Staten Island Special Districts Zoning Text Amendment

Staten Island home with greenery

Special Districts Webinar Q&A

The Department of City Planning (DCP) hosted two webinars in summer 2020 to discuss the Special Districts preliminary recommendations with the Staten Island community and take questions and feedback.

Below, find answers to attendees’ questions from the webinars, organized by theme.

Each borough has its own dynamic. The prior proposal included changes to the Bronx Special Natural Area District. Will this proposal focus only on Staten Island?

Yes. In response to feedback last year, the previous application that included the Bronx SNAD was withdrawn. The current proposal is focused solely on Staten Island.

Is DCP consulting with environmental professionals in the working group?

Yes. The Staten Island Special Districts working group represents a broad range of expertise, including environmental professionals and representation from community groups focused on natural areas preservation and environmental causes. In addition, the proposal has been developed in consultation with the NYC Parks Department, NYC Department of Environmental Protection, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, and NYC Department of Buildings.

When will the draft text and maps be available to review?

DCP is currently seeking community input that will inform the draft zoning text and maps. The draft zoning text and maps will be made publicly available prior to community board vote when this proposal enters ULURP, the city’s formal public review process for proposed land use changes.

How will the COVID-19 pandemic affect the timeline and outreach for this project?

The current public health crisis has changed the way that DCP and our working group can safely meet. DCP and the SI Special Districts working group will be meeting remotely (online or by any phone) through Spring/Summer 2020 to advance this proposal. DCP is committed to ensuring that robust outreach is undertaken for all of our initiatives and we are using remote meetings, webinars, the DCP websites and published guides to communicate as much as possible with the public and solicit feedback on the core concepts of the proposal.

I would like to see more sample projects with the proposed rules tested out. This would help the community better understand how the rules would be implemented for future as-of-right projects. Will DCP share these types of examples at future public meetings?

Yes. DCP will incorporate these examples into future public outreach events.

Under this proposal, what types of land use changes would require City Planning Commission and community review?

The review process would focus on large private applications, and some smaller sites (less than one acre) in ecologically sensitive areas. City Planning Commission review would generally apply to:

  • Changes on lots greater than one acre
  • The creation of four or more lots or buildings, or eight or more dwelling units in the “Escarpment Area” along the Serpentine Ridge
  • The creation or extension of private roads

If there is no City Planning Commission (CPC) review for sites under one acre, who will oversee placement of homes, structures and trees on these sites? Who will protect neighborhood interests if the City Planning Commission will no longer be involved?

The proposed changes within the Hillsides & Natural Area Districts are based on decades of best practices of the City Planning Commission and Community Board feedback. Many of these practices are all goals of the existing special districts, but are not actually codified in the zoning text. This proposal seeks to codify these practices so that they become requirements of zoning that all development must follow.

With that, and like all zoning and building code enforcement, the Department of Buildings (DOB) would be responsible for ensuring the regulations of the SI Special Districts are met. DCP and DOB are working together to ensure the proposal results in a zoning text that is easy to follow and enforce.

The proposal would require City Planning Commission review for the creation of four or more lots or buildings in the Escarpment Area. But, four lots in this area could total less than one acre, so why would the Commission need to review?

Escarpment Areas have the greatest ecological value and steepest hillside features. While the overall size of a development could be less than one acre, the design of multiple buildings could be complex and would likely have a greater effect on the escarpment and may need additional zoning flexibility.

In planning, there is an advantage to looking at the overall picture, not just one acre at a time. Is DCP looking at the broader context?

Yes. The proposal acknowledges that predictable development on small properties can be addressed by standardized rules in the Zoning Resolution. Requiring special Commission review for these sites is unnecessarily burdensome for property owners. The proposal focuses regulations instead on large, sensitive sites that have a significant and/or less predictable impact on the environment.

DCP uses the term “small or smaller sites” throughout the proposal. Does that term specifically refer to sites of one acre or less?
Yes.

Currently in the Special South Richmond District, a commercial site with 30 or more parking spaces needs City Planning Commission approval. Why is DCP removing this requirement and focusing instead on sites that are one acre or more?

Commercial or community facility sites on lots less than one acre tend to have a predictable environmental impact, regardless of the exact number of parking spaces. Furthermore, citywide parking lot design rules have been instituted since the establishment of the special district that can address developments on smaller sites. Commission review will be reserved for sites larger than one acre where there are more alternatives to guiding development, and preserving neighborhood character and natural features.

Zoning rules for Special South Richmond commercial districts often require property owners to build lots of parking spaces. Have less restrictive parking requirements been considered to balance preservation and development?

The proposal does not seek to change underlying parking requirements in the special districts.

Why are the mature trees in the front yard counted extra towards tree requirements when preserved? Wouldn't we want to encourage preservation of all mature trees to the greatest extent possible?

