After a resident submitted a public comment criticizing a vote to approve a new apartment tower, they received a message from a city employee threatening legal action against them.
The non-stop approval of variances to exempt over-sized buildings from current city ordinances leaves many residents frustrated. Some have banded together in an effort to sway local government through collective action. Another method to express one’s concerns individually is by leaving public comments on projects through the City of Yonkers website.
There are two volunteer boards at the forefront of approving new developments: the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals. The ZBA grants variances to city ordinances and the Planning Board votes to approve site plans; advancing new construction projects. Both boards meet monthly, and while they allow for online comment submissions, only the ZBA allows public speakers at its meetings.
A resident’s caustic comment
One active resident submitted such a comment to the Planning Board. After months of speaking out against a particular proposal in south Yonkers, they exhaustedly left a final comment after the board granted the project’s approval in June. The full comment reads…
We thank the board members for their questions and concerns about this detrimental project. However when it came to time to stand behind your concerns you fell to political pressure.
We emphasize the traffic concerns and I would take this time to say that traffic and pedestrian deaths will occur both during construction and throughout the life span of this project.
Your approval of this project will make the members of this board bear responsibility for the loss of those lives.
You may feel this a harsh criticism and that is true. It however is justified. Only one member of the board actually stood up for the citizens of Yonkers.
The government responds
These volunteer, mayor-appointed boards are each represented by a City of Yonkers employee. The government worker tasked to this board promptly responded to the resident’s submission. While reserving the right to not publish the comment at all, this employee also issued a warning. Their lengthy response is below.
Thank you for your note and continued participation in the Planning Board’s review process of the proposed redevelopment […].
While most of your comments have been presented rationally and reasonably, we will not standby and accept your chosen words directed at the members of Planning Board in the message below; specifically, your threat of the board bearing any form of responsibility for hypothetical injuries to persons as a result of a site plan approval decision. That statement is both not just harsh but dangerously inappropriate.
The Planning Board is a trained and experienced group of volunteers who reside in City of Yonkers. If you watched yesterday’s meeting you would have heard every single board member reinforce their concerns for the reduction in parking that was previously granted by the Zoning Board of Appeals and their concerns for neighborhood street parking. The Planning Board was presented with a site plan application that came with variances previously granted by the Zoning Board of Appeals, the acting Lead Agency for the environmental review of the project. Given your participation in this review process we would assume that you are aware of this as well.
As stated very clearly in the Planning Board site plan resolution, the Zoning Board of Appeals was examined both the Traffic Impact Study and supplemental parking analysis in connection with the proposed development. These documents were also thoroughly reviewed by professional staff in the Department of Engineering during the Zoning Board’s review process.
If the applicant pursues this development and commences site work, they will be held to every applicable standard and legal requirement for the maintenance and protection of pedestrians and traffic throughout the construction process and the building must be constructed in accordance with the Planning Board resolution with conditions. The Department of Engineering and Department of Housing and Buildings shall enforce these requirements.
If you feel the need to express your frustrations about this development please be sure you choose your audience more carefully. Any additional correspondence claiming or threatening the Planning Board will be forward to the City of Yonkers Law Department for immediate review and the necessary enforcement.
The majority of that response is a factual explanation of the organizations and the processes they follow for project approvals. If the ZBA grants the variances, there is little the Planning Board can do to reject site plans with cause. However, the response still shocked its civically-engaged recipient.
Firstly, the resident was surprised to learn that their submitted comment could be withheld from publication. This is an official government forum, not a private business. And since residents are not allowed to speak at Planning Board meetings, these emailed comments are the only way to express one’s opinions. Therefore, apart from any overt vulgarity or literal threat, residents should have the right to not be censored.
But, beyond the free speech restriction was the ominous warning of punitive legal action. While the government employee references a threat to the planning board, no such threat was levied. Claiming that an organization may bear responsibility for a potential accident is not a violent threat to that object of that criticism. Therefore, what law was the resident breaking and what would be the punishment?
Off-the-cuff remark or official statement?
We contacted The City of Yonkers Department of Planning & Development for more information on this exchange. They immediately redirected us to the Director of Communications for the city. In a lengthy email, we summarized the situation, cited both texts, and asked a few basic questions. We wanted to know if this city employee had consulted with any managers, the referenced Law Department, or the Communication Department before issuing their response. Ultimately, we wished to know if the City of Yonkers condoned this correspondence to a resident. At this time, we have received no response from anyone on this matter.
It seems that temperatures continue to rise of both the people of Yonkers and their government over the massive structural changes occurring throughout the city. But, City Hall trying to stifle the speech of residents may end up producing the opposite of its desired effect.