The headline at the Suffolk County Planning Commission on Wednesday will be county’s single-largest housing project ever — the $4 billion Heartland Town Square and its 9,100 units.
But the commission, beset by internal tensions, also faces a critical vote the same day on who will lead the severely split board for the next year.
Chairwoman Jennifer Casey, a lawyer from Huntington Station who was considered a middle-of-the-road choice when selected last year, is expected to face a challenge for the second year in a row from board member Michael Kelly, a developer who once led the Long Island Builders Institute.
“The real root of this is that there is a conflict for control of the planning commission,” said Adrienne Esposito, commission vice chair and executive director of the nonprofit Concerned Citizens for the Environment.
Esposito, a Casey backer, argued that Kelly, “believes we should support whatever the planning staff says. It’s better for the public to have a neutral party, like Jennifer, as chair. It’s our job to provide an independent evaluation of the regional impact of a project; we’re not there to be finger puppets.”
But Mitchell Pally, executive director of the Long Island Builders Institute, said the commission often oversteps its bounds, reviewing nitty-gritty planning details that are town responsibilities.
“The county should only look at how projects fit into county priorities,” said Pally. “Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.”
The sides in the battle over the leadership of the 15-member commission, which has one vacancy, are almost evenly divided.
The outcome could hinge on whether commission member Nicholas Planamento, who will be returning from a trip, can vote by video conferencing from Kennedy Airport. The commission needs eight for a quorum, and at least eight votes are needed to elect a chair.
Robert Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government, said Valerie Smith, an assistant Suffolk County attorney, consulted with him about the issue. He said she questioned whether Planamento should be allowed to participate from the airport site because any member of the public who wants to see him there would have to pay for parking.
He said Smith’s concern was based on a state advisory opinion which barred a local board from holding meetings in a restaurant because interested residents would be expected to buy something, Freeman said. But Freeman said the facts here are different because only one commission member is involved and the public is likely to take part at the Riverhead hearing, where they can interact with Planamento by video.
Commission member Nicholas Morehead of Shelter Island, who is ill, is being allowed to link in by video from his local Town Hall, a site the public can access.
Smith’s boss, county attorney Dennis Brown, said discussions about the voting issue were held with the state. But he said he couldn’t “comment at this point on the nature and extent that a video conference can be held” because the issue was “under review.”
Infighting on the commission first was sparked by the board’s rejection of Tuckahoe Center, a supermarket shopping center in Southampton on traffic-snarled County Road 39. Kelly walked out of the meeting in protest.
When the commission later reversed its stand, member Barbara Roberts, an environmentalist, resigned in protest. She accused County Executive Steve Bellone of interfering with planning staff reports and of trying to make the commission “his blind puppet.” Bellone aides deny the assertions.
“I’ve been trying to pull everyone together,” said Casey, an attorney from Huntington Station. “But the commission’s job is to be an independent body, not a rubber stamp for politicians and developers.”
Kelly said he is willing to serve as chairman if others want him, but declined to comment further because policy has been for the chairman to speak for the commission.
“I’m staying focused on Heartland which the most significant thing the county has had in generations,” Kelly said. “Everything else is peripheral.”