Town leaders debate stripping some planning board powers

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A proposal to strip the Smithtown planning board of its power to block development at large shopping malls is causing a dustup among town officials.

Proponents of the measure say it would promote business development by eliminating an unnecessary layer of government oversight. Opponents say the planning board plays a vital role in resolving disputes between the town and developers.

The planning board's role is itself the subject of debate. Some town officials believe the board's decisions on site plan proposals are advisory and nonbinding, but other officials believe the panel has the power to kill proposed developments. No specific developments were cited.

The bill, supported by Councilmen Thomas McCarthy and Edward Wehrheim, would take away the right of planning board members, who are appointed by the town board, to review commercial centers larger than 15,000 square feet.

Those reviews instead would be handled solely by the town board, acting as the town's Board of Site Plan Review. Currently, commercial centers face a Planning Department review and votes by both the planning board and site plan review board.

The town board plans to hold a public hearing on the issue at 2 p.m. on Dec. 11 at Town Hall.

McCarthy said the current system constitutes "multiple redundancy" and the measure is "a good way to get rid of a layer of government that's no longer needed. It should be the town board that should vote on big commercial centers, not the planning board," he said.

Supervisor Patrick Vecchio said he initially favored stripping reviews from the planning board but changed his mind. "If a proposal was going to affect traffic, then I think that would be a good reason for the planning board to review it," he said.

Planning board chairman John Gee could not be reached for comment. Town planning director Frank DeRubeis said the board acts as "a broker between what the planner wants and what the builder wants," citing a dispute over bus stops at Smith Haven Mall that the board resolved.

DeRubeis said he believes state law grants the planning board power to kill a site plan. Wehrheim and McCarthy said they believe only the town board has that power.

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