Gallic accents were in the air at White Plains City Hall on Wednesday as around 250 people crowded a hearing on the French-American School of New York's contentious proposal to build a new campus.
Supporters of the school's proposal to build on 130 acres of the former Ridgeway Country Club, including at least one staff member who spoke only French, wore green T-shirts and buttons to support their cause. Critics countered with red buttons shaped like stop signs.
At issue: whether the city has proposed new zoning specifically to scuttle the school's plan.
Traffic was a major issue, with homeowners who live nearby objecting to the average of 1,139 daily car trips in and out of the school during the morning that a consultant has projected.
An aide to Mayor Tom Roach said there was no link between the private school's plan for the 130-acre property and the city's proposed new zoning for the former club as well as other golf courses and parkland in the city.
The new zoning would require large lots, setbacks and other measures to conserve open space. But school representatives said the zoning might forbid them from building a campus for 250 staff and 1,200 students from kindergarten to grade 12.
With the Common Council chambers packed, people watched the proceedings on a closed-circuit television outside the council room and on a screen in the building lobby.
Opponents said they didn't have anything against the school featuring bilingual classes. But they felt its three new buildings and playing fields would ruin their neighborhood.
"How would 400 some [parking] spaces be an improvement to my community?" said Claudia Jeffe, who lives on Heatherbloom Road.
Critics were also skeptical of the school's plan to set aside 84 acres of the property in a conservation trust.
"They are trying to compensate us, using this as an excuse for the damage it would do with traffic," said Laurie Kimmelstiel of Ethelridge Road.
A school trustee, John Botti, a resident of Greenwich, Conn. said residents should be happy with the conservation proposal.
"It is much more stringent than zoning," he said. "Any administration in any city can change the zoning in 10 years. A permanent easement is permanent."
Before the school purchased the land for $11 million in 2010, city officials had been discussing zoning proposals that would reduce development on golf courses, said Terence Guerriere, president of the Gedney Association, whose website claims 400 households among its members.
"It would be naive to think the French-American School's purchase wasn't a catalyst for this," Guerriere said. "They've been thinking about this for years and then with the purchase they decided to proceed."
The president of the school's board, Mischa Zabotin, said Guerriere's comments reflect how it's an open secret how White Plains officials are maneuvering to stop the school.
"I feel that it's unfortunate that this was proposed when we showed up," Zabotin said. "I don't think there is a coincidence there."
A developer could build around 50 homes on the land, generating tax revenue as well as keeping in the character of the neighborhood, Guerriere said.
Botti wondered whether White Plains residents wanted a housing development in the area.
"If you say no to a high quality school and an 84-acre nature conservancy, what are you prepared to say yes to?"
Because the nonprofit school owns the land, it now generates no real estate tax revenue, according to the White Plains website.