Neighbor spars with developer over retaining walls, landscaping | Scarsdale
Mark Nadler doesn’t think his “neighbor” — a developer he believes is trying to max out the lot at 4 Kingston Road in Scarsdale — is being a very good neighbor. Nadler went before the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) Monday, Jan. 11, with a lawyer and two experts to counter Joseph Ciarletta’s proposal to make a natural sloped hill into what Nadler says is an eyesore by removing 30 trees and adding what he views as unsightly retaining walls, one 2 feet from the property line that abuts Nadler’s backyard at 171 Brite Ave.
All of this, Nadler said, is to accommodate a 44-by-20 foot in-ground pool and, according to a real estate listing that’s since been taken down from the web, “a complex of Patios, spa, BBQ, Bars and Gas Fire-pit surrounded by .65 acres of landscaped gardens and lush lawns.”
Ciarletta, of EJK 4 Kingston LLC, who declined to speak to the Inquirer, is taking a property that was purchased for $1.15 million in October 2019 and more than doubling the square footage of the existing house, which has already been approved by the village, to 8,000 square feet. Late last year, the yet to be redeveloped property was listed at $3.795 million dollars.
The project returned to the BAR after the previous board didn’t appropriately address the hill back in June.
The pool plan was supposed to go before the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) two days after the January BAR meeting, but with the BAR holding the application over because none of the members would have voted in Ciarletta’s favor, he withdrew the pool because the hill is tied to that project.
BAR chair Brad Cetron told Ciarletta to reach out to Nadler to find a solution that works for both property owners.
Nadler said Ciarletta called him the next morning and said Ciarletta told him he would show him the new plans before he returns to the BAR. Nadler said he doesn’t know what changes Ciarletta will propose. Nadler and several BAR members asserted that all Ciarletta has to do is move the pool toward the center of the property — or change the shape or size of the pool — and then he would likely not have to touch the hill, put up retaining walls or take down any existing plantings.
“He doesn’t have to touch the hill if he is willing to move the pool 5 to 10 feet more toward the center of the yard or make the pool smaller,” Nadler said. “He can get what he mostly wants, but he’s got to change the plan and they’re saying to me I’ve got to compromise with him, but from my perspective, the property is unusable. If you didn’t walk the property you don’t know what you’re dealing with. This isn’t a gentle slope. This is a 70 degree hill.”
Nadler added, “Greenburgh has a steep slope policy and Scarsdale doesn’t. Scarsdale needs to have something that pertains to steep slopes. Anybody in their right mind would look at this property and say it’s not developable.”
A panoramic of the view of 4 Kingston Road from 171 Brite Ave.
At the BAR meeting, 4 Kingston Road project manager Milot Shala said the revised plans show two retaining walls, not three as previously submitted. He said “additional” landscaping was included at the base of the lower wall, between the two walls and at the top of the wall by the proposed pool.
“It’s not a substantial revision, which we are presenting tonight,” Ciarletta said. “Although the number of walls and the height of the walls have changed, the concept and the materials usage remains exactly the same as what was originally approved at the June 1 BAR meeting. We feel this new design is a smaller and less impactful design, if you will, from what was previously approved. In addition we implemented both lower and upper wall screening that will provide full coverage of both walls.”
Ciarletta’s landscape architect, Tracee Neuman, said they took “neighbor concerns into account.”
“Due to the site conditions, the tiered walls on the southern property line are absolutely necessary, and my objective is to provide the most evergreen coverage to mutually benefit the homeowners on both sides,” she said. She called some changes and options for plantings “timeless, warm and inviting.”
Cetron asked for clarification about the new wall dimensions. Ciarletta said under the original plan two of the three walls were slated to be 8 to 10 feet tall, and now they are both 6 feet high.
Shala said the revised plan follows what was reviewed by the Scarsdale engineer’s department for four months. “We’re hoping that this revision improves the proposed design and has a more forgiving perspective vantage view from the neighbor as well as from the neighborhood standpoint,” he said.
