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Sharp exchanges at Town Hall: Attorney and resident debate State act at Board meeting

It was during a relatively routine public hearing on various applications at the Sept. 7 Town Board meeting when two residents had questions about when and how SEQRA, the State Environmental Quality Review Act for projects or activities, comes into play.

Resident Pam Demarest began the questioning, saying her reading of the SEQRA regulations provides for the process to begin when an application is filed.

But Town Attorney Stephen Kiely said SEQRA is a part of the process of investigation of an application that includes a public hearing, and if there is any question about whether a full Environmental Impact Statement is necessary, a consultant can be brought in to inform that determination.

That brought resident Kim Bonstrom into the discussion, which led to the two men tangling with one another over the issue of when a decision on SEQRA should be determined and the reason for the determination disclosed.

Mr. Bonstrom said the Town Board had to publish its findings on SEQRA prior to a public hearing.

“If you were listening to me, I just said we put it in the resolution,” Mr. Kiely said about the reasoning behind a determination on whether or not a full SEQRA document was necessary to an action being considered.

“Have you done that?” Mr. Bonstrom asked.

“These hearings are open, sir,” Mr. Kiely responded, explaining that the public hearings to which Mr. Bonstrom was referring were left open for further discussion at a subsequent hearing. “We didn’t approve anything so there’s no resolution,” the attorney said.

“It’s kind of hard to have a public hearing when the Town hasn’t taken a position on SEQRA,” Mr. Bonstrom said. “We don’t know what your rationale is.”

“If you understand what SEQRA is, the purpose of SEQRA —” Mr. Kiely started to say, when Mr. Bonstrom interrupted with, “ Oh don’t say —” but he never got to finish his statement.

Mr. Kiely spoke up, saying, “If you were listening to me, I just said we put that in the resolution.”

“Have you done that?” Mr. Bonstrom asked.

“The hearings are open,” Mr. Kiely repeated.

“If you’d like to have this conversation off line, I’d gladly have it with you, sir,” Mr. Kiely said.

Mr. Bonstrom responded that he wanted to have the discussion at the meeting where it would be “on the public record.”

“Kim, you’re wrong on SEQRA,” Mr. Kiely said.

With that, Supervisor Gerry Siller put an end to the interchange, promising to look into the issue and promptly moved to adjourn the meeting, a motion unanimously agreed to by the rest of the Town Board.

Taking attendance

Earlier in the meeting, new rules on attending meetings were aired. With the COVID-19 pandemic no longer requiring many of the restrictions put in place during much of the past two years, the State has changed its approach to videoconferencing of meetings.

Going forward, members of boards and committees must attend in person, even though videoconferencing can still be used for the public to access meetings.

The need to comply with the change in the State law came up at the Sept. 7 Town Board meeting, to the consternation of some members. In a community like Shelter Island, there were concerns it would be difficult to ensure a quorum, when many people leave the Island for warmer climates in winter months.

“The party’s over,” Mr. Kiely said about the change, explaining that a member had to have a valid reason for not attending a meeting in person, and wintering elsewhere would not qualify.

The Town retains the ability to offer videoconferencing to the public and media for the purpose of continuing what has been a desired expansion of public participation.

Time change on zoning permits 

In line with a request from the Zoning Board of Appeals, applicants receiving variances or special permits will see those approvals last for two years rather than one.

The request came to the Town Board from ZBA Chairman Phil DiOrio after he pointed out that once the ZBA has acted, many applicants need to gain approvals from the Suffolk County Department of Health and/or the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Until all permitting is in place, applicants can’t obtain a Building Department permit.

Two years is a more reasonable time without having to renew a permit, Mr. DiOrio said.