The Town of Oyster Bay has not been a role model for encouraging new development. Too often, Oyster Bay has served as Long Island's poster child for saying "no" to more height, more units, a mix of uses and other important ideas that can transform older suburbs into more modern, forward-looking communities.
But until recently, Oyster Bay had one particular aspect of its zoning code right: It allowed apartments to be built over commercial space in many cases "as of right" townwide — meaning that no additional town or zoning board approvals were required. That was unusual for Long Island; most towns and villages only approve such development on a case-by-case basis, or only in certain zones.
Last summer, however, the Oyster Bay town board voted to undo that provision, and instead require a "special use permit" each time a developer wants to build residential units above office space or retail. Town officials said the change would give them more flexibility and allow them to determine where such new developments best fit, such as in downtowns, while also expanding opportunities for public input. But their explanation bizarrely pointed, for example, to concerns from residents regarding luxury town houses — not apartments — on the site of a former catering hall along Jericho Turnpike near the Suffolk County border.
The unfortunate decision moves the town backward and doesn't help Oyster Bay create the types of communities it needs and has been lacking for so long. And the new provision could allow naysayers across the town to stop such development in their communities.
The Nassau County Planning Commission should deny the zoning law change during its meeting on Thursday. That would kick the provision back to the town board, which would have to override the Commission's decision. But even if that happens, a county denial would speak to the importance of more flexible zoning for the region.
If the town board moves forward, it will have the burden of proving that it is serious about downtown redevelopment. That means completing the ongoing effort to find master planners, supporting the town's broader planning efforts and, as much as possible, saying "yes" to requests for special use permits for apartments over stores and to zoning proposals that might add height or units.
Economic development officials in the town say they're committed to remaking the downtowns in hamlets like Hicksville, which already has overlay zoning that allows for a mix of uses, and Oyster Bay. That remains to be seen. When new proposals come before the board, it should find ways to make the plans work. The board shouldn't say "no" just because residents are quick to say "no."
Oyster Bay Supervisor Joseph Saladino often says the right things when it comes to the future of development. Now he, and the town board, have to show they can do the right thing, too.
— The editorial board