At the insistence of John Sieni, co-owner of La Maison Blanche inn and restaurant, the Town Board took the unusual step of reconvening after an executive session Tuesday to hear his complaint that Town Attorney Laury Dowd had mishandled and improperly delayed his application to the Zoning Board of Appeals to install a pool and patio at the inn.
Mr. Sieni called his application a “no-brainer” and told Ms. Dowd that he “would have started a month ago” on the project “before you derailed the whole thing.”
In the end, the board and other town officials helped Mr. Sieni avoid red tape and delays by getting his application moved on to the agenda of the Zoning Board’s next meeting.
Mr. Sieni, who is in litigation with the town over a previous Zoning Board decision involving the inn, charged that he shouldn’t be required to go to the Zoning Board at all — as the Building Department, in rejecting an application for a building permit, told him to do — in order to build a pool with a patio and fence at La Maison Blanche, a pre-existing, non-conforming business use in a residential zone.
The case has some parallels to the lawsuit Mr. Sieni has pending in State Supreme Court, challenging a Zoning Board ruling last winter that found his use of a driveway on a former residential lot to serve La Maison Blanche constituted an illegal expansion of a pre-existing, non-conforming business use.
After a back and forth discussion, Mr. Sieni called the Reporter from the board room to see if the town could submit a legal notice after deadline to get his case on the agenda of the Zoning Board’s next meeting on December 14. After the Reporter accepted the notice, Ms. Dowd called Zoning Board Chairman Doug Matz on a speakerphone in her office to win his assent for adding Mr. Sieni’s case to the December 14 hearing schedule. He agreed. Mary Wilson, the town Building Department permit administrator, wrote Mr. Sieni on October 26 to advise him that the pool constitutes an expansion of a non-conforming use and under the town code it requires the approval of the Zoning Board.
After he applied to the Zoning Board, Town Attorney Dowd on November 18 wrote him to say his application could not be processed without further information, including a survey consistent with a plan approved by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services. “The survey should clearly show the dimensions and setbacks from property lines and hotel of the pool, patio and fencing,” she wrote.
In heated exchanges with the board on Tuesday, Ms. Wilson denied that the Building Department actually considered the pool an expansion of a pre-existing use, Ms. Dowd and Ms. Wilson clashed about their handling of the case and Mr. Sieni argued the pool was an “accessory use” and not an “expansion” of the business.
He charged that the town attorney had exceeded her authority in finding his application to the Zoning Board incomplete.
Mr. Sieni said he had been told by Supervisor Dougherty to bring his problem to the Town Board work session at 2 p.m. Tuesday but he said he had found the board room doors closed because the Town Board had gone into executive session.
When the board members agreed to open the meeting again and hear Mr. Sieni, Town Board member Peter Reich called the press back to Town Hall as required by the Open Meeting Law. The Channel 22 video camera was not turned back on for the extra meeting period.
At the meeting, Ms. Wilson called Ms. Dowd’s November 18 letter “concocted.” From the audience, she said that “the Building Department does not agree that this is an expansion of use.”
“The Building Department has just done a 180,” Ms. Dowd replied.
“Why did I get bumped to zoning again?” Mr. Sieni asked the Town Board. He compared his application to the Chequit’s pending application before the Zoning Board for a pool and patio, which need variances for inadequate setbacks. He said he didn’t understand why his application had to go to the ZBA if setbacks were not an issue.
Ms. Dowd said that, in both cases, the “concerns are about pools themselves not just the setback.” She added, “The permit you need is a special permit” … the ZBA “needs to take a look at those problems and make sure it fits in nicely with the neighborhood.”
Councilman Peter Reich said he thought that Zoning Board Chairman Douglas Matz, who was not present, had not wanted a repeat of the “Pike job,” a property in the Heights that was redeveloped on the basis of an incomplete survey that had been signed by the ZBA; the reconstruction violated setbacks and now requires further variances.
“I don’t need relief; all I need is a permit,” Mr. Sieni said.
Supervisor Jim Dougherty said that he felt the Zoning Board chairman had made the decision that Mr. Sieni’s application was incomplete, which resulted in Ms. Dowd’s letter. “We have to back him up,” the supervisor said of Chairman Doug Matz’s decision.
Building Department head Bill Banks suggested from the audience that Ms. Dowd’s letter be rescinded, which the Town Board members discussed.
If the letter for La Maison Blanche were rescinded, they said they would also have to rescind a similar letter that went to the Chequit about having to apply to the Zoning Board.
Ms. Lewis asked if there was any way of “meeting the applicant halfway.” She asked if the Zoning Board could set a hearing for January. Member Ed Brown favored an accommodation too.
Supervisor Dougherty reminded them that any talk with Mr. Matz should not be seen as a town “directive” to the Zoning Board. “They’re an independent entity,” he said.
After further discussion, it was agreed that if the Reporter would accept a late legal notice, Ms. Dowd would call Mr. Matz.
Town Attorney Laury Dowd, interviewed after the meeting, said Chairman Douglas Matz had come into her office on November 18 and the two had “looked at” the survey attached to the application where he had “pointed out deficiencies” of the survey, including hand-drawn elements, and that “based on his instruction” Ms. Dowd had sent her letter to Mr. Sieni.