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Spearheading a Project While Navigating Through Various Government Agencies

Bronxville, Yonkers, Westchester County

Feb. 17, 2015

One day, Smith and two co-op colleagues were walking down Fifth Avenue on the way to a meeting with the co-op's bank, HSBC. Suddenly, a figurative lightbulb blazed above Smith's head. The board had set up a mortgage retirement trust fund before the floods, a mechanism for paying off the balloon payment on a $6 million interest-only mortgage. Would it be possible, Smith asked, to collateralize that trust fund — that is, to borrow against it?

Absolutely, responded their banker. HSBC offered the co-op a line of credit up to $1.2 million. At the same time, however, Hudson Valley Bank offered Brooklands a $1.5 million line of credit with more favorable terms, leading the co-op to eventually switch banks. The engineer's plans and the financing were in place. Now came the fun part: going up against a group of nervous neighbors and that Hydra-headed beast known as bureaucracy.

Complex Approval

For the past 15 years, Brooklands has gotten its legal advice from the Yonkers firm of Veneruso, Curto, Schwartz & Curto. In 2003, Steven Accinelli, a Yonkers native and partner in the firm, was assigned to represent Brooklands. A veteran of land-use issues who is familiar with many of the officials in the relevant government agencies, Accinelli didn't foresee major difficulties in winning the necessary approvals for the Brooklands project.

"The request itself is very simple," Accinelli says. "On the face of it, all they needed was a variance to build a taller wall than the zoning laws allowed. But it triggered so many other things because of the nature of the wall and its location."

Because the wall is on land owned by New York State, this ordeal was not going to be a strictly local one. And the wall is a short distance downstream from several residential neighborhoods near Sprain Brook. The people in those neighborhoods — fearful that the wall would cause the brook to back up onto their properties during storms — hired lawyers and an engineer to fight the project.

"They were a major, major cause of delay," Accinelli says. During the next two years, Accinelli would come to view it as "the most complicated approval I've ever worked on."

While Accinelli and the board were dealing with nervous neighbors, zoning boards, planning boards, city councils, Westchester County, the state Department of Transportation — even the Federal Emergency Management Agency — they kept getting blindsided. The county alerted them that a 48-inch cast-iron water pipe from the 19th century that carries water from a Westchester reservoir to New York City was sitting just a few feet beneath the surface of a neighboring county-owned property. Driving piles into the ground could damage that pipe, so a new plan was drawn up to dig a hole, very gently, and pour steel-reinforced concrete into it. That eventually changed as well; the final plan is to build a dirt berm over the area to serve as a wall against incoming floodwater.

Then the state demanded that the co-op put up a $300,000 surety bond or produce a letter of credit to ensure construction would continue if financing collapsed. Hudson Valley Bank agreed to offer a letter of credit, averting disaster at the eleventh hour. "Every week there [has been] a surprise," says board president Smith.

Finally, after a two-year bureaucratic war, the co-op got its building permit on October 4. Preliminary work began before Christmas 2014.

Accinelli, who played traffic cop trying to keep the paperwork moving between the various government agencies, sometimes grew frustrated with the bureaucrats' snail-like pace. "My client would appreciate it," he says, "if they acted more quickly."

Barring unforeseen surprises, the job on the Brooklands flood wall should be completed sometime in the spring — two and a half years after the board's original request for a building permit was first submitted and denied. The operative word here is should.

"We gave up long ago on predicting when this job will get done," Smith says. "The one thing we do know is that this wall will be built."


Adapted from "Face-Off: An Epic Battle at the Brooklands Co-op" by Bill Morris (Habitat, February 2015).

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