Some BAR members spoke up back in June about the three-tiered walls, one of them being Sigal Hurvitz Bin who said two walls “is a plus.” She noted the corner is “very visible,” the overall impact needs to be taken into account.
“Whatever we do here is going to be very instrumental in the neighborhood feel of the area and I’m not sure that green arborvitae are the right solution here,” she said. “I also happen to think the Redi-Rock that you’ve sampled will look really, really unappealing.”
BAR member Christian Callaghan noted the bottom wall is actually 8 feet tall and is 2 feet from the property line. Shala said two of the feet are below ground, so only 6 feet will be visible.
Shala also said there are trees on the neighbor’s property for screening, but Hurvitz Bin said those would likely get destroyed during construction and planting. “I just don’t think these walls are the right solution, especially not with these plantings,” she said.
Hurvitz Bin said the plantings are “another wall” in front of the “ugly cement block.” She described the totality of it as “unattractive.”
“I’d like to reiterate the fact that this was already approved with even taller, uglier walls, 8 to 10 foot walls,” Ciarletta said, to which Hurvitz Bin replied, “So you recognize that it’s ugly?” Ciarletta responded with, “No, I’m just quoiting what you guys believe it is. I don’t believe that wall is ugly at all. It’s a very attractive wall in my opinion and it completely screens. Retaining walls are all over Greenacres. From Brewster Road to Greenacres Avenue there’s a huge climb in elevation and there’s retaining walls everywhere.”
BAR member Suzanne Cregan-Donat said erosion on such a steep slope would make it hard for any new plantings to thrive.
Like most of the BAR members, Lisa Roman Ephrat wanted a natural stone wall instead of Redi-Rock. “I understand this property’s about grading — it’s a tough property,” she said. BAR member Tamara Zgonjanin-Li agreed about the challenges of the property as is and said, “We do have to recognize that.” She noted, “The wall is obviously needed.”
Cetron said the BAR’s charge is to protect chapter 18 of village code, which is to preserve the character of the neighborhood and retain property values through that preservation.
“It is a terribly difficult problem you have presented us with because the topography of the land does not present itself to the project that you want to build,” he said to Ciarletta.
Cetron compared the planned wall to approaching Stew Leonard’s in Yonkers. “It’s just not appropriate,” he said.
Ciarletta said, “I felt like this evening we were presenting a smaller, cleaner, less impactful design than what was previously approved. Again, this is a modification to visually lessen the impact of the walls than what was previously approved. The walls are attractive, they’re tiered. That’s the most important part — they’re tiered. They’re smaller, they’re landscaped and they’re doing their job.”
Ciarletta said the walls conform to engineering and he is willing to listen to suggestions about materials, but maintained, “The walls are necessary to construction and I need them.”
Shala said if they changed the specs of the walls they would have to go back to the village engineer and back to the ZBA if they made them higher than 6 feet, something they would like to avoid.
The proposed landscaping plan for 4 Kingston Road.
When the Scarsdale School District was considering whether to rebuild Greenacres Elementary School or renovate, Meredith Gantcher, 164 Brewster Road, was staunchly opposed to the initial plans due to a “huge retaining wall” that was part of the initial plan and she kicked off public comment explaining this. She’s similarly opposed to Ciarletta’s retaining wall plan, not to mention the “huge, completely out of character grand scale home on the hill right by our house,” that has already been approved.
“I fervently believe this plan can be modified in a manner that preserves the developer’s financial interests, which are significant, but will enhance our neighborhood,” Gantcher said. “The plan he has proposed is completely out of character with the neighborhood, it damages the physical environment by removing a huge number of natural trees … When you look at the houses, this is what a development on an open tract of land looks like and that’s not what Scarsdale is and that’s not what draws people to Scarsdale.”
