A Southampton Village community group is seeking to strengthen the village’s board of ethics, citing concerns about potential conflicts of interest and the approvals of controversial housing applications.
The Southampton Association recently called on village officials to issue a moratorium on processing controversial development and renovation applications until the board of ethics selects a chairman and provides a clearer mechanism for residents to file complaints.
The group, which monitors development and preservation in the village, also called on an independent counsel to review the code of ethics.
“We are concerned about the number of members of village boards who are involved in the real estate industry and the absence of term limits for members of those boards,” association representatives wrote to officials in a letter dated Sept. 14.
About a quarter of the members of the planning board, zoning board of appeals, and board of historic preservation and architectural review currently work in the real estate and construction industries.
The village’s code of ethics does not prohibit board members from being involved in industries related to the nature of their boards, nor does it require members to disclose potential conflicts of interest, unless they are trustee members with conflicts regarding legislation.
Mayor Michael Irving said the boards need to have some members who have a background in planning and municipal development to understand the applications. He noted he would “like to see the boards mixed,” with people in related fields and regular community members “so everyone has a say.”
“I personally don’t think there is any conflict, but those are the type of issues the ethics board can address,” Irving said, noting he does not plan to issue a moratorium on applications.
Officials have recused themselves during cases in which they have conflicts of interest. ZBA member James Zuhusky recused himself during hearings on his application for zoning variances at his Hill Street property, and village attorney Wayne Bruyn recused himself during hearings on a zoning application for a property owner he had previously represented in a real estate transaction.
Irving said the village’s unpaid board of ethics is functioning, citing the recent appointment of a fifth member. But the ethics board has not been called on for guidance on an issue since about 2010.
Linda Guessferd, a board of ethics member, said the board could benefit from a calendar of regular meetings.
“We really have never done much,” said Guessferd, who retired as a village administrator on Sept. 29.
Jay Diesing, president of the Southampton Association, said he wants “a check in the system,” especially after the controversial 2014 approval to tear down a historic home at 40 Meadow Lane and replace it with a modern beach house.
“In any small town, there’s always conflicts of interest and you’re not going to be able to find a slate of board members who aren’t going to have some dealings or friendships whose applications are coming in front of them,” Diesing said. “But you want to have a process that a reasonable standard of objectivity is in place.”
Southampton Association members said they would like boards to postpone decisions on the following controversial applications until some changes are made regarding the board of ethics:
- 472 First Neck Lane — Homeowner Ken Fox is seeking to expand his Lake Agawam home that was built in 1882.
- 550-554 Hill St. — ZBA member James Zuhusky is seeking to subdivide his property into three lots.
- 24-28 Gin Lane — Homeowner Scott Shleifer is seeking to build a mansion and guesthouse in the village’s historic district.