Mature trees at the front of a property play an especially important role in establishing the neighborhood character of the SNAD and Hillsides neighborhoods. Also, competing infrastructure needs in the front yard (driveways, sewer utilities, etc.) can make it difficult for property owners to preserve mature trees without the additional incentive.

In this proposal, we’re encouraging preservation of all mature trees by providing more credits to mature trees anywhere on the property to further encourage preservation.

How does this proposal affect a tree’s critical root zone? What is the benefit for mature trees? How much encroachment into critical root zone will be allowed?

The method for measuring a tree’s critical root zone would not change under this proposal. However, a “Structural Root Zone” would be added to establish an area around the most critical roots of the tree where roots may not be disturbed.

The proposal would allow for a small amount of disturbance outside the Structural Root Zone. 10% of a tree’s critical root zone to be disturbed and up to 30% could be disturbed with the consultation of a certified arborist that can attest to the health of the tree and recommend construction methods to minimize impact. These proposed rules are based on updated knowledge from the International Society of Arborists.

I would like to see much more incentive given to builders to save huge, old trees. Is DCP working with the Dept of Finance (taxation) to provide more incentives?

This proposal is limited to incentives that can be provided within the Zoning Resolution. DCP is open to ideas on how to encourage tree preservation with zoning.  

Is there a plan to decrease the minimum lot size in Special Hillsides and Natural Area District?

No. The proposed changes to this district will not decrease the minimum lot sizes. In fact, in the most ecologically sensitive areas such as the escarpment area or wetland adjacent area, the proposal would require larger lot sizes to better accommodate buildable area and preserve natural features.

If you have a steep slope rear yard, can you cut into the rear yard to make it flat with retaining walls (without needing approval from the City Planning Commission)?

Outside of the escarpment area, any part of a site can be altered. However, there would be regulations regarding the location and height of retaining walls, grading controls, and limitations to hard surface area. These regulations would ensure balance between preservation and property owners’ desired use of their property.

Within the escarpment area, similar retaining wall and grading regulations would apply. However, alterations would be limited to within 20 feet of the building footprint to better preserve the steepest portions of a site.

In 2011, Hurricane Irene caused a mudflow off the slopes around Wright Street. Hurricanes can produce a lot of rain that can cause a slope failure. This is a potential hazard. How is this being addressed?

DCP’s proposal would be just one of many sets of regulations intended to preserve hillsides and ensure that development accounts for potential hazards such as hurricanes. For instance, the Department of Buildings ensures that building foundations, footings, retaining walls, etc., are all built to sufficient safety standards. The State Department of Environmental Protection has set regulations that control how stormwater is managed on a site. Zoning regulations are intended to limit where development can occur and encourage the placement of buildings in the least steep portions of a site.

The proposal also allows for property owners to safely manage vegetation, trees and groundcover in areas outside of development in the escarpment area. These efforts all help reduce hillside erosion.

There are many inappropriately mapped Designated Open Space (DOS) areas on Staten Island, such as DOS located in the bed of paved streets that are open and in use. The process to un-map these types of DOS is time consuming and costly. Is DCP recommending the removal of these inappropriately mapped DOS?

DCP is considering an amendment to the Designated Open Space boundaries where streets are built out and not currently serving the purpose of Designated Open Space.

How do you make the determination that portions of Designated Open Space (DOS) will no longer enhance the open space network?

We looked at the 1975 South Richmond plan and intent of the regulations. Much of the area initially mapped as DOS later became public land, such as Department of Environmental Protection Bluebelts or Department of Parks and Recreation parks. With more precise mapping we’ve observed that certain parcels of DOS were mapped over built or in-use streets, or over built-out private properties. These are instances where DOS areas have not remained in their natural state. We can improve transparency and predictability for homeowners by adjusting the boundaries of DOS in those specific areas.  

The framework states it will prioritize ecologically sensitive sites – does that mean that alterations to smaller lots with State-protected wetlands will be reviewed?

For sites with wetlands that are over one acre or where more than four lots or building are proposed, City Planning Commission approvals will be required.

For sites with or near wetlands that are under one acre and contain less than four or more buildings or lots, it will be possible to develop without special approval from the CPC. However, proposed regulations such as the additional usable yard space between buildings and wetlands would limit encroachment into wetlands and adjacent areas.

How will State-protected wetlands affect what I can develop on my property? Is the DEC Area of No Land Alteration excluded from zoning lot area for the purposes of minimum zoning lot area or zoning lot width, or FAR, or Open Space?

Property owners cannot build on State-protected wetlands or Areas of No Land Alteration, but they can still count wetland areas towards floor area, yard and open space requirements. In all instances, NYS DEC would need to approve the final site plan.  

The proposal would allow minor yard reductions in order to accommodate these regulations. The proposal allows for City Planning Commission review if additional zoning flexibility is needed to accommodate development and State requirements.