Suburbs rejecting previous remedies for city sprawl Townhouse projects starting to draw heavy opposition

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SLOATSBURG, N.Y. - The law people cite most often in this village these days is the one that says precisely what kind of housing is allowed: single-family houses on lots of 40,000 square feet, single-family houses on 30,000 square feet, single-family houses on 15,000 square feet and single-family houses on 10,000 square feet. Period.

The word "apartment" appears only to describe something that may exist on the second floor of a single-family house, and then only by permit. Nowhere do the words "big condominium townhouse project" appear, and villagers have been crowding town meetings this spring to keep it that way.

They are trying to derail a plan by Mayor Samuel Abate to bring the first multifamily housing to a village filled with people who came here to get away from the idea.

Sloatsburgers are willing to have change and growth - to a point, said Becky Kern, a leader of the Little Town Forum for the Historic Preservation of Sloatsburg, a group formed to resist Abate.

"We don't want change that will bring us to a future of jammed roads, overcrowded schools, vinyl-clad boxes piled 3] stories high and a shopping center that looks like every other strip mall," she said.

Change in mood

This view puts Kern and her allies squarely in the mainstream of a national reaction against high-density rowhouse developments like the one K. Hovnanian Enterprises, the biggest townhouse developer in the country, hopes to build in Sloatsburg.

Their opposition seems a far cry from the early acceptance of suburban townhouses, when they first began appearing in large numbers in the 1970s, as sensible, affordable and - because they reduced sprawl - environmentally friendly starter homes for young couples, or as step-down homes for empty-nesters.

But as the number of townhouses has increased, complaints have grown that townhouses clog roads, send more children into local schools than had been promised, depress the value of single-family houses and too frequently become rental units.

The supervisors of Prince William County, Va., concerned about rapid growth, approved a zoning plan this spring that reduces the number of future townhouses that may be built by 10,000 units, or 40 percent. It did so by creating a zone excluding townhouses in the county's western reaches.

Prince George's County has passed a law banning townhouses in certain areas where schools are crowded.

The supervisors were responding to widespread complaints that townhouses were driving down property values and crowding schools.

Two years ago, Brian Sheerin won a seat on the town board in the suburban Pittsburgh town of Ben Avon on the strength of a last-minute write-in vote from neighbors opposed to a small, 15-unit townhouse project on Dickson Avenue.

And in an early example that could have come from nearly anywhere, the City Council of San Leandro, Calif., rejected a 36-unit rowhouse project in the northern part of town in 1992 despite a consensus among environmentalists that by filling vacant space in a built-up area, the project was environmentally sensible.

'Puts a scare into people'

"I don't care how it is designed, where it is located, what it costs and who is developing it," Bradley Inman, a real estate writer, said in a commentary for the San Francisco Examiner. "High-density housing almost always puts a scare into people who live in nearby single-family neighborhoods."

As in many places, Sloatsburg residents opposed to townhouse developments said that single-family projects would be fine. Kern pointed to a planned development of large houses in Tuxedo, the next village north along Route 17.

"Why can't we have that, and attract the same level of housing?" Kern asked. "They would not have to be $350,000 houses - $250,000 would be fine."

The reasons for the suburbs' nearly universal resistance to townhouses is not hard to find, said James Hughes, dean of the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. Prosperity and aging boomers have brought a change in the housing ideal, away from the "free and easy" life promised by townhouse advertising 20 years ago, to a more settled outlook.

"The dominant force in residential land-use matters is the baby-boom generation, and to a large extent they have now settled into communities where they are in for the long haul," Hughes said.

"That's where they have decided to raise their children, that's where they made that big investment, and they are not only intent on protecting their investment, they are also getting nostalgic, looking back at grandma's house and grandma's community of single-family houses in a small-town setting - even if they themselves grew up in much tackier surroundings," Hughes said.

Merle Huseth, president of K. Hovnanian Northeast Inc., said: "With most towns, they just don't want anything that may generate schoolchildren. They won't say that, but they'll whisper it to you - they don't want any kind of density that may give you school-age children and they don't want any kind of housing that will generate any more traffic."

More than 1,300 Sloatsburg residents, including 800 registered voters, signed a petition this spring opposing the mayor's plan for a "floating zone," which would allow the mayor and the village trustees to change zoning over a broad reach of the village on their own, bypassing the Zoning Board of Appeals. Five large areas could be thus rezoned for high-density housing, bringing in 700 to 800 new homes and 2,000 residents.

At one site, K. Hovnanian Enterprises has filed plans for a 340-unit townhouse project - on a tract that had been intended for 66 single-family houses - and it is holding out a sweetener to the town: a sewage treatment plant that would handle both the new housing and most of the Route 17 business district.

And after 18 years in office, Abate has learned how to make things go his way.

Over fierce opposition, he merged the police forces of his village and the town of Ramapo and sold the village's water supply system to a private water company. When asked what would happen to Sloatsburg if he failed to get his way on the floating zone, Abate was polite but firm.

"I don't have any idea that it won't happen," he replied.

'We need a greater mix'

"We need a greater mix of housing so our young people will be able to stay in town," Abate said, noting that the village's population had not budged since 1990. "We need to expand our tax base, because costs keep rising and the demand for services keeps rising. And we need that sewage treatment plant."

Sloatsburg's single-family homes are along the Route 17 corridor north of the New Jersey line in Rockland County, and in little valleys and hillsides in the Ramapo Mountains, which form the village's western wall.

A fair number of young families have moved there from New Jersey and Westchester to find inexpensive homes - average price still only $148,000 - in an atmosphere that has more of Vermont than a downstate New York commuter town, barely an hour from Manhattan on the Short Line bus.

But while its residential areas are fetchingly rustic, Sloatsburg's main street, along Route 17, is a gap-toothed stretch of gas stations and shops, without a distinct downtown and lacking any of the Main Street charm other rural towns have striven to achieve. Opponents of the townhouse project say mass development would only add to the downscale look of their town's business stretch.

Kern and her husband, Greg, bought their old, gabled Victorian fixer-upper seven years ago and now have two little girls. Their home on Eagle Valley Road stands almost across from where the entrance to a potential floating zone development could descend.

"I want growth - I want development," Kern said. "But not condos." Her neighbor, Bill Berntsen, expressed the surprise many feel at being unable to stop a project that is manifestly unpopular.

"Now you know your future is not your own," he said. "It's in a developer's office."

! Pub date: 6/28/98

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