Gantcher is also worried about water run-off, saying she lives “near a swamp” and the “water table is extremely high where we live.” The drainage is bad enough as is without removing trees and regarding the hill “in ways that defy the laws of nature,” she said, adding, “I really, really speak on behalf of many of my neighbors who do not want an eyesore or potential water drainage issues left when he leaves with the money.”
Cetron reminded the meeting attendees the BAR is an “aesthetic board,” and that water management is the village engineer’s concern.
The next three speakers were retained by Nadler: planning and development consultant Gerrie Post of Ferrandino and Associates, attorney Cliff David and zoning specialist George Janes.
Post said the position of the pool is the reason for the retaining walls. She said that moving the pool 10 to 15 feet away from Nadler’s property and toward the middle of 4 Kingston Road would require one wall 4 to 6 feet high and “solve the problem” without “any detrimental effect” for Nadler. She agreed with BAR members that natural stone should be used for any walls to be in character with the neighborhood. As a key traffic area, she said the “slope should remain as much as possible,” noting walls cut into the slope.
Attorney David pointed out the yet unsaid fact that the upper wall is 94 feet long, the lower wall 81 feet long. He said they “create the appearance of an institutional commercial box store being built next to the Nadlers, as opposed to a natural hill with natural vegetation which exists now.”
David said a licensed appraiser estimated Nadler’s property, valued at $1.29 million, would see a 10% to 15% drop in value as a result of the proposed plan, therefore violating the BAR’s mission while the developer tries to “maximize every inch” with a patio, pool and spa.
“We must remember the purpose of this board — it is to preserve property values and ensure projects are not visually offensive, as well as ensuring it does not injure the use and enjoyment by the neighbors,” David said. “Is this application visually offensive, inappropriate and detrimental to the neighborhood and will it hurt community values? Yes, yes, yes and yes.”
David said the solution is to move the pool and eliminate the need for retaining walls.
Janes showed a pieced together panoramic photo of what Nadler’s view is currently in addition to a simulation graphic of what it would look like under the proposed plan. The difference was drastic.
Nadler said the plan in June was approved “under a false pretense or an unclear set of parameters.” He said the 5,000 square feet of land under the hill is “unusable,” and not only is he “affected the most,” but it “will affect anybody who walks or drives by.”
Nadler has more than 690 signatures on an online petition to stop the developer from proceeding with the current plan. “This will indeed destroy my entire view, my entire backyard,” he said.
By listening to the previous 20 applications earlier in the meeting, which ended well after midnight, Nadler told the board he learned a lot he hadn’t thought about previously — things like light pollution, keeping the owls and hawks that live on the property, and the fact that the Nadlers have to “stare” at a “monster house,” which is higher than the existing one and closer to his property as already approved. “The builder’s rights to earn a profit do not exceed mine not to have my property damaged by his rights,” he said.
Nadler has a short stone retaining wall on his property, which he said was installed because “property kept creeping down” and he has dealt with water problems since purchasing the house in 1996.
Bob Berg of 17 Black Birch Lane said he was speaking as a resident, but noted he was a longtime member of the Board of Assessment Review and that he has “examined thousands of properties in Scarsdale.” He said the retaining walls will “seriously devalue the Nadler property.” Berg added, “This project is a poster child for everything that’s wrong with spec housing development in Scarsdale,” saying, “I strongly object.”
Following public comment, Cetron said it was clear Ciarletta wasn’t getting any yes votes — projects need 4 of 6 BAR members in favor to pass — so he asked Ciarletta if he was willing to move the pool or find a way to have a “smaller, less intrusive wall.” Ciarletta said the walls were for “horizontal expansion of the rear yard” and asserted there were a “lot of false claims” made that he was not going to address. He soon said the pool location was considered in other locations, but can’t be moved from where he has proposed it to be. One BAR member suggested a different shape or smaller pool project.
Cetron said the property owners “may both have to make certain accommodations,” but said to Ciarletta, “You can’t totally bend this land to your will.”