The East Hampton Town Planning Board revisited a contentious discussion of a commercial subdivision behind the Round Swamp Farm in East Hampton on July 13, and ultimately resolved it by a four-to-three vote to modify a 2005 approval.
The town attorney’s office recommended last month that the planning board amend the resolution granting Carolyn Snyder and her late husband, Harold, approval to divide seven acres behind the family’s farm and stand on Three Mile Harbor Road into four new commercial lots.
The application has been at a standstill since 2005 due to a question concerning access to the subdivision through the north portion of West Drive. Last month, the town attorney’s office informed the planning board that it “may have erred by making the condemnation of the northerly West Drive a condition of approval” of the application.
After researching information provided by the Snyders’ attorney, the town attorney’s office told the board that it could not require access over a portion of land that an applicant does not own and has no legal rights to.
Three board members were opposed to reopening the debate last week, while others were vocal in their determination to make the changes.
Those opposed felt that the planning board was being given a directive to do so by the town board.
“We have created an approval that is illegal. We cannot ask an applicant to make the entrance to West Drive legal. I feel that we’re two years out minimum on this roadwork — gathering estimates, utilities, and the roadwork itself. We owe it to the applicant, as well as the neighbors, to do this,” said Patrick Schutte, a board member.
He said that the board should be held accountable for the error and should amend the resolution.
Peter Van Scoyoc, a board member against the modification, pointed out that none of the sitting board members had been on the board when the application was first discussed and approved. “None of us have anything to do with this application,” he said. He was concerned that the point of access would change to the southern portion of West Drive, which many neighbors oppose, because a sentence that will be removed from the resolution reads, “As a result, this approval is contingent upon the applicant obtaining legal access to the northerly portion of West Drive.” He questioned the rationale behind the amendments and whether or not it would speed up the process.
“This is not an application to change the access point. What’s being changed is the requirement that the town would have to create that northerly access before the applicant can have the map signed and filed,” said Kathryn Santiago, the board’s attorney.
Board members were unclear who would be responsible for opening the access. “It appears it would be action by the town board,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said, adding that the 2005 approval was given with the understanding that the Snyders would take the northern access, which they agreed to. “From my understanding, it’s not an imposition, it’s an agreement,” he said.
Ms. Santiago reassured the board that everyone involved still wants the northern access; however, “the provision [in the determination] is legally impermissible. We’re looking to change the language, and take out the legally impermissible portion. Only the northerly access would be utilized.”
Reed Jones, the board’s chairman, told Mr. Van Scoyoc that “you’re discounting the advice the town attorney has given us. They reviewed this, backwards and forwards.”
“I think we’re in complete agreement that the Snyders have been royally screwed,” said Eileen Roaman Catalano, a board member who opposed the modification. “They want access to their property.”
“When they went through the initial process they could have asked for southern access or through their property. It was that they didn’t want to do the things that were legal, go through their property or the southern route. They didn’t do that,” Ms. Catalano said.
Bob Schaeffer, another dissenting board member, questioned why the modification was not presented as its own application. “It is a memo for discussion. I have no problem with dealing with a modification. Why hasn’t this come to us as a modification to an application? Then we go ahead and act on it as a normal application,” Mr. Schaeffer said.
Ms. Santiago informed the board that making a change usually does not warrant much attention. “When there’s an error, we just do a modification. It’s a pretty normal procedure,” she said. She advised the board members to decide what they want to do, “modify the approval or not. The access would not change, but the finding of fact would.”
When it came time to cast a vote, board members were still divided on the ramifications of their action. “I don’t know how we can deal with solving these problems if we don’t have the information in front of us,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “It’s an unusual situation. From a planning standpoint, everyone agrees the northerly access is the way to go. Is it an issue of money?” he wondered. “I’m very uncomfortable with this approach.”
In response, the chairman told Mr. Van Scoyoc, “You’re entitled to your opinion, and I think you have some good points.”
Asked if the resolution approving the subdivision should be modified as suggested by the town attorney’s office, Mr. Schutte, Nancy Keeshan, Frank Falcone, and Mr. Jones voted yes. Ms. Catalano, Mr. Schaeffer, and Mr. Van Scoyoc said no.
Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and Councilwoman Teresa Quigley, the deputy supervisor, entered the July 13 meeting before the Snyder discussion and sat in the back of the room. Although they did not comment, their presence pointed to the concerns of the board members who opposed modifying the 2005 approval.
According to State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., “The town board makes appointments to the planning board and the Z.B.A., and then the planning board is supposed to act independently from the town board. Other than making the appointments, the town board isn’t supposed to be involved in the daily aspects of the planning board and zoning board.”
“It’s not proper for a town board member to try to direct a planning board member or a Z.B.A. member how to vote or make a decision,” Mr. Thiele said. “An application comes in, and boards are supposed to make decisions based on facts presented to them. They’re supposed to be outside of political influence.”
Howver, he said, “There is nothing wrong with town board members attending a planning board meeting. There’s nothing wrong with assessing what’s going on.”
When he was the Southampton Town supervisor, he said, “it was my policy to never publically comment on an application that was presented from another board in town.”
Jay Schneiderman, a Suffolk County legislator and former East Hampton Town supervisor, is in the same camp as Mr. Thiele. “In general I did not attend those meetings unless it was that someone was at the end of their appointment or I was checking to see if a chairperson was doing their job.”
“You don’t really want them being political in their decision making. You want them to feel they have a sense of immunity and can do whatever they want without retribution,” Mr. Schneiderman said.