In the early 1980s, the East Hampton Town Board disbanded the Planning Department. While that does not seem to be the goal of today’s Town Hall leaders, a continued push to change the way the department operates should have those who favor environmental protection and solid land-use management concerned.
The latest salvo came in a memorandum from a recently appointed member of the town zoning board of appeals to Marguerite Wolffsohn, who heads the Planning Department. In the memo, Don Cirillo expressed displeasure with the planners’ environmental review of building applications. Among other things, he described the planning staff as arbitrary and engaged in blackmailing applicants to do its bidding in order to secure permits. Ms. Wolffsohn fired back in her own memo, calling Mr. Cirillo’s allegations unfounded and defending her department’s professionalism.
Much of Mr. Cirillo’s language echoed complaints heard over the years from lawyers involved in land-use projects for themselves or clients, as well as from people in related fields, so this is not new. What is unusual, however, is for a blunt, one-sided critique to come from an appointed official. It is unlikely that Mr. Cirillo was alone in his criticism, but he didn’t indicate whether he was speaking on behalf of others, even other members of the Z.B.A. Because the memo was so harsh and because Mr. Cirillo is in a position of influence as vice chairman of the Z.B.A., it is important that he disclose who his confidants are. We have asked him to do so and will report if and when he responds.
Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and Councilwoman Theresa Quigley, the deputy supervisor, have spoken out about what they see as failings in the town planning-review process and expressed their shared desire to see it streamlined. They have not commented publicly about Mr. Cirillo’s critique, but they have made no secret of their hostility for the Planning Department.
That Mr. Cirillo is a former treasurer of the town Republican Committee and his wife is a current committee member is relevant here because Mr. Wilkinson, a Republican, is seeking re-election this fall. The memo may turn out to be a political liability, especially if it is consistent with the supervisor’s personal views.
Among the several points Mr. Cirillo makes, his general assertion that the process is overly cumbersome in all matters is wrong. Most permits that require Planning Department review are processed in an effective and efficient manner; what does take longer — sometimes far longer — are requests for complicated projects, those for which environmental regulations come into play and those for the expansion of businesses in residential zones, among others.
Yes, tricky applications are going to take a long time to review and the outcomes are not guaranteed. All of the town’s permit procedures, including the Planning Department’s, undoubtedly can be improved. But the memo’s declaration of war on sound environmental review and the professionalism of the town planners is dangerous, poorly thought through, and should be repudiated by those in Mr. Cirillo’s party if they are to have any credibility on these issues among the public. Voters like their East Hampton a certain way, and look dimly at those who favor the bulldozer’s blade over heritage and preservation. It is a message that all sides cannot lose sight of.