If you’re reading this, chances are you’re familiar with the Town Board and its often headline-grabbing actions. But did you know about the town’s nearly two-dozen other boards and committees?
You might not see them at any ribbon cuttings, but the town relies on these hundreds of volunteers, many of whom spend long nights and weekends reviewing issues of signage, zoning, parks, trees, traffic, ethics and more.
Most of these committees are advisory in nature, meaning their members review issues and share their expertise with the decision-makers. However, some of these boards are tasked with making important decisions on behalf of the town.
For example, nearly all new developments, such as Lowe’s, must come before the Planning Board. If plans for these new developments deviate from what’s allowed under the town code, the applicant must then go before the Zoning Board of Appeals, which has the authority to grant variances for things like parking spaces.
Over the next several months, we’ll try and speak with as many of these volunteers as possible to highlight their board and the purpose it serves, so you have a better understanding of how your government works.
Zoning Board of Appeals
This week, we spoke with Gordon Fine, chair of the Zoning Board of Appeals. Fine, a lawyer with offices in Yorktown, has served on the board since 1995 and has been its chair since 2007.
In describing the five-member board’s primary function, Fine said residents or developers come before the Zoning Board when they disagree with the town’s code. It is then the board’s job to decide whether to issue a variance.
“You have to come to the Zoning Board to get it basically overruled,” Fine said.
Essentially, the board is authorizing property owners to do something that is prohibited by town code. Fine said this often causes a lot of confusion and frustration among neighbors.
“One of the biggest misconceptions we get is usually people coming to complain about a neighbor’s application,” he said. “A lot of people don’t understand why if it’s what they call ‘illegal,’ why are we saying they can do it. It’s because it’s our job. It’s why we exist; to overrule the zoning code when we deem it appropriate.”
If not for the Zoning Board, Fine said, “Everybody in the town is stuck with the black-letter law of the building code. You can’t vary from it. So, a lot of times there are things you want to do with your property that you don’t see a problem with and most people wouldn’t see a problem with but for the fact that it violates something in the zoning code.”
There are two types of variances—use variances and area variances. Use variances, Fine explained, are when a property owner wants to use his or her property in a way that deviates from local zoning standards. A land variance, on the other hand, might be required if a shed or garage is too close to the property line.
“There are five factors we have to consider” before granting a variance, Fine said. “Mainly, can the applicant do what they want to do first without needing a variance, perhaps by putting it somewhere else? Or, if we grant it, will it have any detriment to the community? Is it going change the character of the area?”
The concerns of the neighborhood, Fine said, are always considered.
“A lot of times what we’ll try and do if there are problems with people in the neighborhood complaining about something is we’ll try and get them together, say can you guys try and come up with something that everybody could live with before we’re forced to rule on it,” he said. “So, if you could come up with a compromise that makes your neighbors happy, we’d rather see that than us do a ruling that someone’s not going to like.”
In addition to variances, the Zoning Board also issues certain special-use permits.
“If you need a special-use permit for an accessory apartment, that comes before us,” Fine said. “If you want to store a commercial vehicle on the property or residential property, that comes before us. If you want to house chickens on your property, that comes before us.”
Fine said he understands why his board rarely makes the headlines.
“We don’t have as sexy of topics as [the Town Board],” he said. “People don’t tune in to see how high your fence is.”
When asked if he finds volunteering on the board rewarding, Fine said, “I’ve been doing it for 24 years. It’s not for the pension, that’s for sure.”
The Zoning Board of Appeals meets once per month, typically on the fourth Thursday, in Yorktown Town Hall (363 Underhill Ave., Yorktown Heights). Additionally, some applications require the board’s volunteer members to make site visits. These visits occur once a month, usually on a Saturday.