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The Real Problem with Going Green in Scarsdale

Can innovative, money-saving options can actually work in a Norman Rockwell town?

A few years back some friends offered me the chance to do a "pick and flip." (What is this? It was the hot way to make some fast cash.) I jumped at the opportunity.  For nearly a year I lived as a day laborer working at a site on Heathcote Road.

Months of standing hip-deep in mud working a sump pump taught me a few things about Scarsdale, and the hoops through which contractors have to jump just to put up an outhouse. The upside, I suppose, was I had to pay capital gains that year.

There is one fact that everyone should know about Scarsdale: it's a swamp.  No, really. White Plains to Eastchester, Scarsdale is all swampland. Go dig a three-foot hole and you'll have a well. But I wouldn't drink from it, because most of our ground water is contaminated with leakage from broken heating oil tanks that were built in the fifties. 

Now we have huge cement foundations with rubber sprayed on the sides (Rubberwall) to keep the water out – at least for houses built in the last fifteen years or so.  So the next time you're sitting in your relatively new house and you wish you lived in that big colonial across the street, remember that the residents there wish their basement didn't flood every spring. Water damage, floods, and cracked foundations keep the local contractors in business.

I recently attended a seminar about "Green Housing options" in the Girl Scout house, and realized that many of these "options" just aren't realistic in a town that is dead-set on looking like a Normal Rockwell painting.

Solar panels facing the street? Complaint city. And getting permission for the intensive digging and drilling associated with geothermal energy systems will not be an easy feat.

The absolute most common problem with doing any sort of construction in Scarsdale, as many of us know from experience, is the Planning Board. The same bunch of folks who tell you that you can't have a satellite dish on the front of your house, or a front-facing skylight, are the ones who get the final say on all town building plans – even the ones that are environmentally friendly and can save you money in this recessed economy.

So if "Going Green" is the new homeowner trend, how in the heck can we actually implement it in Scarsdale?

I tried calling the Planning Board, but got no real answer, just an e-mail from Nunzio Pietrosanti, the building inspector and Village engineer, and a man many of us have come to less-than-pretty interactions with.

"To answer your question , please be advised that geothermal systems and solar panels are allowed in the Village of Scarsdale and Building Permits with drawings are required. In the case of Solar Panels, Board of Architectural Review approval is required before a building permit can be issued.  There is no special incentive offered by the Village for these installations."

So, more red tape. From my experiences as a contractor, the Board of Architectural Review is even tougher on some grounds than the Planning Board, and is going to hold up any project for at least a month.

Who are these people that control everything built in the town? Volunteers. Yes, a bunch of very specialized volunteers, appointed by the mayor.

According to the town website:

"Each member serves for five years, with one member's term expiring each year. The Board's public sessions are held at Village Hall, generally on the fourth Wednesday of each month, except that only one meeting will be held during July and August."

Having the mayor simply appoint board members with the trustees' approval sounds like a very political way of doing things such as home improvements, but we are dealing with an ideal of Norman Rockwell – whose paintings were bolstered by a sugary dose of imagination – for a town image. But like we always say, "don't rock the boat."  (I suspect that very few changes have happened because of this long-held attitude in town.)

The one topic in the meeting I did think was worthwhile was high-efficiency insulation. This has been the idea behind insulation for years, ever since the invention of the mud brick. 

The new angle is the insulation itself; high-efficiency materials that are airtight and waterproof create a better "heat envelope."

Think of a cup suspended over a candle – the air inside the cup is warmer that the air around it.  Things like loose insulation, uninsulated walls, ceilings and joints create holes in your envelope, allowing heat to escape. 

You turn the heat up, yet it stays cool, and the meter spins away all your hard-earned money. New insulating products such as foam and rock wool can eliminate these gaps.

The same can be done with your air conditioning. If cool air travels through a duct in the attic (which is a blazing 100 degrees in the summer), how cold will it be when it gets to its destination?  Simple sheets of foam duct insulation can be purchased at Lowes or Home Depot, and installed in minutes.

Both of these solutions are cheap, easy, fast, and simple to understand. 

Any local contractor would be more than happy to help with these improvements as they don't require any approval other than your own. 

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