Yes, the Town can.
The Chappaqua Board of Education has questioned whether the Town can lawfully regulate the number of bedrooms in multi-family housing that could be developed in the Chappaqua hamlet under a form-based zoning ordinance. The answer to this question must start with a brief history lesson.
In 1972, the owners of a 50-acre parcel of property abutting Route 117 and Old Farm Road in New Castle requested a zoning change to permit the construction of a condominium development. At the time, the New Castle Zoning Code did not allow multi-family dwellings anywhere in the Town. When the Town Board declined to hold a public hearing on the application, the property owners sued, claiming the Town’s zoning was unconstitutional.
The resulting litigation eventually reached New York’s highest court, which issued the landmark decision known as Berenson v. Town of New Castle. Decided in 1975, Berenson established a two-part test for determining the validity of any zoning ordinance. The first branch of the Berenson test asks whether a zoning ordinance has provided a “properly balanced and well-ordered plan” for the community. The second branch of the Berenson test asks whether a zoning ordinance has taken regional housing needs into consideration.
After further litigation, an appellate court held that New Castle’s zoning ordinance flunked the Berenson test. The court explained:
[The trial court] gave failing grades to the town on both branches of the [Berenson] test, finding first that the existing housing array does not satisfy the present needs of the town and, second, that there exists a regional need for multi-family housing which is not being met by either the Town of New Castle or its neighboring communities in Northern Westchester County.
The appellate court ordered the Town to amend its zoning ordinance to cure its Berenson violation within 6 months. Although the Town had already tried to address the problem by enacting zoning amendments for the Chappaqua busines hamlet to allow more multi-family housing, the court criticized this effort as ineffective and half-hearted. The court observed that the Town’s zoning amendments could not be realistically expected to produce more than 27 units and created the appearance of a municipality being told to “accept a leper colony into its midst.”
In 1979, the Town enacted new zoning amendments that created several opportunities to develop multi-family housing within the Town, including a zoning district within the Chappaqua business hamlet known as the “MFR-C” district. With respect to density, the MFR-C district established minimum lot area requirements for different dwelling unit configurations:
|Dwelling Unit Size||Minimum Gross Lot Area Requirement|
Per Dwelling Unit (square feet)
|Efficiency (studio) apartment||2,200|
The MFR-C also established density limitations with respect to maximum building coverage (20%) and maximum development coverage (35%). Density incentives were available if the developer provided certain additional features, such as senior citizen or low-to-moderate income housing.
The constitutionality of the Town’s MFR-C district and other zoning amendments were challenged in a subsequent lawsuit, Blitz v. Town of New Castle. This time, however, the Town passed the Berenson test.
The MFR-C district remains in the New Castle Town Code to this day, 37 years after Blitz v. Town of New Castle was decided, with the same basic purpose:
[T]o provide the opportunity for and encourage the development of energy efficient multifamily housing in and adjacent to the business center of Chappaqua Hamlet on sites served by public sewer and water and with the most convenient access to shopping, mass transportation, major roads and other community facilities and services. It is the Town’s further objective that the MFR-C District provide both the opportunity for and encourage the construction of housing at relatively moderate prices.
Town Code § 60-410(H)(2).
Within the Chappaqua business hamlet, the Town Code also allows accessory apartments in the B-R and B-RP Districts – which covers the North Greeley corridor. Notably, the Town Code already restricts residential density within these zoning districts by limiting the number of bedrooms within an accessory apartment. Specifically, the Town Code states --
Individual dwelling may be of the efficiency, studio, one-bedroom or two-bedroom type, but shall not contain more than two bedrooms. The Planning Board shall have the authority to determine which rooms may function as bedrooms for the purpose of determining compliance with this requirement and may include any room other than bathrooms, kitchens, entrance ways, foyers and closets under the definition of a bedroom.
Town Code § 60-410(H)(6)(a) (emphasis added).
As this history shows, the Town’s zoning ordinance has sought to encourage residential development in the Chappaqua hamlet, subject to density restrictions that have included limitations on bedroom configurations for accessory apartments, for decades. Other municipalities, such as the Village of Ardsley, the Town of Chester, and the Village of Ossining, have zoning districts where the number of bedrooms within dwelling units is regulated. In the North Greeley corridor, which is presently the focus of the Town Board’s form-based zoning initiative, the Town’s Zoning Code already establishes a 2-bedroom cap for accessory apartments.
The Town could establish similar regulations in a form-based zoning code aimed at creating a mix of residential units that aligns with current housing demands. For example, the Town’s 2017 Comprehensive Plan states that “[f]acilitating a range of housing options in or in the hamlets or surrounding areas would provide a diverse set of residents, from young professionals and low-income families to workforce and senior populations, with access to amenities and services.” (Goal 3). In determining how to best achieve this goal, regulating bedroom configurations within residential buildings (e.g., the ratio of 1-bedroom vs. 2-bedroom units) would be a perfectly viable option.
This should not be surprising or controversial. Zoning is a legislative act for which lawmakers are afforded extremely broad latitude to determine how best to promote public health, safety, and welfare of their constituents. To those ends, zoning ordinances may address housing characteristics such as the mix of bedroom configurations within residential buildings, so long as they do so reasonably and without regulating the familial relationship of the occupants.