Staten Island has three major special districts that were established approximately 40 years ago: Special Hillsides Preservation District, Special Natural Area District (SNAD), and Special South Richmond Development District (SSRDD). These districts aim to protect and enhance important natural habitats and recreational assets by guiding development. The current regulations have resulted in tree-lined streets in neighborhoods such as Lighthouse Hill, in SNAD and preservation of the serpentine ridge in neighborhoods such as Tompkinsville and Grymes Hill, and DEP Bluebelts in Woodrow, Huguenot and Annadale.
Staten Island Advisory Committee - To create the proposal, DCP worked with stakeholders and conducted significant research since 2015. The Department of City Planning has held 13 working meetings with the advisory committee between April 2015 and April 2018:
Advisory Committee Members:
Ongoing Interagency coordination:
Proposed changes to the district are needed to ensure an improved and more consistent approach to development that results in predictable outcomes by 1) applying updated environmental preservation science with a more holistic approach to natural resource protection, 2) codifying best practices from last 40 years and 3) focusing on preserving the largest and most ecologically sensitive features while 4) creating a zoning regimen that is fairer and more predictable for property owners.
The proposed regulations:
The proposal will create ecological areas across the special district based on proximity to the most sensitive natural resources such as large parks, forests, and hillsides. Regulations for development focus on lot coverage, impervious area and planting controls, which will vary depending on adjacency of sites to these natural areas.
Outreach in addition to Advisory Committee engagement
SI Open House – October 2018
On Wednesday, October 3rd, DCP hosted an Open House at the Greenbelt Nature Center in Staten Island to share information about the proposed Special Districts Update. See the summary of the open house.
Why is the city changing the existing special district regulations in Staten Island?
Over the decades, DCP has established important best practices, and our understanding of the natural environment has evolved significantly revealing the importance of larger natural resources, such as large parks and forests. The technology has also improved in the last 40 years to identify these areas more accurately. The goal of the proposal is to address the broader ecological context and incorporate best practices to create firm, clear and mandatory rules that balance appropriate development with protection of the natural resources and achieve predictable outcomes for the natural environment and property owners.
While the current regulations have resulted in good outcomes and preservation of many natural features, the regulations allow property owners to remove or modify natural features through a site-by-site review by the City Planning Commission (CPC) without regard to the larger ecological context. Over time, this has resulted in inconsistent application of the rules and created unnecessary cost and time burden for small homeowners. For example, in Todt Hill located within the Special Natural Area District, regulations often require discretionary review by the City Planning Commission (CPC) even for a single-family home seeking to build a modest addition. In neighborhoods such as Silver Lake in the Special Hillsides Preservation District, regulations are unclear on how sites with steep slopes and hillsides should be developed and the existing rules and discretionary framework allow a variety of outcomes that may or may not be aligned with the City and community’s objectives and expectations. In neighborhoods such as Charleston or Richmond Valley in the Special South Richmond Development District, larger sites with natural features can go without any review and result in loss of valuable natural resources. The lack of review of big developments in certain areas and unclear standards have, at times, resulted in unpredictable outcomes that can be undesirable to the broader community and ecosystem.
Our objective is to streamline regulations within the special districts while creating a consistent framework across the special districts that balances the development of privately owned sites with the preservation of those natural features (such as forever wilds, wetlands, blue belts, old-growth trees, and steep slopes) that are most significant and important to the community. By codifying best practices and incorporating current science, we can provide predictable rules that allow most small developments to proceed as-of-right while also preserving natural features and ensuring planning for larger sites is responsive to the community’s priorities.
Who has been involved in the planning process? How can I get involved to offer my feedback?
The Department of City Planning (DCP) has met with, received input from, and provided updates to all the local community boards and convened advisory groups that includes representatives of local civic organizations, architects, landscape architects, environmental groups, elected officials, institutions, and city agencies since April 2015 to inform a review of the main issues to consider and to create guiding principles for updating the regulations of these special districts. Please feel free to reach out to DCP directly with your any comments and suggestions at SpecialDistrictsUpdate@planning.nyc.gov.
How would the proposed Special Districts regulations shape development and neighborhood character?
The special districts were established to ensure development rights and natural features are balanced and protected. Communities have expressed that it is important to maintain and enhance the neighborhood character of these special districts, which are clearly defined by their significant trees, greenery, wetlands and open space areas. Under the proposed regulations, SNAD will shape development by focusing on outcomes - for instance connecting larger natural resources such as parks and waterways, promoting greater biodiversity, and preserving the tree canopy. The changes will establish firm limits to modification of natural features. On larger sites, one acre or more, with existing habitat, a portion of the habitat will be designated for preservation in perpetuity.
