Updated: Apr. 24, 2023, 5:03 p.m. | Published: Apr. 24, 2023, 1:05 p.m.

By Joseph Ostapiuk | jostapiuk@siadvance.com

The Manhattan skyline seen from St. George in this file photo. (Staten Island Advance/Shira Stoll)

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Meeting New York City’s ambitious climate goals will likely require bending its own zoning regulations, and a plan to fundamentally change those rules and make it easier to retrofit buildings and usher in the switch to electric vehicles is now inching over the starting line.

Mayor Eric Adams and the Department of City Planning (DCP) on Monday officially referred the City of Yes for Carbon Neutrality text amendment for public review, beginning a lengthy process toward potential approval. It’s part of a three-pronged effort to amend city zoning regulations under the mayor’s long-term vision.

The carbon neutrality plan includes 17 policy proposals aimed at modernizing the city’s approach to combatting climate change by facilitating energy-efficient changes in around 50,000 buildings not currently eligible for those changes, among other efforts.

“Today, New York City is saying ‘yes’ to a cleaner, greener, more prosperous future for generations to come,” said Adams. “This proposal will make it easier to tackle climate change in the places we go, how we get there, and what we do. The climate crisis is urgent, and I look forward to talking to New Yorkers about how we can remove barriers, take action, and ensure a healthy future for our neighborhoods, our city, and our planet.”

The referral for public review will kick off the public review process and start a 60-day clock for community and borough boards to review the plan and issue recommendations. Then, the proposal will go through the City Planning Commission and City Council.

Among its proposals is an initiative to remove burdensome zoning obstacles that stringently limit the amount of space on a rooftop that can be covered by solar panels, making it arduous to install renewable energy. Officials said the plan would also make installing green energy storage infrastructure needed for solar power, particularly in low-income communities, possible in residential areas where it’s currently banned.

Forecasts predict the change would open up 8,500 acres of parking lots for potential use of solar panels, which is enough to power more than 130,000 homes.

Restrictions that bar certain buildings from implementing electric retrofits like heat pumps due to regulations pertaining to the height and thickness of walls would undergo stark changes under the proposal, adding flexibility to the current rules.

One million homes situated where environmentally-friendly retrofits are currently infeasible and would violate city zoning policy would unlock the ability to make those changes.

And, the mayor’s plan would more than double the space where electric vehicle charging facilities can be located — bolstering the growing network of stations in New York City.

In total, an additional 400 million square feet would be primed for new electric vehicle charging locations.

“This is a critical initiative to meet our climate goals,” said Dan Garodnick, DCP director and chair of the City Planning Commission. “By modernizing our zoning code for climate action, we can reduce our carbon emissions, support our resiliency efforts, and set New York City up for success in the clean-energy revolution.”

Garodnick said by updating the city’s 20th-century zoning code to meet the challenge posed by 21st-century problems, officials can move past red tape that unnecessarily slows the process of cutting emissions.

“We look forward to a robust public review process as we move toward a cleaner, greener city for all,” he said.

The sweeping changes are an example of the city self-removing some obstacles to better align with the momentum generated by new major climate-driven initiatives, including the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), said Daniel Zarrilli, the city’s former chief climate policy advisor and a Staten Islander.

“This is just a rational way to work through it,” said Zarrilli. “And I think this is a predictable outcome of the work needed to change our energy systems and change our transportation systems — big, big things. And we have all of this inertia from a prior system still built into the system.”

The plan has received an endorsement from a leading environmental organization, which noted the city’s zoning regulations as presently written make it sometimes inconsistent with building code and subsequently out of touch with lofty climate goals.

“It’s been several years since the city reviewed the zoning resolution to see how it can help building owners and others work toward the city and state’s goals,” said Alia Soomro, the New York League of Conservation Voters deputy director for New York City policy. “The zoning resolution is in many ways inconsistent sometimes with the building code, so this zoning proposal will hopefully bring it up to speed.”

The City Council in 2019 passed Local Law 97, which mandated the city undergo a 40% reduction in building emissions by 2030 by capping emissions for existing large buildings beginning in 2024. Penalties for non-compliance can come in the form of hefty fines.

Councilman Joe Borelli (R-South Shore) expressed pessimism over any plan’s ability to slice through the slog of city-made barriers.

“Tell me, what carbon neutrality program at the city or state level has resulted in more projects, moving efficiently and streamlined? We are about to face the largest green energy driven housing affordability crisis in our lifetime with the implementation of Local Law 97 next year, all because of the impossibility of existing and proposed buildings to even comply with the emission standards,” said Borelli.