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Board hears residents on Code definitions: Admits slipshod methods, asks community for proposals

At the Dec. 3 Town Board meeting, Supervisor Gery Siller and members of the Town Board acknowledged mistakes in presenting a proposal to change and/or clarify definitions in the Town Code.

Twenty some people showed up  — a significant number during the pandemic — at Town Hall where Mr. Siller admitted that the process of presenting drafts of suggested changes to the public “was sloppily done and I take the blame for that.”

Councilman Jim Colligan echoed Mr. Siller’s admission of slipshod work and communication with the public and apologized.

But Mr. Siller insisted that he, the Board, and Town Attorney Bob DeStefano Jr. had been “transparent” and were not “sneaking things in.” He gave a time line that he said showed the drafts of proposed changes had been made public and discussed.

Part of the  debate was over redefining terms and removing duplications in the Code on such words as “person,” “dwelling,” “single family” and others, mostly to do with zoning. Mr. Siller said that the Board would work with the community to get definitions solved before moving on to a public discussion of zoning, which would be taken up in the new year when another effort to get a Comprehensive Plan in place will begin.

Extensive work to craft a Comprehensive plan for the Town fell apart in June after the back-to-back resignations of Comprehensive Plan Project Manager Edward Hindin and Town Councilman Mike Bebon, who had spearheaded the project.

The controversy over definitions in the Code began when two Hay Beach residents — Patrick Clifford, president of the Hay Beach Property Owners Association, and Stephen Jacobs — started a widely copied email exchange with the Board and Mr. DeStefano over what they saw as not merely redefining terms, but action that would result in “substantive changes in zoning, environmental review, and noise restrictions. See, for example, the proposed definitions of ‘One-Family Dwelling,’ ‘Two-Family Dwelling,’ and ‘Residential Property,’ and the Town Board’s designation of itself as Lead Agency for purposes of the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act.”

The two men requested “a red-lined document,” or indications of what will be changed and/or added to a document, and an explanation why the changes would be made. They also insisted on delaying adoption of the revisions in the Code until the public had been fully briefed and given the opportunity to weigh in.

Several speakers took the podium or spoke over Zoom on the issue, including Lori Beard Raymond, who said she was addressing the Board as a resident, and not in her position as the building permit examiner of the Town’s Building Department. She, along with others, also asked for the red-lining of the document and delaying adoption of the proposed changes.

Ms. Beard Raymond noted that the vagueness of terms proposed could be interpreted any way a reader would like. For example, she noted that, “Certificate of Occupancy & Certificate of Compliance” are very different. The proposed definition says, ‘A document issued to the Owner of premises attesting that the premise have been built and maintained according to the provisions of the building or zoning ordinances. A C of O is evidence that the building complies substantially with the plans and specifications that have been submitted to, and approved by the local authority.’ Webster’s dictionary says the definition of ‘substantially’ is ‘for the most part,’ meaning not in its entirety. The New York State Building Code’s definition of a Certificate of Occupancy is, ‘A document issued by the authority having jurisdiction certifying that the Building complies with the approved construction documents that have been submitted to and approved by the authority having jurisdiction indicating it to be in a condition suitable for occupancy.’ Which means fully complies with the plans and specifications that have been submitted and approved, not partially. Why would the Town want to be liable for construction that only partially complies with the plans and specifications? There is already a mechanism in place for changes during the construction process. I recommend you use the State Building Code definition for C of O.”

Ms. Beard Raymond gave several more example of how zoning could be changed by changing definitions, saying, “I have a number of examples of contradictions and lack of clarity. Please stop me when you’ve heard enough … As a resident of the community, I am asking you to slow down, help the public understand what you are proposing, and why, when it comes to changes. It needs to be proposed in a clear and concise manner so everyone understands the Town Code which will apply to everyone.”

The Board agreed that anyone concerned with the proposals in the draft document should email Mr. DeStefano. Mr. Colligan suggested forming a working group of residents to discuss issues that will come up.

Several speakers, including Mr. Jacobs, thanked the Board for hearing their concerns and agreeing to keep the dialogue open, accepting red-lining document changes, and being invited to discuss matters. Mr. Jacobs wanted to be clear that he disagreed with the idea that the Board was only changing definitions, when, in fact, he said, by doing so, members were proposing to change the code itself.

Bill Mastro said, “Thank you for hearing what we’re saying and reacting to it.”

The public hearing on code changes remains open.