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Setting a precedent on precedents

COURTESY PHOTO |  The Town Board met in work session Tuesday.
COURTESY PHOTO | The Town Board met in work session Tuesday.

At Tuesday’s Town Board work session the discussion turned to the consequences of making precedent-setting decisions.

John Needham, chairman of the Waterways Management Advisory Council (WMAC), told the board that recent applications for docks were exceeding the town code’s 100-foot limit.

“Applications come to us with precedents already set,” Mr. Needham said, citing a resident who recently applied to build a 130-foot dock, where nearby there was a 170-foot dock  built before docks were regulated by the code, and two other dock applications that received special exceptions to build over the 100-foot limit.

“It doesn’t seem an unreasonable request regarding what’s there,” Mr. Needham said.

The problem is described by WMAC members as “creep,” where all requests will be argued on the basis of precedent. Mr. Needham added that faced with applicants citing precedent, members often “don’t have a leg to stand on” to turn them down.

Councilwoman Chris Lewis asked Mr. Needham what reasons are given to build something prohibited by the code.

An applicant might say a recently purchased sailboat can’t get to a dock because it draws too much water and needs more space, Mr. Needham said.

“Maybe what they should be thinking is buying a boat that fits the dock,” Ms. Lewis said to general laughter.

Supervisor Jim Dougherty said precedent should not hinder the board’s or the WMAC’s decisions.

“I think we can still turn down the next applications,” Mr. Dougherty said. “The facts differ on each one. The precedent issue is sometimes over-emphasized by greedy folks. They want more and they’re entitled to have the best advisers they can to ask for more, but we’re entitled to push back politely, too.”