FASNY to submit reduced school proposal after settlement with White Plains

By Ryan Deffenbaugh

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An agreement between the city of White Plains and the French-American School of New York will create a temporary ceasefire in what a state Supreme Court judge called a “war of attrition” between the city and school over its proposal to build a new central campus in a White Plains neighborhood.

The White Plains Common Council voted on Sept. 6 to accept a stipulation of settlement agreement with FASNY that will allow the school to submit a new, reduced development plan for the city to consider.

The school’s original plan to construct a $60 million central campus at the former Ridgeway Country Club has been in state Supreme Court since September 2015, after the White Plains Common Council did not reach a needed supermajority vote to close a city road required as part of the plan.

In front of a large audience at City Hall that spread to two overflow rooms, the council by a 4-3 vote accepted an agreement with FASNY that will put the school’s lawsuit on hold while it submits its reduced plan.

The plan eliminates FASNY’s previously proposed lower school — nursery through fifth grade —reducing the proposed school population from 950 students to 640 and building square footage by 35 percent.

With the scaled-back plan, the FASNY project would essentially start fresh. The school will again be required to submit to a full environmental and zoning review by the city.

In 2011, FASNY bought the former Ridgeway Country Club for $11 million and unveiled plans to consolidate its Larchmont, Scarsdale and Mamaroneck campuses into a new facility on the property. The school’s original plan for the five-building campus included students from pre-school through 12th grade and a 78-acre public park on the former golf course that would be maintained by the school.

White Plains Mayor Thomas Roach stressed at the Sept. 6 meeting that accepting the stipulation agreement did not mean the council was delivering any verdict on the actual reduced proposal.

“This is simply holding the current litigation in abeyance while we consider an application which they have every right to make with or without a stipulation,” he said. “It doesn’t mean the council is taking any position as to this proposal.”

In the new plan, FASNY’s proposed conservation easement has been decreased from 78 acres to 51 acres, which the school in a statement said reflects the planned reduction in student population and building size. FASNY filed for two easements with the city last week, one for the 51-acre conservation tract and another for a pedestrian and bike pathway that will connect to Robinhood Road in the city.

Hathaway Lane would also remain open under the revised plan, after its closure became a sticking point during the first application. FASNY filed its lawsuit in September 2015 after the White Plains Common Council failed to reach a supermajority vote needed to close the city road a month earlier. Without approval for the road closure, the council did not bring FASNY’s site plan proposal and application for a special use permit to a vote.

In an April 19 decision, state Supreme Court Justice Joan B. Lefkowitz called the city’s handling of FASNY’s application “farcical” and denied a motion from the city to dismiss the school’s lawsuit.

Council member John Martin, who voted for the settlement with Roach and council members Beth Smayda and John Kirkpatrick, cited the strong language of the decision and the nearly $200,000 the city has spent in legal fees as reasons to vote for the settlement.

“Can anybody have a doubt as to which way the trial court would come out on this one when it finally does reach a decision on the merits, at least at the Supreme Court level?” Martin asked after quoting from Lefkowitz’s decision. “I don’t have a doubt.”

Council Member Nadine Hunt-Robinson, who voted against the settlement with council members Milagros Lecuona and Dennis Krolian, said the cost of legal representation shouldn’t affect the council’s thinking about the proposal.

“Because you were sued does not mean you buckle for the sake of saving litigation costs,” Hunt-Robinson said. “If you incur costs, you incur costs to fight for a just result.”

FASNY’s plan has been strongly opposed by White Plains residents near the golf course property, led by the Gedney Association, a group representing the Gedney Farms neighborhood. The group has fought the project over concerns that it is too big for the neighborhood and would cause traffic and drainage issues.

Meanwhile, White Plains Neighbors ACT, a group in favor of the project that says it represents about 800 residents, has urged the council to approve the project, arguing that the nature preserve and new school would improve life for residents.

By the terms of the settlement, FASNY must submit its new application within seven weeks of the stipulation of settlement’s approval. The city is required to hold a public hearing on the application within 75 days of receiving it and should vote on the plan no later than 45 days after the end of the public hearing or approval of the proposal’s stormwater pollution prevention plan, according to the settlement.

The court will oversee the city council’s review of the project, including monthly conferences with the parties.

In a statement, FASNY Chairperson Andrea Colombel said she expects the state court to sign off on the stipulation of settlement agreement in the next few days.

“Tonight’s vote is long overdue and represents a win-win for the city and the FASNY community,” Colombel said. “All parties can now put aside costly litigation and concentrate on obtaining final approvals for a compromise school plan.”

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About the author

Ryan Deffenbaugh covers energy, education, food and beverage and the Sound Shore for the Westchester County Business Journal. He previously worked for Westchester Magazine and The Citizen daily newspaper (Auburn, N.Y.). He started with the Westchester County Business Journal in March 2016.

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