There were other topics discussed during Thursday’s candidates forum at the White Plains Library, but the French American School of New York’s plan to build a campus at the old Ridgeway Country Club was easily the subject of the night.
“The League of Women Voters of White Plains asks if there are any other questions being posed that does not involve FASNY, because there are other issues that concern this city,” Lindsay Feinberg, the forum’s moderator, said in front of an audience of about several dozen people.
The event, sponsored by the White Plains League of Women and the White Plains Council of Neighborhood Associations, featured five of the six candidates on the ballot for the city Common Council during the Nov. 5 general election.
Incumbents John B. Kirkpatrick, John Martin and Beth Smayda, all Democrats, were present along with Republican candidates Claudia Murphy and Anne Marie Encarnacao. Carl Albanese, who is also on the ballot as a Republican, did not attend.
A forum for the candidates in this year’s mayoral race, incumbent Thomas Roach and Cass Cibelli, was held later in the night.
Terrence Guilliare, president of the Gedney Neighborhood Association, asked the candidates if the Hawthorne-based TRC Engineers is planning to conduct another traffic report on the FASNY proposal. The firm has already submitted a report as part of the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the FASNY project.
Martin, Kirkpatrick and Smayda said they are unaware of any other traffic reports being submitted.
Another member of the public asked the candidates if they planned to abide zoning of the Gedney Farms neighborhood, which is one-acre residential. FASNY needs a special permit to build on Ridgeway, which is zoned for residential properties.
“We are still reviewing and we have not come to a final decision, but I think— as far as I know, I’m not an attorney— for a special permit, schools, churches, a whole list of things can be built with a special permit,” Smayda said. “But, of course, there are a lot of things we need to look at as far as impact...so we are reviewing that in light of the zoning law.”
Kirkpatrick said he will sift through the language of the city’s zoning ordinance and decisions handed down by state courts. But he agreed with Smayda that courts have ruled in the past that municipalities must be more forgiving when it comes to churches and schools.
“What that means is that, when you put all the detail aside...for a special permit use, you need to be able to find that it will not have a greater impact than any other use or combination of uses that could be permitted as a permitted principal use under the existing zoning,” Kirkpatrick said.
Said Encarnacao: “Yes, absolutely I will stick by the zoning and I’m not for [the proposal]. I agree that it’s not a good thing.”
Said Martin: “I will absolutely adhere to our zoning ordinance...our zoning ordinance the cases that have come before are what we have to be guided by.”
Said Murphy: “I would, in fact, support the zoning. I would not vote for FASNY.”
Another audience member asked the candidates where they stand on the potential traffic issues the FASNY proposal may cause.
Candidates took questions from the League of Women Voters before taking audience questions. The first question posed by the League was the most important issue each candidate thinks the city is facing.
Encarnacao said FASNY is the biggest issue facing the city. She said the proposal has already had a negative affect on the area surrounding the Ridgeway Country Club site.
“Houses on Gedney Farms have sat on the market, gotten less than $1 million when you could never touch a house in White Plains in Gedney Farms at that price,” Encarnacao said. “The biggest one I can think of in the past couple of weeks is the house on Easton...it sold for $815,000.”
Martin said the number one issue is finances. He said the city needs to continues doing things like not borrowing to make payments to the employee retirement system and tax certiorari payments. He also said the city needs to continue looking for ways to combine departments.
“I’m pleased to say that over the three budgets that I’ve participated on we’ve been able to keep within the governor’s 2 percent tax cap,” Martin said. “We’ve done that despite a tremendous increase in the bills that we get from the state that we have no control; steep increases, double-digit increases in health insurance as well as a declining assessment roll.”
Murphy said the top issue is generating income for the city and attracting corporations with high paying jobs.
“This in turn will keep our property taxes down, our budget under control and will enable us to concentrate on other projects such as safety...in turn, making White Plains a wonderful place to raise your family, to work and to live,” Murphy said.
Smayda agreed with Martin and said maintaining fiscal stability is the top issue facing the city in light of flat assessments and flat sales tax revenue. She also said it is important for the to make the investments necessary to make White Plains a livable city.
“We can’t be spending money on nonessential functions,” Smayda said. “When the Ridgeway Country Club came up for sale, we looked at that very carefully. For my analysis of it, it would cost $1million to $2 million in property tax support. Due to a number of reasons, there are a lot of things wrong with the purported feasibility study. This, at a time when we were in the worst recession and didn’t even know where the bottom was in our sales tax.”
Kirkpatrick said it is important for the city officials to plan for the type of growth it wants.
“If we want to grow the tax base, we have to grow it in the right way,” Kirkpatrick said. “We have to put the right kind of development in the right places while protecting our neighborhoods. We’ve got to find ways to decrease our expenses, which we’ve managed...find better ways to do things with we’ve got. And, finally, I want to update the comprehensive plan overall, and I want to do it in ways that reduce the cost without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Another question posed by the League of Women Voters was what each candidates would do to encourage development in White Plains and keep existing neighborhoods.
Martin said he would continue to look at each proposal that comes and judge them based on their adherence to the current comprehensive plan.
“We have a number of outstanding proposals before us.” Martin said. “Each of them have significant merit to them and we will look at each of them with an eye toward getting some of them done and we have to do as comprehensive plan tells us and that is to protect our neighborhoods.”
Murphy said she would get on the phone and start calling large corporations to gauge their interest in relocating to White Plains, while respecting the existing zoning.
“There are plenty of companies that are looking to leave midtown Manhattan that should be coming to White Plains,” Murphy said. “What we need to do is reach out to corporations with high paying jobs and ask them what can we do to work with you to come to our city. Bring your jobs to our city.”
Smayda said maintaining fiscal responsibility is the biggest key to attracting big developers.
“Believe it or not, a big development comes in...one of the first things they ask is what’s the bond rating and we can say Aa1, it’s stable,” Smayda said. “That’s important to a developer because they want to know if they’re going to spend a lot of money in your city, you’re balanced, you’re providing services and that’s where people want to come and locate and live. That being said, we need to be guided by our zoning.”
Kirkpatrick said the old Sholz Oldsmobile dealership on West Post Road is an example of some the exciting new proposal that are coming to the city.
“They, unfortunately, made their first proposal in the form of a shopping center, which, I don’t think, the city wants or thinks is an appropriate use for that particular location,” Kirkpatrick said. “But it shows that we’ve got a great developer site if we can get the developer to come up with the right kind of plan that makes sense.”
Kirkpatrick also mentioned the Westchester Pavillion and the area near the train station as areas that can offer a good opportunity for development if done properly.
Encarnacao said she is pro-development, but not if it encroaches on existing neighborhoods. She listed FASNY and the Sunrise Detox Center as an examples of proposals that she opposed.“It’s more about the citizens and our neighborhoods and keeping them happy,” Encarnacao said.