In Westchester, Natural Gas Becomes a Rare(r) Commodity

Building in Westchester — whether a modest new home, a downtown apartment building, or a sprawling commercial complex — isn’t easy. There’s financing to secure, local regulations to follow, and blueprints to draft. Traditionally, though, developers have been able take for granted access to public utilities: The faucet will provide water; the breaker panel will draw electricity; the furnace will churn out heat.

A recent dilemma, however, has upended that expectation: Across Westchester, demand for natural gas has outstripped supply. As a result, Con Edison in January announced a natural gas moratorium: No more new residential, commercial, or industrial hookups in any but the northernmost portions of Westchester. (Existing customers are unaffected.) The moratorium took effect on March 15, and ConEd announced later it will be lifted in late 2023.

Allan Drury, a spokesman for Con Ed, says the moratorium is the result of constraints on the interstate transmission pipelines that bring in gas from other parts of the country. “It didn’t sneak up on us,” he says, noting Con Ed anticipated the problem.

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To compensate, “we’ll continue to pursue non-pipeline solutions,” Drury told Westchester Magazine. Those solutions range from customer incentives to conserve energy, to heat pumps, to potential facilities that turn organic waste into natural gas.

“[We’ll] support any pipeline proposals that could get state, local, and federal approvals,” Drury continues. But pipelines are even more difficult to build than Westchester developments: They face opposition from environmental activists and state lawmakers.

(In a recent New York Times story, a spokesperson for Governor Andrew Cuomo attributed the moratorium not to the state’s reluctance to build new pipelines but rather to “poor planning by the utilities.”)

At a NYS Public Service Commission hearing in February, County Executive George Latimer was one of a long line of public officials and others who protested the moratorium vehemently. “This move to abruptly and quickly halt new gas-line hookups in Westchester County will be a tremendous blow to our economic development,” the county executive said. “This blow is particularly serious in our major cities, where development has been the base of their economic revival efforts.” Now that the moratorium has gone into effect, the county executive’s office says Latimer is actively working toward solutions that will enable these projects to move forward.

MaryJane Shimsky, a Westchester County Legislator representing Rivertowns that include Dobbs Ferry and Irvington, has also been an outspoken critic of Con Ed’s approach.

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“I’m very concerned about the moratorium itself, the way it came down, and the complete lack of planning on the part of Con Ed,” she says. “You don’t wait until the last minute to tell local governments, who are relying on development to increase their tax bases.”

Latimer and Shimsky’s concern isn’t hypothetical: Multimillion-dollar developments are underway in many Westchester downtowns, including New Rochelle, Yonkers, and White Plains. Joseph Apicella, a managing director at Pelham-based MacQuesten Development, is one of the developers affected; his company is building affordable-housing developments across Lower Westchester.

“There’s no time to react,” Apicella says. “It causes you to have to go back to the drawing board. To completely eliminate the gas option is quite a burden,” he continues. “I predict it’s going to have a chilling effect on whether developers want to develop in this county.”

Apicella says the problem is compounded by the current boom market: “There are tens of thousands of housing units either planned or under construction in this county.”

Other specific developments being impacted include New Rochelle developments at 327-339 Huguenot Street and 33 Centre Avenue, by Huguenot Partners LLC. Developer Daniel Hollander told the New Rochelle Industrial Development Agency (IDA) in March that having to install heating systems that can be switched to an energy source other than gas will add about $1 million to the project’s cost.

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Under the auspices of the Business Council of Westchester (BCW), Apicella and other local developers — along with local land-use officials and affordable-housing advocates — have formed a 16-member natural-gas-moratorium task force.

“The goal of the task force is to not lose the momentum that we have, by saying to developers, ‘You have to scale back or go back to the drawing board,’” explains John Ravitz, executive vice president of the BCW. “How are we to continue to support the projects that are going to create hundreds of private-sector jobs, bring in revenue for the municipalities and the county as a whole?”

Ravitz says the task force came together swiftly: “Literally, a few minutes after [Con Ed’s announcement], we started getting calls from the major developers in Westchester.” Since then, the task force has been in talks with Con Ed and researching short-term and long-term solutions.

Ravitz and others are skeptical that non-pipeline solutions alone can close the demand gap. He stresses that many of those solutions — like the natural-gas production facilities or installing a spate of heat pumps — could take years and also face various forms of opposition.

“The bottom line is: To solve this, we’re going to need a package of both renewables and expanding the existing pipeline,” Ravitz says.

Freelance writer Kevin Zawacki is a frequent contributor to Westchester Magazine and 914INC.

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