Causeway controversy
 makes for few options

Nobody wants to see a big house on the First Causeway to Ram Island. Citizens and officials chiming in on the Zagoreos wetlands permit proceedings can pretty much agree on that. Most would also agree that if you lose your home in a fire, as the Zagoreoses did, and you can legally build a new, conforming one, you ought to be able to — certainly if it is no bigger than the original house.

As the Town Board mulls the Zagoreos wetlands demolition plan to make way for a proposed house outside wetlands jurisdiction, another question is hovering. Will the new house need Zoning Board approval or not? If so, what authority does the Town Board have to link the demolition plan to a new house that will be vetted later by the Zoning Board?

With some residents calling for conservation of the causeway and others defending the rights of the home-owner to rebuild, the council is left in about as tight a spot as the Zagoreos house during a coastal flood.

This tricky situation was avoidable and reminds us of another Ram Island controversy, not so long ago.

A proposal to turn the Ram’s Head Inn into a rehab center emerged in early 2008 as the Town Board was looking to revamp the code to limit future uses of nonconforming businesses and put approval authority in the hands of the elected councilfolk instead of an appointed Zoning Board. 

The board shelved the legislative effort to avoid the appearance of “forum shopping” during an ongoing controversy. Town Supervisor Jim Dougherty pledged to revisit the zoning code amendment “after the dust settles” on the Ram’s Head Inn proposal.

Once again, Town Board members are butting up against law that limits their ability to take action on a controversy, one that may be best decided by elected officials.

To the board members’ credit, they are trying to resolve recurring code issues through the ongoing Comprehensive Plan review process and by brainstorming with the Zoning Board, as they did Tuesday. But that doesn’t change the rules of engagement for this one wetlands application. Perhaps seeing “the whole causeway as the wetlands,” as Mr. Dougherty does, should be the law. But it isn’t on the books today.

The threat of causeway development is not new. Current and past town boards have had ample opportunity to encode greater environmental protections for these fragile strips of land. It just hasn’t happened.

If you don’t want to see houses on stilts rising above the causeway, change the code. If you don’t want a burned-out house to be rebuilt, buy the property. Like it or not, fairness dictates no other clear options.