Concern over the process and content of environmental assessment forms completed by members of the East Hampton Town Planning Department prompted Don Cirillo, vice chairman of the town zoning board of appeals, to slam the protocol and integrity of the department in a June 30 memo to its director, Marguerite Wolffsohn.
Per town code, the Planning Department assists the Z.B.A. by providing “technical and professional analysis” for each application. This expertise is presented in an environmental assessment form that looks at the environmental impact of a project and whether or not it meets the special permit standards of the town code, and offers possible alternatives to mitigate potential impacts. In New York State, the State Environmental Quality Review Act requires that “all discretionary approvals” from municipalities be accompanied by an environmental impact assessment.
While an environmental assessment form is a crucial part of an application, it is only one component of several that the zoning board must consider.
In regard to the forms as legal documents, Mr. Cirillo states in his memo, “I believe that the applicants’ due process rights are being violated.” He claims that “E.A.F.s from the Planning Department are filled with the following: Too much opinion passed off as fact; unsubstantiated claims of present or ongoing damage; projections of possible future bad consequences without proper scientific cites or backup; conclusions drawn from general and often casual observations, and suggested remedies (or ‘mitigations’ as they are called) proffered as solutions without any proof of effectiveness or even appropriateness.”
According to Mr. Cirillo, environmental assessment forms do not contain an explanation of the applicants’ legal rights or offer solutions. Also, applicants are unaware that they can usually ignore E.A.F. “recommendations” as long as they comply with the zoning board’s final approval. Instead of knowing their rights before the verdict on an application, Mr. Cirillo claims that the E.A.F.s serve to intimidate the applicant and are a “take-it-or-leave-it” situation.
“This process is a form of blackmail, if you wish, for it sends the message that in order to get the variance or permit you desire you must do everything we recommend —- or Z.B.A. approval for the project (and ultimately a valid certificate of occupancy) will be denied. Do what we recommend — or else!” he added.
Critical of the length of the planning process, its cost, and the angst it causes applicants, Mr. Cirillo said in the memo, “I cannot tell you how many people have expressed to me their absolute horror and frustration at having to deal with the Planning Department and their fear of getting caught up in the ‘process web,’ or worse, suffering retaliation.”
He addressed specific planners in his memo and speculated that their environmental assessment forms were “rife with personal opinion presented as fact, as well as specious arguments about possible detrimental environmental effects without proper citations being offered.” His concern stems in part from a recommendation that an applicant purchase a “green” kitchen appliance.
Ms. Wolffsohn responded to Mr. Cirillo’s concerns in a July 8 memo of her own, addressing his “scurrilous personal attacks and numerous erroneous assumptions and misunderstandings.” She informed him that planners “do not offer personal opinions. We do provide our professional recommendation as required by the town code.” If Mr. Cirillo wants the board to include scientific studies in future analysis of applications, she said she is amenable to this.
Ms. Wolffsohn also included a paragraph about green building technology, noting that, while applicants are not told what refrigerator they should buy, East Hampton Town “does encourage green building technology. The building code contains minimum energy efficiency standards. Native plantings are encouraged and sometimes required by the zoning board and planning board. The town is working on wind turbine legislation and participates in the Uniform Solar Permit Initiative along with LIPA, Suffolk County and other municipalities.”
As this information is provided for educational purposes only, Ms. Wolffsohn said it could be eliminated from future evaluations if the Z.B.A. prefers.
She defended her staff, saying in her memo that planners “do not offer biased private opinions” and that her department is “open, efficient, professional, and at all times tries to be helpful and friendly. As civil servants we constantly look for ways to improve and better serve the public.”
She declined any further comment.
When asked about Ms. Wolffsohn’s response to his memo, Mr. Cirillo said, “I think it’s inappropriate that the memo was released. That was an in-house document, it was meant to start a discussion. It was a confidential memo” sent to Ms. Wolffsohn, Phil Gamble, the zoning board chairman, and Carl Irace, a deputy town attorney.
“I think the press should have access to anything that is public information that is available. It should be transparent, nothing behind closed doors,” he added. But regarding the memo, he said, “It’s confidential and in flux. It’s a breach of protocol that the press was given that memo in my opinion, and a lack of management and oversight. That was a violation and an indiscretion.”