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Smithtown proposes relaxing rule on residential development

Smithtown has few tracts of property that can

Smithtown has few tracts of property that can still be developed. Credit: James Carbone

A law intended to preserve open space by regulating subdivisions in Smithtown is set to be relaxed, in part because the town is 97 percent built out and there is little open space left to preserve.

The 1983 ordinance mandates in some cases a community planning strategy known as “clustering,” which concentrates development in one part of a piece of land while keeping the rest open or for public use.

A proposed amendment would eliminate the cluster requirement for farmland and in a groundwater management zone covering half the town. It would also eliminate a requirement to cluster in service of objectives such as community identity that officials called vague.

Clustering grew out of a movement that included innovative strategies such as transfer of development rights and purchase of agricultural rights, said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

It was effective when Smithtown still had extensive farmland and 100-acre wooded tracts, town planner David Flynn said. Examples include Country Woods and Country Estates, developments built to the west and east of Indian Head Road on land once owned by the Catholic Church. Developers built hundreds of homes there, including some two-family homes, on lots as small as a third of an acre, but land bordering the road remains heavily wooded. Drivers might never realize “on the other side of the woods there’s a big development.”

But the days of “Levitt-type entrepreneurs” and megaprojects such as the Mayfair Shopping Center and its accompanying homes are gone, said Vincent Trimarco Sr., a lawyer who represents homeowners and developers.

Most parcels now considered for development are small, making clustering impractical, he said. A town requirement to keep a portion of land in its natural state meant that some of his clients couldn’t put in swing sets or pools, he said. A cluster requirement for a 12-acre parcel near Southern Boulevard resulted in a horseshoe design with untouched land in the middle that Trimarco said was so aesthetically unpleasant it brought neighbors out in opposition. “It looked like you were doing something in Queens, not that there’s anything wrong with Queens,” he said.

Only a handful of farms remain. “If someone has prime agricultural soil but only an acre total of property, what good does it do to preserve a third of an acre, or even a half acre? You’re not going to have a half-acre farm,” Flynn said.

Town Supervisor Edward Wehrheim said the bill could come to a vote June 12 and will likely have the votes to pass.

Levy warned that changing the law could mean fewer town houses and apartments in residential neighborhoods, but David Panetta, executive director of commercial real estate brokerage Cushman & Wakefield of Long Island, said it would result in more flexibility for developers and consumers.

“This is exactly what the residents of Smithtown should want their elected officials to be looking at . . . Long Island has always been thought of as a big stop sign for development, but we’re starting to see more green lights,” Panetta said.

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