Suffolk legislators on Tuesday took up a bill that would change some of the workings of the county Planning Commission, giving towns and villages new grounds to fight some land use applications and zoning matters in neighboring municipalities.
The bill, sponsored by Leg. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), would permit a municipality to file an objection with the commission over applications involving some special permits, variances, subdivisions and site plans in an adjacent municipality.
An objection to the proposed action triggers a Planning Commission public hearing. Ten planning commissioners would have to vote to uphold the neighboring municipality's objection. The original municipality can overrule the planning commission, but only by supermajority vote on a resolution explaining its reasons.
Under current county rules, a municipality can only object to zoning actions and ordinances in an adjacent municipality for land within 500 feet of the shared border.
Projects with cross-border complications have included Gyrodyne, located in Smithtown but near Head of the Harbor Village and the Town of Brookhaven, as well as big box store construction on Commack Road near the Smithtown-Huntington border and 9,000-unit Heartland Town Square, which lies in Islip but faced opposition from Huntington.
In a public hearing Tuesday night, bill proponents, including civic leaders from neighborhoods near the Gyrodyne site, said passage was needed to reform a commission they described as unresponsive to residents' concerns, with some citing a May 5 commission meeting on Gyrodyne where chairwoman Jennifer Casey said commission rules meant it would not consider public comment.
"If you do not pass this legislation, you will not be protecting the citizens of Suffolk County," said Letitia Krauer, chair of the group Friends of Stony Brook Road.
But lawyers representing the towns of Smithtown and Riverhead opposed legislation Riverhead Town Attorney Robert Kozakiewicz said would leave them "unable to control our own land use decisions and determinations."
Eric Alexander, director of Vision Long Island, a regional smart growth planning group, said the bill could weaken local land use control and would be redundant because a variety of county and New York State agencies already provide oversight.
Smithtown principal planner Allyson Murray said in an email that the bill could lead to complications for Gyrodyne's application if it passes. Head of the Harbor or Brookhaven "could submit an objection to the final subdivision application or any site plan, special exception or variance within 500 feet of their boundaries," and the commission would then have to hold a public hearing before reaching a decision.
Mitch Pally, CEO of Long Island Builders Institute, a major trade association for home builders, said in written testimony to the legislature the group was "very concerned" about the bill’s possible consequences and called instead for a wholesale review of the relationship between the commission and the zoning powers of towns and villages.
"This issue has basically been below the radar for many, many years," he said in an interview. "What role should the commission have, what process should it follow, what ability should it have to allow neighboring municipalities to influence the votes of the commission and [other] municipalities?"
George Hoffman, Three Village Civic Association president, called the bill "a good strong start" toward better regional planning.
"We can’t have this sort of Nimbyism of towns that do their development and don’t care about what happens to adjacent towns," he said.
James Bouklas, president of the We Are Smithtown civic association, said he wanted changes to the membership of the commission to dilute building industry influence.
"We want to see the influence of developers weakened and the influence of environmentalists, residents and citizens promoted."
The commission has 15 seats, one for each Suffolk town, plus two for the villages and three at-large. Adrienne Esposito, vice chair, said in a text message all the seats were filled, although commission webpages still list vacancies.
All commissioners are appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the legislature. At least four have ties to building or real estate, according to biographies on a commission web page.