YORKTOWN, N.Y. – Though many residents have lauded the benefits of Shrub Oak International School, a private, for-profit educational facility for people afflicted with autism, several neighbors of the property are asking the planning board to reject one aspect of the proposal—a helistop.
The site plan for the school, estimated to house 300 people ranging from adolescence to young adult, includes a helistop on the southern portion of the 127-acre property. Representatives say the helistop would be used about one to three times per month for emergencies and family visitations.
At last week’s public hearing, Shrub Oak International School brought an aviation expert who attempted to ease concerns expressed by the planning board and neighbors regarding noise of the small- to medium-sized helicopters. Raymond A. Syms of HeliExperts International said helicopters of this size, flying the minimum required 1,000 feet, make little noise when compared to other sounds heard in a suburban environment: chainsaws, lawnmowers, cars and trucks. He also said pilots are trained to “fly neighborly,” keeping noise to a minimum when in a residential zone.
Most residents who spoke at the public hearing were not buying it, insisting that helicopters are loud, distracting and unnecessary.
Resident Jay Kopstein said if the helistop is truly for emergencies, a permit isn’t needed. Helicopters have authority to land anywhere at any time if the situation calls for it, Kopstein said. The only need for a special permit would be to transport passengers and cargo, he added.
Resident Francine DiBernardo said Yorktown is a quiet community and frequent helicopter use would be “disturbing to the peace.” The only other helistop in Yorktown is at IBM.
“I’m not in favor of the helipad because I think we already have quite a bit of noise pollution from the air, at least in my neighborhood,” DiBernardo said. “A helistop is not for Yorktown Heights.”
Resident Mark Lieberman said the noise could be harmful to both the autistic residents of the school as well as the livestock (six horses and 30 sheep) that would be on the property. If the special permit for the helistop is granted, Lieberman requested it include conditions for frequency and hours of operation (no flying at night).
“Can we get that in writing? Is that a guarantee?” Lieberman said. “Or are rich families going to be flying in and out whenever they want to?”
Resident Philip Robbins questioned the need for a helistop for emergencies, saying Hudson Valley Hospital Center is less than 10 minutes away. He also said school representatives have been inconsistent when talking about its uses.
Planning board member John Kincart said the hospital in Cortlandt that Robbins referred to does not have a trauma center. The nearest one is in Valhalla, he said.
Another resident suggested the owners of the school, Michael Koffler and his son, Brian, would be the primary users of the helicopter. Michael Koffler is the owner of K3 Learning, a Manhattan-based education company that owns a network of more than 60 for-profit schools in New York, Georgia, Florida and North Carolina, according to its website.
Attorney David S. Steinmetz, representing Shrub Oak International School, said any approval of the helistop would likely come with conditions, similar to the ones Lieberman requested.
Acknowledging that emergency situations allow for helicopters to land just about anywhere, Steinmetz said, it is still preferable to land on a helistop. In meetings with local first responders, who would have access to the school’s helistop, Steinmetz said all expressed their enthusiasm and support for it.
“Go analyze the safety hazards that they encounter landing in a situation without a hardened surface, properly cleared, properly analyzed and lit appropriately,” Steinmetz said. “That’s one of the appealing factors of what the Kofflers were offering up here.”
Steinmetz also said the Kofflers would not personally use the helistop and there would be no helicopter associated with Shrub Oak International School.
“No, [Michael Koffler] does not travel by helicopter and I had indicated earlier that was certainly not the intention or the desire,” Steinmetz said.
Steinmetz said the helistop is not “essential,” but would be beneficial to the school and community. He said there is no helistop in northern Yorktown, which is detrimental to first responders.
In the most recent site plan, the helistop has been relocated slightly north of where it was. Steinmetz said this was done for two reasons: to fully comply with setback requirements of the zoning ordinance, and to readjust the flight patterns so that helicopters would not fly directly overhead of the ballfields at the neighboring Granite Knolls Park, which is still in the conceptual phase.
“No one wants to interrupt a lacrosse game in Yorktown,” Steinmetz said jokingly.
The school has agreed to contribute to the restoration of Granite Knolls Park. The school would also allow residents to access the park through a driveway on its property, Steinmetz said.
Though the helistop dominated much of the two-hour public hearing, residents expressed concern with other aspects of the school, such as the qualifications of the its 350-500 employees. Resident Paul Moskowitz said this is a legitimate question to ask in light of the drug overdose death of a teen resident and subsequent closing of Constellations Recovery, a sober living residence approved by the town board in March 2015.
