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Smithtown to terminate planning board attorney

Paul Sabatino, co-counsel for the Pine Barrens Society.

Paul Sabatino, co-counsel for the Pine Barrens Society. Credit: Danielle Silverman

The Smithtown Town Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on appointing former builders’ lobbyist Desmond M. Ryan to the planning board, along with terminating planning board attorney Paul Sabatino.

Commercial development is central to Supervisor Edward Wehrheim’s agenda, and he said in an interview Monday that the prospective new officials “understand the vision… That’s our main thrust, to be able to continue to keep residential taxes stable, create jobs and increase the economy of Smithtown.”

Ryan formerly worked as executive director of Association for a Better Long Island, a developers group whose members have $15 billion in investments, and has decades of experience with zoning issues and building projects. He currently serves on the Long Island Regional Development Council. He would serve a five-year term, replacing Conrad Chayes, whose term expired. 

Sabatino, a former Suffolk County chief deputy county executive and legislature counsel, clashed with town board members last year when he helped draft a planning board resolution to block Foxwood Estates, a small subdivision near the Smithtown Landing Country Club. That subdivision eventually won planning board approval, but the developer sued the town in New York State Supreme Court over its handling of the matter. A judge dismissed the 2017 suit while noting he was “troubled” by the planning board's 2017 tabling of the application, which he said had wrongfully denied the developer judicial intervention.

Wehrheim said last year he was disturbed by that suit and another against the planning board. Also, he said, "the town attorney has informed me we are receiving bills from Mr. Sabatino that are excessive."

Sabatino said he earned $135 per hour for his work for the town over 2017-2018.  Town officials said Sabatino was paid about $17,750 in 2018, and about $15,760 in 2017. The amount budgeted for his position was $7,500. 

The town board in July unanimously approved a law removing the planning board’s right to appoint its own attorney and giving that authority to itself.

“Clearly this board doesn’t want any kind of independent review of land use decisions,” Sabatino said in an interview last week, referring to the town council.

John J. Toomey Jr., a former assistant town attorney and Suffolk County Court judge, is slated to replace Sabatino.

Toomey is a decorated military veteran who presided over the Suffolk County Veterans Court. He also is a longtime Republican Party figure who has administered oaths of office to a number of Smithtown officials. He has represented developers with applications before town boards in his private practice, Wehrheim said. Councilman Thomas McCarthy said Toomey had also represented him in private business, but not since approximately 2002. Toomey would be paid $20,000 a year.  

Both Toomey and Ryan would recuse themselves from any town business involving former clients, Wehrheim said.

At least one civic activist reacted skeptically to the prospective appointments.

Bob Souto, a trustee of the civic group We Are Nesconset, said Ryan’s experience “doesn’t bode well in certain instances where the community is going to be maybe not so happy” with some commercial development near residential areas.

Former town planner Frank Derubeis, who knows both prospective appointees, said the planning board might be “a little more pro-business. But Smithtown is not a town that’s gone very loose with regard to zoning. It’s usually been tight with it.”

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