Feds seek $60,000 in contempt fines against Westchester

David Mckay Wilson, Staff Writer
lohud www.lohud.com

“Tax Watch columnist David McKay Wilson explores the latest development in Westchester epic housing battle in Chappaqua

So far, Westchester County has lost an estimated $22 million in federal funding due to its noncompliance with the consent decree from its 2009 fair housing lawsuit.

Now it would have to pay $60,000 more in contempt-of-court penalties if the office of Preet Bharara, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, can convince US District Judge Denise Cote that Westchester failed to comply with its consent decree on two issues involving the controversial affordable housing complex in downtown Chappaqua that remains tied up in the town’s arduous building review process.

First, the US Justice Department has argued in a Jan. 22 filing in US District Court in Manhattan that Westchester failed to meet a 2014 benchmark to have financing in place because the 28-unit development proposed by Conifer Realty should not be counted, as Westchester has done.  Westchester needed 450 units with financing in place by Dec. 31, 2014, and the Chappaqua units made the difference.

The department has also alleged that the administration of Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino hasn’t done enough to persuade New Castle officials to approve the project, which will be built in the hometown of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Additional penalties could be sought if Conifer Realty lacks all approvals by Dec. 31,said Dawn Dearden, spokesman for the US Department of Justice.

The Justice Department action comes in response to a Nov. 19 recommendationfrom US Magistrate Judge Gabriel Gorenstein, who found in Westchester County’s favor on these issues.

Westchester is expected to take an important step in support of Chappaqua Station on Friday, when the county purchases the land, and turns it over to Conifer, as contemplated in the deal struck by the county Board of Legislators in 2014, said Ned McCormack, communications director for Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino. The parcel at issue — 54 Hunts Place — is a one-third acre spit of land bounded by the Saw Mill Parkway, Route 120 and the Metro-North railroad tracks in downtown Chappaqua.

McCormack said the county plans to borrow $1.3 million to finance “the cost of land acquisition.”    ,”

The Chappaqua project has emerged as one of those epic Westchester housing battles, with the federal government now deeply enmeshed in a community fight between a town administration aligned with residents opposed to the plan, and housing advocates who say the apartments will be highly desirable among prospective tenants.

Astorino is doing what he can to promote the plan, including announcing in late December that the project had building permits in place for the 28 units. But Tax Watch on Jan. 7 raised questions about his administration’s claim that a permit for Conifer to do site grading and remediation qualified as a building permit because it was only the first step in the construction process.

Housing monitor James Johnson sent a letter to the Justice Department and Westchester County Attorney Robert Meehan on Jan. 21, asking them to explain whether the grading permit entitles Westchester to count the units.

Assistant US Attorney David Kennedy, in a Jan. 22 filing, said that the Conifer project appears far from ready for construction.

“New Castle has required Conifer to run a near-endless gauntlet of approvals and reviews, many of which are made contingent upon each other, so that it is nearly impossible for Conifer to have all the necessary permits, reviews, approvals and financings in place so that the units can finally be constructed,” he wrote.

New Castle Supervisor Robert Greenstein thought little of Kennedy’s assessment.

“The Town categorically rejects the Government’s allegation that Conifer is being forced to run any sort of gauntlet,” he said in an email message. “All of the permits, reviews, approvals that Conifer needs were clearly delineated in 2013 by the Town Board which granted Conifer’s Special Permit.  Those conditions have not changed since 2013, and they are typical of a project of this size and complexity.”

Westchester is sticking to its story that the grading permit should count as a building permit.

“The developer has the building permit, which you have, and can get started following the closing on the property,” wrote Ned McCormack

Whether Conifer actually begins its $1 million clean-up this winter remains uncertain. The developer’s attorney, Randolph McLaughlin, declined comment.

A new round of reviews have begun before the New Castle Architectural Review Board and Town Board on changes Conifer has made during the approval process, The Town Board hearing is set for Feb. 9.

The latest delays involve questions about the building’s roofline, as well as fencing along the sidewalk over the Route 120 bridge. There’s a staircase from the project to the bridge, to allow easy access over the bridge to downtown. The sidewalk fence would stop pedestrians from crossing the state road on the bridge while also discouraging motorists from dropping off or picking up tenants on the bridge.

The state Department of Transportation has rejected the proposed fence.

Building Inspector Bill Maskiell also sounded an ominous tone in his Jan. 4 memo to the Town Board.

“As Conifer has stated, the proposed building will not be finished by Nov. 25, 2016 and the permit will definitely need an extension of time,” he wrote. “However, I defer to the Town Board as to when another time extension would be appropriate to consider.”

Said Greenstein: “That is something the Town Board will consider.””