Steinmetz said the town does not have the right to regulate the operations of the private business, but that he would be more than happy to share its internal program with anyone who asks, “Because these folks are actually quite proud of it.”
Resident Patrick Francois, who said he worked with autistic students in his educational career, also questioned the operations of the facility, saying the facility appears to be self-contained rather than community-based.
Steinmetz said many autistic people living with families or in a community-based situation do not receive the 24-hour supervision that Shrub Oak International School would provide.
“Nobody is coming to the Shrub Oak International School unless their family has determined that this private institution can offer something that they can’t get in a community-based facility,” Steinmetz said.
The annual tuition rate for the school, which would be located at the former site of the Phoenix House, would be $145,000 for its day-school program and $300,000 for its boarding program, according to its website. If all goes according to plan, Steinmetz said, the school would open in September 2018.
Planning board member Anthony Tripodi questioned the potential odor of the livestock, which, Steinmetz said, are proven to help people with autism. Steinmetz said the livestock area is in the furthest possible location from neighboring homes. Steinmetz said it’s in the school’s interest to keep smells and noise to a minimum.
“There are 300 residents, 300 folks who are going to be living on this property who are as entitled to as quiet and non-malodorous and peaceful an existence as everybody else in the town of Yorktown,” Steinmetz said.
Ron Hill, a traffic consultant with H2M Architects and Engineers, said the biggest changes in traffic would be during the peak morning and evening hours, when the majority school employees are arriving and departing. Only dozens would remain at the school overnight.
When studying the traffic, Hill said, there were virtually no comparisons for what Shrub Oak International School is attempting to do. To project the school’s traffic, he combined the flow of the Anderson Center for Autism in Staatsburg with the work schedules of the Shrub Oak school.
He said most intersections would be able to handle the additional traffic, with the exception of Stoney Street and East Main Street. He said the intersection may need a traffic signal, but that it needs further evaluation.
The town board has already approved a traffic signal for the intersection, but cost is preventing its installation. Steinmetz said the school would be happy to contribute its “fair share” for the signal.
Project engineer Steve Hyman discussed improvements to the property, incuding to the entrances, buildings, stormwater, parking lot and traffic flow through the property.
Proposed additions to the property are: a porte-cochère at the main entrance; an addition to a southern building, which would include a pool; and two barn structures for the livestock.
Hyman said parking would increase from 90 spaces to 344. The additional parking would be added to the current parking area.
Renee Marcus of H2M Architects said there would also be a near-full window replacement, lighting upgrades, directional signage, marketing signage, landscape lighting and perimeter plantings to give it a “less institutional look.”
Inside the building, there would be a security system upgrade, ADA (American Disabilities Act) upgrades, electrical upgrades, fire alarm upgrades and as much insulation added “as possible,” Marcus said.
Since a portion of the property lies in the New York City watershed, stormwater plans must be finalized with the Department of Environmental Protection.
The property was once home to the Phoenix House Academy, a teen drug rehab center that closed in 2015. The 127-acre campus was built in 1954 as the site of Loyola Seminary, which was owned by the Archdiocese of New York.
Steinmetz said there are still religious artifacts at the property, which will be preserved and distributed to nearby religious institutions.
The school is slated to receive tax breaks from the town and county, but resident Tony Grasso said the taxes would still be significant. He also said many of the jobs created by the school could be filled by local individuals.
“Look at the whole picture,” Grasso said. “Let’s not look at segments of it.”
Resident Tom Dunn also offered a more positive outlook of the school. A father to an autistic son, Dunn said there are legitimate concerns but they can be resolved.
“I just want to thank the Kofflers for coming to the town,” Dunn said. “Nobody said anything about that. They could have gone to a lot of other places. There’s always questions. There’s always things to work through. I think we should thank them for being here to some small extent—the jobs, the homes that could be sold, anything that goes with a project of this kind.”
Following public comment, the board voted to close the public hearing. Written comment, which can be submitted to the planning department, was left open for 14 additional days until Monday, May 22.
Planning board Chair Rich Fon thanked the residents for their well-thought-out comments and questions, and said all concerns will be closely examined. Fon said the school had several work sessions with planning board members before the public hearing, and that many issues raised by residents have also been raised by the board.
“This is not a political board. We look at each application that comes in front of us and we look at the warrants,” Fon said. “I, too, live in Shrub Oak. I have some of the same exact concerns that all you have, as do the members of this board.”
The planning board will vote on the site plan, the stormwater plan, a special-use permit to allow a private school in a residential zone, and a special-use permit for the helistop.
Planning Director John Tegeder said the board will analyze the comments and questions, and refine details of the plan before voting in “a month or so.”