Having already assembled a planning reform advisory group, this week Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst promised members of the Bridgehampton Citizens Advisory Committee that she will strive towards creating a more public planning process, where residents can weigh in on development plans and even planned development districts before they get too far down the pike, a criticism with town planning that developers and activists alike have expressed in recent years.
On Monday, August 23 Throne-Holst raised the issue after Bridgehampton CAC chairman Fred Cammann argued that planned development districts (PDD) have “not served Bridgehampton, or really any other place well at all.”
This summer, in the face of several PDD proposals in front of the town board — including one for a mixed-use development in Tuckahoe and another in Water Mill — the town has been criticized for using the zoning tool, which allows developers to forgo seeking a formal change in zoning to accomplish their project and instead asks the town board to overlay new zoning over their parcels for their specific proposal. The concept of the PDD law is that these projects would have to offer a significant community benefit in turn.
This Thursday, the board will host a public hearing that would change the PDD section of the town code to conform with New York State law in regards to what those public benefits should be.
Throne-Holst called the change in legislation “a good beginning,” but added she would like to see the planning reform advisory group, made up of civic group members, planning board members, local attorneys and planners, address the planning process in the town as a whole, with the issue of PDDs at the top of their agenda.
Last year, said Throne-Holst, the town started allowing pre-submission conferences, similar to public hearings, on large projects to hear input from the community before a project was so far down the pike that meaningful change became impossible.
“The idea is before a developer spends thousands of dollars and time and effort in putting together a plan to the best of their ability, the community has a chance to look at the basic idea and weigh in on it,” said Throne-Holst. “It gives the developer the chance to weigh that and develop their plans accordingly, or not, but at least it gives the public the chance to weigh in at an early stage.”
Throne-Holst said she would like to see a similar process set up for proposed PDDs, during which any public benefits would be vetted. The advisory group is also looking at developing a codified list of desired community benefits, hamlet by hamlet, where residents of each community could weigh in on the community benefits they would like to see in their region of the town if a PDD is proposed by a developer.
Creating a clear-cut timeline for how that process, and the planning process in general, is carried out by the town is also a priority, she said.
“It may or may not be able to be done that way, but that is a small laundry list of what we are looking at,” she said.
Cammann said his concern was it seems the PDD process looks at a specific proposal and its community benefits rather than the town understanding what public benefits they would like to see developed.
“The zoning, good or bad, is what we have all become pretty used to and, when a PDD proposal comes in, it is not clear to us that it is beneficial to our community,” he said.
“What was missing, and I think this is what needs to be codified, there needs to be a discussion about whether the benefit should be a specific community benefit or a benefit to the whole town,” said CAC member Janice Delano.
Throne-Holst reiterated that the focus right now is looking at the needs of each hamlet, and that at any pre-submission hearing members of the affected hamlet, or the town as a whole would have the opportunity to weigh in with their concerns.
CAC member Jeffrey Vogel added that he would like to see the CACs have a greater voice in the process, and as of now, he feels often they weigh in, but are not heard.
On the other side of the coin, referencing the stalled condo project at the former Bulova Watchcase Factory in Sag Harbor, CAC member Richard Bruce said he would like to see a process where good projects are shepherded through the town more quickly to encourage good development.
Throne-Holst noted that what is viewed as a good project by some, is often a project detested by others, and whether or not it is a good project tends to be subjective.
For example, with the proposed Tuckahoe PDD, which would create a grocery store, several retail stores and apartments, some affordable in nature, Throne-Holst said she has heard mixed reviews from community members.
“Some people hate it, some people say we need a grocery store in our backyard, we need accessible and affordable retail,” she said.
“I think the end result has to be we create a process that supports what you would call a good application,” she continued. “A process that allows a good application to move forward expeditiously.”