Staten Island/Bronx Special Districts Zoning Text Amendment

Establishing a standardized approach to natural resource protection and neighborhood development in certain environmentally sensitive areas of the Bronx and Staten Island
Establishing a standardized approach to natural resource protection and neighborhood development in certain environmentally sensitive areas of the Bronx and Staten Island

Overview

The Department of City Planning (DCP) is studying potential modifications of the Special Natural Area District (mapped in the Bronx, Staten Island and Queens*), Special Hillsides Preservation District and Special South Richmond Development District (both mapped in Staten Island), all of which were established in the mid-1970s and late 1980s to manage construction in environmentally sensitive areas (see the map below). After reviewing thousands of projects over the past 40 years and hearing from the community, homeowners, practitioners and other stakeholders, it has become clear that the current rules do not always result in predictable outcomes, both in terms of amount and type of construction that may be allowed and protection of natural features. The Department, based on its review of previous land use applications and on feedback from stakeholders, believes that it is time to update the rules in these special districts to provide a more holistic and predictable approach to development while strengthening preservation and planting regulations. Revising the rules of these special districts will:

  1. Ensure predictable development;
  2. Enhance the protection of natural features; and
  3. Support the neighborhood character of these areas.
SNAD Citywide Map

*The regulations currently applicable to Fort Totten, Queens are independent from the rest of the Special Natural Area District and will remain unchanged in the proposal.

The Department of City Planning met with local community boards and convened advisory groups of local environmental groups, civic organizations, architects, landscape architects, elected officials, institutions, and city agencies in the Bronx and Staten Island and engaged them to review the issues and to help create guiding principles for updating the regulations in these special districts.

These principles are:

  1. Strengthen and rationalize natural resource preservation.
  2. Create a homeowner-friendly regulatory environment with robust as-of-right rules for the development of single-and two-family homes that protect significant natural features.
  3. Protect and enhance the natural resources and neighborhood character of the districts, with greater predictability of development outcomes.
  4. Ensure consistency of regulations among the three special districts (especially in relation to natural resource preservation).
  5. Strengthen and clarify regulations so that review by the City Planning Commission focuses on sites that have a greater impact on natural resources and the public realm.

Over the past 40 years, the Department has gained considerable understanding of how development of various sizes impacts natural areas, and how natural areas function within the built environment. Based on the Department’s experience and feedback from stakeholders, the Department has recognized the following issues:

  • Current rules impose a significant burden on some homeowners and other small property owners. There are limited as-of-right development options in the three special districts. In many cases, an owner of an existing house seeking to make small changes to the property must seek approval from the City Planning Commission.
  • Current rules allow encroachment on natural features if an applicant requests permission to do so from the City Planning Commission. The limits to such encroachment are determined on a case-by-case basis, without clear overall standards, making the development unpredictable.
  • Current rules are based on environmental science that is outdated. The current rules are biased toward protecting individual features from a particular landscape type, and don’t take into account the diversity of native landscapes we recognize today.

The Department of City Planning has established a conservation-focused approach to natural features and homeowner-friendly regulations for development that follows the principles and goals above. The approach takes into account a site’s proximity to existing protected natural resources on a borough-wide scale as well as the neighborhood character. 

Although the proposal is still under development, its main features are listed below:

As-of-Right development: In general, proposed construction on lots that are under one acre in size will be required to follow the regulations in the special district and will not require additional review from the City Planning Commission. The proposal incorporates ecological strategies for these smaller lots in the following ways:

  • Limitations on the percentage of a lot that can be covered by buildings and other impervious surfaces such as driveways, patios and pools.
  • Planting requirements triggered by new construction will include native trees, shrubs and ground cover.

Limiting Impervious area sketch
Garage and retaining wall sketch
Images illustrating some of the proposed rules to enhance neighborhood character

City Planning Commission Review: The proposal would establish clear guidelines for larger sites to facilitate more predictable outcomes to balance natural resource preservation and permitted amount of construction on a site. City Planning Commission review would be required of the following types of projects:

  • Lots over an acre in size, any proposed development or creation of smaller lots
  • Developments with a new or extended private road
  • New buildings or subdivisions within Historic Districts
  • New buildings or subdivisions near sensitive natural areas that result in more than three dwelling units or new zoning lots
  • Developments with over 30 non-residential parking spaces

Mapping: The proposal would designate areas based on the proximity to large protected natural resources and steep slopes. Such areas would have stringent planting requirements and lot coverage controls to help maintain ecological connections between these large natural resources.

Consolidate rules: The proposal aims to create a new Special Natural Area District that merges the current Special Natural Area District, Special Hillsides Preservation District and Special South Richmond Development District to create a consistent overarching conservation strategy based on a vision of an interconnected ecosystem.

The Special South Richmond Development District contains a number of unique rules which would be unchanged in the proposal:

  • Special lot size and yard regulations for residences
  • Regulations for “Designated Open Space”
  • School seat certification
  • Curb cut limitations on lots adjacent to arterials

The Department expects the proposed modifications to be rolled out for the formal public review process by the end of this year. We will continue to work with the advisory groups and reach out to various stakeholders to get feedback as the proposal develops. For any further questions, please contact the team at SpecialDistrictsUpdate@planning.nyc.gov.