Natural features add significantly to the value in these neighborhoods. The proposed regulations would support and enhance neighborhood character by preserving steep slopes and large trees in front yards, limiting retaining walls, diversifying planting requirements, including native plant species to support biodiversity, and creating permeability requirements and strengthening regulations for aquatic resources, all of which are defining features for neighborhoods within these special districts.
What will the changes mean to a small property owner?
The proposed changes streamline review for development on small properties, those of less than one acre. The changes establish firm and clear rules and allow owners to proceed directly to the Department of Buildings (DOB) for plan review and compliance of regulations. Our best practices have shown that the current two-step process, in which a homeowner must go through public review by CPC and then also apply to DOB, adds time and expense to development projects without demonstrable benefit. Larger sites, of one acre or more, contribute more to the public realm and natural habitat and so will require public review. To support small property owners, DCP will create a guide to the proposed regulations and best practices.
Will removing public review or City Planning Commission review of small projects mean the community loses an opportunity to provide input?
While smaller properties, of one acre or less, may not require approval from the CPC, they will be required to comply with firm and clear rules. Additionally, any complaints or concerns will be directed to DOB who enforce the zoning resolution requirements. Clearer and strict rules that have been developed based on 40 years of best practices identified by DCP and community input will also help strengthen SNAD enforcement.
Large sites (one acre or more) where outcomes are less predictable, and which have a greater impact on the wider natural habitat, would still require review by the CPC and referral to Community Boards.
Communities will have an opportunity to comment on the changes to the Special Districts Text Amendment when this proposal go into formal public land use review process expected to begin by early 2019.
How are subdivisions treated in the proposed regulations?
Under current regulations, zoning lot subdivisions follow underlying zoning regulations but require only limited consideration of natural features and are not subject to public review. Under the proposed regulations, proposed subdivisions for sites with a new private road, located in steep slopes, or adjacent to publicly owned natural resources that are proposing four or more homes will be subject to public review. In addition, sites one acre or larger will be subject to public review and will need to demonstrate that a proposed subdivision meets requirements for the protection of natural features. Subdivision of lots of one acre or more with existing habitat will require a “preservation area” of natural features to be set aside in perpetuity, to enhance the ecological connectivity. No development will be permitted in these “preservation areas” which provides much stronger regulation of these important natural areas than exists today. All other proposed subdivisions, that do not require public review, would have clear rules that allow property owners to apply directly with the DOB for approvals.
Will I be able to garden as I wish?
Yes! As long as there are no invasive species. The existing rules in all three special districts require preservation and planting of trees, and ground cover and biodiversity is protected through regulations in SNAD and Hillsides districts. To promote a predictable and consistent approach to natural areas preservation and development, the proposed regulations will have requirements to preserve or plant trees and plant biodiversity gardens on all sites, with the amount of planting based on the proximity of a site to important ecological areas.
The proposed regulations will encourage the preservation of old growth trees and planting of native species that support wild life and human health.
Will a natural features site assessment be required for all land use applications? What kind of professional is expected to conduct the site assessment for natural features?
The Department of City Planning will pre-identify all properties that are over one acre in size that are likely to have one-quarter of an acre or more of habitat. These properties will be required to conduct a site assessment before moving forward with designing a proposed site plan for development. Only ecological specialists will be permitted to conduct these assessments. Once submitted, these assessments will become part of the public record and a part of the public review process.
How would the new regulations be enforced?
Like all zoning regulations, SNAD regulations are enforced when a property owner seeks approvals and permits from the City (currently CPC and DOB), or when DOB receives a complaint about a property owner’s failure to comply with regulations. When a violation is issued the owner must correct the violation and pay a fine and new permits will not be issued unless the violation is corrected. DOB is strengthening the enforcement and construction safety supervision for all sites. DOB has also created an online portal to track all active construction sites which will with community awareness.
To assist with review and enforcement under the proposed rules, DCP and DOB are creating checklists, application requirements, and forms for inspectors and applicant professionals, and DCP will provide staff support to DOB after the new regulations go into effect. Other supporting documents will include a plain language homeowners’ guide.
For questions and to join our mailing list, email DCP at: SpecialDistrictsUpdate@planning.nyc.gov.