HUD zoning inquiries at local level baffle, irk officials

Cottage Landings, an 18 unit condominium complex on

Cottage Landings, an 18 unit condominium complex on Edgar Place in Rye, is one of several affordable housing projects under construction in Westchester County. (March 27, 2012) Photo Credit: Angela Gaul

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The federal monitor overseeing Westchester County's compliance with a 2009 settlement over affordable housing recently sent out letters to local officials asking whether their zoning ordinances are tantamount to segregation.

It didn't go over well.

"I don't know what to do anymore," said Ardsley Village Manager George Calvi. "You do the right thing. You report to all the agencies, and they still don't get the message."

The settlement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development seeks to end zoning that prevents minorities from living in Westchester's mostly white communities and calls on the county to put 750 new affordable-housing units into the pipeline by 2016.

Dated March 21 and sent to the 31 municipalities that are covered in the settlement but technically not parties to it, James Johnson's letter requests information about zoning that might hinder integration.

The letter irked Calvi, he explained, because Ardsley had already adopted zoning last year that federal officials themselves recommended to promote integration.

"I'll sit down and draft a letter and explain it to them," Calvi said. "I don't want to be obnoxious about it. I want to be factually correct. Our village code is not a secret. It's online."

Calvi's reaction was common among local authorities who received Johnson's letter. Although they understood that, legally, they didn't need to respond to it, they viewed it as an unwelcome infringement.

"This is really the county's fight to fight," said Rye Brook Mayor Paul Rosenberg. "I was surprised that the monitor sent these letters directly to the municipalities rather than going through the county."

Johnson sent the letter, he said, to obtain information about local zoning practices that he has yet to receive despite repeated requests to Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican who has garnered significant political capital from opposing the settlement.

The sooner he compiles information about zoning that excludes affordable housing and minority residents, the sooner county residents can put the settlement behind them, Johnson said.

"I just sent letters out to the eligible municipalities asking them to confirm certain facts about their zoning regulations because the county didn't provide the information that I think is necessary," he said. "I have the authority to ask questions directly of the municipalities, and that's what I'm doing."

But Astorino's communications director, Ned McCormack, said the county has already sent volumes of information about local zoning to Johnson and HUD that Astorino claims show there is no exclusionary zoning in Westchester County.

McCormack noted that the county had 305 affordable-housing units either built or in the pipeline for construction when the settlement calls for 300 by the end of the year.

"The monitor is free to seek information where he wants it," McCormack said. "The simple proof is that if the zoning was exclusionary in these 31 communities, then we wouldn't be a year ahead of schedule."

HUD already has rejected the county's findings. Late last month, the department threatened to withdraw $7.4 million in funding for housing projects unless the county resubmitted satisfactory material on zoning by April 25.

The county is formulating a response to HUD's warning, McCormack said.

Some local officials, like Rosenberg, said they supported the spirit of the settlement even if they didn't appreciate the implication in Johnson's letter that they need to demonstrate that their zoning isn't promoting segregation. None of the 31 municipalities covered by the settlement is required to build affordable housing, though together, the 750 units must be constructed in those locales.

"Affordable housing is a great thing," Rosenberg said. "It's something that every community should look to implement."

Others, like Tuckahoe Mayor Steve Ecklond, were more confrontational. He wasn't yet sure if he'd respond to the letter.

"I've been adamantly opposed to any federal tampering with our local zoning codes," Ecklond said. "The Village Board and the village Zoning Board know how to control zoning in Tuckahoe, not someone sitting in an office in Washington."

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