How One Wealthy Neighborhood Got Itself Exempted From State Law

Westchester’s Edgemont community wants to secede from its town — and has scored a legal carveout to let it.

Sam Mellins   ·   January 22, 2024
A green welcome sign superimposed over an aerial suburban shot reads "WELCOME TO Greenburgh," with Greenburgh crossed out, and replaced with "Edgemont."
Edgemont leaders want to secede because parts of Greenburgh's town government "aren't responsible specifically to us." | Illustration: Maia Hibbett

A new law that makes it harder for parts of towns to form independent villages covers all 54,556 square miles of New York state — except for two and a half square miles in Westchester.

Edgemont, a ritzy neighborhood in the town of Greenburgh, has been considering incorporating itself as a village for decades. Pro-incorporation residents didn’t like the new law, so they successfully pressured a loyal network of politicians, including state Senate head Andrea Stewart-Cousins, to add a long-lasting exemption, just for them.

The neighborhood’s pro-incorporation residents say they want greater local control over zoning and tax revenue, as well as the ability to avoid paying for hefty legal settlements the town of Greenburgh has agreed to in recent years. Jeff Sherwin, a leader of the Edgemont Incorporation Committee, told New York Focus that several parts of Greenburgh’s town government “aren’t responsible specifically to us” — driving his group’s desire to set up their own government.

Greenburgh’s leaders, meanwhile, are eager to prevent Edgemont from forming its own village, citing fears that losing the affluent area would cut deeply into Greenburgh’s tax revenue and diminish the services the town is able to provide. Edgemont’s median income is $25,000 higher than that of Greenburgh as a whole, and just one in 10 Edgemont residents is Black or Latino, compared to more than a quarter of Greenburghers.

“Let’s say the wealthy areas of Fifth Avenue would want to break away from New York City because they didn’t want to pay for the services in Harlem,” said Town Supervisor Paul Feiner. “This is really the same thing.”

Under the old rules, it was fairly easy for Edgemont — or any neighborhood in the state — to form its own village. The main requirements were a petition, a public hearing, and a majority vote by the inhabitants of the potential village. Then last year, as the legislature rushed toward the close of session, it passed a law overhauling the process. Now, incorporating a village requires a study examining its impact and approval from a new statewide board.

Lawrence Levy, dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, characterized the law as a positive development overall — especially since it’s not unheard of for villages to fail after incorporating. Potential incorporators are “going to have to have it vetted,” he said, “and I don’t see why that would be a bad thing.”

But it made the leaders of the Edgemont incorporation effort anxious. Sherwin called it “grossly unfair to change the rules in the middle of the process.”

“We talked to our representatives, we hired lobbyists, we did what citizens do.”

—Jeff Sherwin, Edgemont incorporation committee

Luckily for them, the wealthy suburban neighborhood has loyal politicians and lobbyists. Before the bill passed, Assemblymember Amy Paulin, who represents Edgemont — but not the rest of Greenburgh — was echoing Sherwin’s words and bargaining to get her Edgemont constituents exempted.

“We didn’t want to change the rules in the middle of the game,” she told New York Focus.

Paulin secured a promise from Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins — the bill’s sponsor — that it would be changed to create a significant exclusion for Edgemont. The details were hammered out in private, through the secretive chapter amendment process, and approved by the Senate on January 9. The final changes passed the Assembly on Monday and now await Hochul’s signature.

The Greenburgh Town Board and the assemblymember for most of the town, MaryJane Shimsky, were blindsided by the pact when it became public this month.

“All of us from the Town Board were in disbelief,” Town Board member Francis Sheehan told New York Focus. “No one knew what the agreement was between the majority leader and Amy Paulin.”

How this deal was struck is an intriguing case study into the making of an Albany backroom deal shaped by a small group of well connected citizens and legislators who responded to their appeals.

Assemblymember Amy Paulin, in a red jacket, sits between Assemblymembers William Magnarelli and Phillip Steck in the New York State Capitol.
Assemblymember Amy Paulin said the village incorporation law was “targeting my community.” | Assemblymember Amy Paulin

Edgemont already had an exception when Stewart-Cousins introduced the bill overhauling the village incorporation process. A provision in her bill would have allowed Edgemont one more shot at incorporating under the old rules, without the state board’s oversight. According to Mike Murphy, Stewart-Cousins’s spokesperson, it was necessary to include the measure in order to gather support.

It was good enough to pass the Senate. But in the Assembly, the bill still faced a fight.

On June 10, Paulin took the Assembly floor to say that the bill as written was “appalling” and “targeting my community.”

“The prospective Village of Edgemont needs to be excluded,” she said. Fortunately, she added, she had secured a promise from Stewart-Cousins — in writing — that that would happen. The bill passed minutes later.

Paulin had worried that the one-shot exception wasn’t enough because in recent years, Greenburgh has successfully sued to block two incorporation attempts by Edgemont, and a third suit is likely if Edgemont follows through with its current attempt. If that suit succeeds, Paulin thinks Edgemont should get to keep trying under the old rules.

