By Mayor Greg Ferraris
I am sure that many of you have now read last week’s Point of View column penned by Richard Gambino. While I have refrained from responding to various letters, articles and editorial opinions over my six years of public service, I felt inspired to respond and set the record straight on numerous inaccuracies and potentially libelous comments contained in his column.
It is quite obvious that this column was an attempt to justify a stance against the Village’s review process through the medium of unaccountable journalism rather than the tried and true method of stating fact and reality. Fortunately, the Village has individuals like Planning Board Chairman Neil Slevin and other committed review board members who are willing to sift through this biased rhetoric of lobbying organizations to make determinations which are for the betterment of the entire Village without regard to self-interest.
Let me begin by stating that the proposal brought to the Village by Sag Development Partners for the Bulova building was undoubtedly the largest development project that the Village has seen in our modern era. This project as proposed, which was embraced by nearly all Village residents, would not only have resurrected one of the most historically significant structures within the Village, but provided a source of economic activity while completing the ongoing remediation of a documented Superfund site.
That being said, although I would love to take credit for all of the hard work and effort put forth during this arduous process, the Village Board of Trustees and I had no role in review of the application, except to the extent that the Village Board is the legislative branch that establishes the code that is implemented by the review boards. All of the appointed individuals on these boards are well-versed in their duties and worked tirelessly on the Bulova application, enduring more than 50 long, tedious public meetings that addressed every environmental issue that arose in the evaluation of the application, each of which were addressed in public, in detail and by submissions of the applicant and responses from the Village’s consultants. Had Mr. Gambino attended any of the meetings held in connection with this project, he would know the depth at which each issue was addressed and would have concluded that the review boards and the Village’s staff did a tremendous job of dealing with such a large-scale proposal and in fact did comply with the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA).
Mr. Gambino has repeatedly shown his ignorance to the facts and circumstances of this application and process. He alleges that the Village approved a plan to truck 30,000 cubic yards of “potentially toxic soil” from the site. The Village Planning Board did no such thing. Actually, prior to the submission of this application by Sag Development Partners, the Bulova property was the subject of a “Record of Decision” issued by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) in 1996, which required the owner to remove the soil from the site. Pursuant to New York State law, a municipality is pre-empted from regulating any of the elements covered by the order and further, the order itself and its implementation is exempt from environmental review. In this particular case, the Village Planning Board asked the applicant to discuss the implementation of the NYSDEC mandate, who agreed, although discussion was not required. In addition, Mr. Gambino stated that the Village would incur liability as a result of any soil spill. In reality, liability for removing and transporting the soil lies with the applicant under the supervision of the NYSDEC as required by the order.
Mr. Gambino also incorrectly categorizes the recommendations of the Suffolk County Planning Commission (SCPC) with respect to the affordable housing component of the Bulova site as a “legal requirement.” The Planning Commission responded to two agencies involved in the proposal, the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Planning Board, with a recommendation that the applicant provide affordable housing. The comments of the SCPC are recommendations, not legal requirements. According to New York State General Municipal Law, a referral to the local planning commission was required for this application. The law also states that the comments provided by the local planning commission are recommendations that may be overridden by the agency responsible for the project by a majority plus one vote. In this case, the Boards determined, as they had absolutely every right to do, that the Sag Harbor Community Housing Trust Fund was an acceptable alternative which addressed the community’s concerns about the provision of affordable housing and legally overrode the SCPC recommendations. As a matter of fact, the Village subsequently received a letter from the SCPC acknowledging that this was an acceptable alternative.
The column also alleges that the Village “bypassed” New York State environmental regulation. The Village prides itself on compliance with each and every aspect of the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) regulations. If we had been called upon to defend the merits of a suit alleging any improper environmental review, I have complete confidence that a court would rule in favor of the Village’s actions and review. The purpose of SEQRA is to incorporate environmental consideration into the planning, review and decision-making process of a local agency at the earliest possible time. To insinuate that the Village failed to do this is illogical. Before any determination was made as to the environmental significance of the project, the village review boards held more than 50 public meetings on numerous environmental issues, accepting public comment on each and every issue and requiring the production of thousands of pages of reports, information and expert testimony that was carefully evaluated by both the Planning Board and the Villages’ consultants. This is exactly what SEQRA requires.
The lawsuit against the Village that alleged defects in our procedure was dismissed on a technicality which was the result of plaintiff’s counsels’ repeated failure to comply with details for filing a suit of this type. Although the Village would have been successful on the merits of a challenge to its process, it became clear that due to the obvious defects in the Plaintiff’s petition, it was more efficient and fiscally responsible for the Village to first defend the suit on that basis.Â
Mr. Gambino also questions the authorship of the final environmental review document that was completed in connection with the proposed project, insinuating that I had prepared an “in-house report” as part of the environmental review. In fact, an expanded environmental assessment form and summary report that evaluated the environmental impacts as well as provided a summary of all the information gathered was prepared and submitted by the applicant’s environmental planners, Frudenthal & Elkowitz. That final document is the effective equivalent of a final environmental impact statement and included all of the legally required elements and was accepted by the Planning Board as having adequately addressed all environmental concerns of the project. This process was innovative and not only addressed each environmental issue in public, but was paramount to the Board’s and the public’s understanding of the process and the issues.Â
In connection with the process followed by the Planning Board, the author maliciously misinterpreted the comments by Planning Board Chair, Neil Slevin. According to the article written by Kathryn Menu that appeared in the April 2, 2009 edition of the Express, Mr. Slevin stated that, in connection with the environmental review process that was followed for the Bulova application, “I could not imagine for the life of me a process that is better for figuring out the challenges or impacts a development might present or where the community would have a greater opportunity to share their expertise and concern… The very thing we have been criticized for, I believe, is the best thing we have done. The public came to us…and we made the developer answer.” These statements demonstrate the very core of environmental review principles: public participation and calling upon the applicant to answer the questions.
As a matter of clarification, my comments about the Group for the East End were representative of their actions towards the Village with respect to the affordable housing concerns on the Bulova application. Despite the many environmental issues that were addressed throughout this process, the Group curiously focused their attention on a single social issue, the provision of affordable housing on-site, which seemed to me to be out of the scope of their mission as an environmental advocacy group. I would hope that in the future the Group would partner with the Village to deal with development pressures by offering their expertise rather than criticizing a Village Board that has taken substantial steps toward preserving the character and environment of Sag Harbor.
In closing, I find Mr. Gambino’s skills as a creative fiction writer are most impressive and provided last week’s Express audience with a very entertaining article at my expense, but he should have at the very least researched the basic facts. Is that not a basic premise of journalism?