knowledge of regulations and interpretations of both the NYS Building Code and local ordinances.
- The Planning Board should thoughtfully review applications within the context and boundaries of the SEQRA process, basing their ultimate decisions on data, facts, and reports, and minimizing or eliminating any subjectivity that can accompany the process. Ultimately, the free market decides whether or not a business is needed and will survive in our Village. The Planning Board process should be about reviewing the environmental impact of that proposed business.
- Revise the Planning Board site plan approval waiver process to enable many of the straightforward Change of Use applications to be approved by the Planning Board within 1 month, start to finish. Section 110-38 of the Mount Kisco code is not workable in its current format, and there should instead be a mechanism for applicants to request from the Planning Board a Waiver of Site Plan Approval if the change is determined to be acceptable. See, for example, Town of Bedford’s code section 125-93 added in 1992 which reads:Upon a finding by the Planning Board that, because of the particular character or limited nature of a new development or change in use or special conditions peculiar to a site, the submission of a preliminary and/or final site plan or of certain portions of the information normally required as part of the site plan is inappropriate or unnecessary or that strict compliance with said informational requirements will cause extraordinary and unnecessary hardship, the Planning Board may vary or waive such submission wherever, in the opinion of the Board, such waiver will not be detrimental to the public health, safety or general welfare. No such waiver shall be granted unless and until all amounts due to the Town as real estate taxes and special assessments on the subject property, together with all penalties and interest thereon, shall have been paid.
We believe that if Mount Kisco adopted and thoughtfully employed this same code provision, that there would likely be half as many empty storefronts in the Village as there are today. Businesses simply looking to reoccupy space previously occupied by someone else would have a mechanism for a speedy and cost effective review, rather than be subjected to the long expensive process required to merely reoccupy existing space.
The Village Trustees are tasked with leading Mount Kisco and ensuring that we have the proper officials appointed for each position. When so many businesspeople in the community are voicing the same concerns, we hope that you will take the time to study and hopefully implement some of our suggestions for improvement. We are all unified in wanting to once again have a thriving and successful downtown that is a destination for families to enjoy throughout the day and evening, and we have faith and confidence in the ability and desire of the Trustees to improve the efficacy of the current municipal review process.
We want to stress that every member of this group has a good working relationship with our elected officials who we believe want to do the right thing and make Mount Kisco a better community for both the residents and the businesses that serve them. The Mayor has been a positive catalyst for change throughout his tenure, and as result of his leadership Mount Kisco has a strong foundation upon which to continue building.
Historically, the commercial tax base has helped our residential real estate taxes remain below that of surrounding communities, but we have to work to keep it that way. The world around us is changing. The Internet has changed shopping patterns. The completion of Armonk Square and the potential Chappaqua Crossings retail development give retailers new and different options for where to locate, challenging Mount Kisco’s traditional reputation as the commercial hub of Northern Westchester. Before more storefronts become vacant and local amenities dwindle, we need to implement positive change. In addition to the above list of recommendation regarding the the Building Department and Planning Board, we offer the following thoughts:
- Consider eliminating downtown parking meters for non-commuter parking. Parking meters are a barrier to business, and the revenue they generate through meter fees and tickets should be considered against the negative impact on a vibrant downtown. One argument for meters is that they help ensure available parking through turnover. Of course, this is another way of saying that they hasten shoppers to exit from downtown before they get a ticket. We would be better off encouraging shoppers to casually linger and frequent our local merchants. Numerous local shopping centers have free parking and their parking lots operate efficiently. Downtown hamlets such as Katonah also offer free parking. The downtown stores are operating at a disadvantage compared to other merchants whose customers can park for free.
- Encourage a vibrant downtown with many outdoor seating options. Towns like Ridgefield, New Canaan, and Tarrytown are awash with outdoor seating. There is a trend towards people wanting to live and work in downtowns because they are looking for the creativity and energy that downtowns offer. Outdoor dining helps to create that energy.
We would welcome the opportunity to discuss our concerns and recommendations further at a meeting with the Trustees. We have published this letter at www.allianceformtkisco.com, along with an online forum where other business owners and residents of Mount Kisco can comment on issues they believe to be important to the Village or to their business.
The Alliance For Mount Kisco