At a Greenburgh Town Board meeting earlier this month, Stewart-Cousins, who represents all of Greenburgh and Edgemont, said that without her promise to Paulin, the bill wouldn’t have passed the Assembly.

“I can pass anything I want in the Senate, but I cannot pass anything I want in the Assembly,” she said. She also echoed some arguments made by Edgemont incorporation supporters, with a personal twist.

“We didn’t want to change the rules in the middle of the game.”

—Assemblymember Amy Paulin

“I never like to pull the rug out from under anyone or any entity that is following the law and just change the rules in the middle of the game,” Stewart-Cousins said. “As a Black woman who has reached places and things get changed, it makes me uncomfortable.”

Stewart-Cousins’s own position on incorporation had shifted, though: In 2017, she introduced a bill that would have blocked new villages from forming in Greenburgh unless the town board found that it wouldn’t hurt the rest of the town. At the time, the state Senate was under Republican control, and the bill didn’t go anywhere.

Once Stewart-Cousins became majority leader, she started opposing attempts to overhaul village incorporation law, said former Assemblymember Tom Abinanti, who represented Greenburgh in the Assembly until last year.

“I couldn’t pass legislation to block Edgemont from incorporating because of Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins’s opposition,” Abinanti told New York Focus. Stewart-Cousins’s spokesperson noted that Abinanti’s bills never passed the Assembly either.

New York state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins sits at the head of a table with her arms spread wide.
“I never like to pull the rug out from under anyone or any entity that is following the law and just change the rules in the middle of the game,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. | New York state Senate

Changing a bill after it passes both houses of the legislature may seem strange, but it’s standard practice in Albany. Governor Kathy Hochul makes frequent use of “chapter amendments,” an arcane legal maneuver to alter bills — sometimes drastically — after they are passed.

It was through this process that Hochul’s administration, legislative leaders, their staffs, and the bill’s sponsors designed Edgemont’s stronger, broader, exemption.

Also present in the conversation was the Edgemont Incorporation Committee, which offered its thoughts and feedback on several potential amendments during negotiations in the fall. Committee members pushed to exclude measures that would have made it harder for Edgemont to incorporate, said Sherwin, one of the committee’s leaders.

“We talked to our representatives, we hired lobbyists, we did what citizens do,” he said. The committee spent over $12,000 in the last four months of the year hiring lobbyists to lean on Hochul, Paulin, and the state Senate.

By early November, the sides had settled on exempting Edgemont through 2040, meaning that incorporation attempts until then will still take place under the old rules, without oversight from the state board or a required study of the economic impact of the move.

Why weren’t Shimsky — Greenburgh’s assemblymember — and the Greenburgh Town Board included in negotiations over a measure that could have a dramatic impact on their constituencies?

“I am not even going to try to answer that,” Shimsky told New York Focus. “I certainly have a lot that I don’t know here.”

She didn’t find out about the 2040 extension until December, she said, weeks after it was settled, when it was presented to her as a done deal.

The Greenburgh Town Board didn’t find out about the 16-year window until even later than Shimsky. They first heard of it in early January, when Stewart-Cousins introduced the amendment in the state Senate.

Stewart-Cousins’s spokesperson said that Shimsky and the town board hadn’t been kept in the dark, but he declined to say whether they were aware of the 2040 exemption before it was finalized.

Shimsky, a first-term legislator, had chosen not to sponsor the original bill in the Assembly, offering it instead to Fred Thiele, a Democrat who represents Long Island and chairs the committee that regulates local governments. She had hoped that Thiele’s veteran status could help move the bill along before the legislative session ended.

“He has a lot of respect in the chamber that I’m only building,” said Shimsky, who joined the legislature in 2023.

As sponsor of the bill, Thiele was closer to the negotiations. He said he left the decision about Edgemont to lawmakers with a more direct interest.

“Frankly, I didn’t feel like I had a dog in that fight,” Thiele, whose district is over 70 miles from Edgemont, told New York Focus. “I wanted to see this law enacted.”

With the law and the amendment now passed, the latter just needs Hochul’s signature.

“Let’s say the wealthy areas of Fifth Avenue would want to break away from New York City because they didn’t want to pay for the services in Harlem. This is really the same thing.”

—Paul Feiner, Greenburgh Town Supervisor

The Greenburgh Town Board recently voted to hire counsel to fight the change. It plans to petition a court to strike down the amendment as a violation of equal protection, Feiner, the Greenburgh supervisor, told New York Focus.

The pro-incorporation side argues that Greenburgh’s budget wouldn’t take a major hit if Edgemont incorporates, since the new village would likely purchase municipal services, like library access, from Greenburgh.

But there’s no guarantee that would happen. The village could choose to purchase services from other towns or private companies. The ensuing loss of tax revenue would force significant cuts, said Feiner, who warned that the town’s programs for community policing, computer literacy, and job training would likely be the first things to go.

“Our Albany representatives are always saying that they really care about the town’s employees. Well, many of them will be terminated,” he said.

Now, an independent consulting firm is studying the effect Edgemont incorporation would have on Greenburgh. But in another provision unique to Edgemont, the state-funded study can’t be used to reject Edgemont’s petition for incorporation, no matter what it finds.

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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