Town May Open Door for Bigger Role for CACs

Posted on 30 April 2009

Citizen Advisory Committees (CAC) across Southampton Town have spent the last year working towards a greater voice in government, particularly when it comes to development issues, forming coalitions east and west of the Shinnecock Canal. Now they would like the town board to allow the committees an opportunity to weigh in on issues in front of the planning and zoning boards in work session, rather then be limited to letters or three minutes of time during the public hearing phase of an application.

On Monday, April 27 Southampton Town Supervisor Linda Kabot told the Bridgehampton CAC that she would propose an initiative that would “open the door a little wider” for the CAC when it comes to planning board access on development projects that could have a cumulative impact to a particular area of the town.   

Kabot recognized there is a sentiment from town residents that attorneys and planners for applicants have the upper hand in the planning process, with a greater ability to present their case to the board without the matched ability for the CAC to weigh in on a project in front of the planning board until the public hearing phase of a project is underway.

“You don’t feel the playing field is as level for residents, which the planning board wants to be responsive to, but at the same time there has to be a record established,” said Kabot, noting the town must protect itself from being sued by developers. She added that while people are “griping” about the level of development activity in Southampton, compared to other areas on Long Island, Kabot thinks the town has protected itself from being overdeveloped, primarily through “stringent zoning” and preservation.

Regardless, Kabot said she would like to pass a resolution that allows the chair of a CAC to speak on cumulative impacts in front of the planning board during a work session. While not finalized, Kabot said the board may decide to allow the opportunity every other month and split it between CACs on the east and west sides of the town.

“We have to start being able to be more responsive,” said Kabot. “I heard that outcry in the last several years and I would like to be the vehicle to get it there.”

Bridgehampton CAC co-chair Tony Lambert said he was concerned about the zoning board of appeals, charging the board has an agenda and often the CAC is noticed about issues only after the opportunity to weigh in has passed. Lambert also suggested the town host a public forum with both the planning and zoning boards.

Kabot said her local law would be specific to the planning board, noting the zoning board is a quasi-judicial board and the town attorney’s office has objected to the concept. She was open to the idea of a public forum with both boards.

Committee member Jeffrey Vogel said a specific problem with the zoning board was that the CAC often does not receive its notice until the last minute.

“The notice is so short we have to scramble,” he said.

Chairman Fred Cammann said the planning board has improved on noticing the committee and in access to the planning department, but charges the zoning board was inaccessible.

“The issue is we do need to protect the property owner’s rights, especially when it comes to this board,” said Kabot.

John Halsey countered the committee is not trying to infringe on property owner’s rights, nor are they looking for “secret meetings” with the zoning board, but they would like an opportunity to be heard by the board.

Another idea floated at the meeting was an annual report on development and variances — one that would spell out how many projects were approved town wide and how many variances were granted — a concept Kabot warmed to.

The other topic of the evening was the fiscal health of the town, particularly in light of a national economic downturn and a $5 million shortfall in the town’s capital fund.

“I think the town’s budget transcends politics,” said Kabot. “It is not about Republican or Democrat — it is about doing what is right and doing what is right requires working with the full board.”

Kabot said the capital fund shortfall has made her “lose sleep” at night and her top priority is ensuring the board works towards the adoption of a corrective action plan, which it will send to the state comptroller for review.

“We also have issues with our independent auditors,” she said. “Why did this not show up?”

With steep declines in mortgage tax revenues and the Community Preservation Fund with no cushion, Kabot said the board has needed to cut wherever it can without disrupting services for residents. All vacant positions have been abolished in town hall, as have interns, travel budgets and other discretionary spending in the town, she said.

“We really went to what we thought was a more barebones budget,” said Kabot, adding the board will revisit the budget mid-year so any unanticipated loses in revenue as a result of the economy can be addressed sooner rather than later.

The Bridgehampton CAC will meet again on Monday, May 18 at 7 p.m.


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