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Pumping the brakes on building large houses: Town Attorney recommends moratorium

A discussion about curtailing the proliferation of large houses on the Island led to a suggestion from Town Attorney Stephen Kiely to enact a moratorium stopping all new applications for houses larger than the allowable 5,999 square feet of living space.

He told the Town Board at its Tuesday work session the moratorium could last up to a year. That would allow time to explore changes to the zoning code, water use practices and other measures that would have an impact on future developments on the Island.

He said a moratorium could be put into effect rapidly, while acknowledging the Suffolk County Planning Commission would have to review it. He predicted the commission might return an opinion making the decision a local one. Such decisions are generally returned within weeks.

The Planning Commission has been outspoken at hearings for Greenport’s moratorium application, saying such action is a last resort. Commission members might feel differently about a moratorium that affects only a limit on large houses, while Greenport’s would affect three waterfront business districts.

If commissioners insisted on putting an Island request for a moratorium through their process, it could slow the implementation, but like Greenport, even a negative vote by the commission could be overturned by a super majority vote of the Town Board — four votes, rather than the majority of three to pass other resolutions.

Councilwoman Meg Larsen noted the Comprehensive Plan Task Force and Advisory Committee are trying to complete the updated document by the end of the year and changes could affect that time line. She and Councilwoman BJ Ianfolla are set to meet with consultants from New York City-based BFJ Planning next week. She said she will discuss the time line then. BFJ was the only consulting group that bid on the job, possibly because of the short time line set for completion.

The idea of a moratorium sprung up from a discussion of ways in which developers and contractors are gaming the process of getting what they want in terms of residences that exceed what’s allowed by code without a variance.

Large houses have an impact on the quality of life on the Island, Ms. Ianfolla said.

Builders come in with plans for more than what they want and then offer to mitigate their requests by giving up what they never really wanted, Councilman Jim Colligan said, calling such actions “an insult to us.”

Ms. Larsen said the real problem is how allowable square footage is calculated. It’s based only on livable areas. Some applicants seek permits for areas they intend to finish, leaving other areas unfinished that aren’t counted as livable. Work is approved, completed and a certificate of occupancy is issued. They later finish other spaces without a permit and hope they won’t get caught, she said. The way to avoid that happening is to require that the entire structure, finished or not, should be calculated by its square footage.

Town Engineer Joe Finora brought up the issue of water use, calling for an end to trucking in water to fill swimming pools and other uses on the Island. It’s unfair to neighboring towns experiencing water quantity problems resulting in water restrictions to be taking water from those areas to bring to the Island.

No use of water that can’t be provided from the available supply on the Island should be allowed, Mr. Finora said. That means some properties don’t have the depth of water to allow for swimming pools, he said. The town needs to be concerned with non-essential uses of water, he added. 

If a moratorium is enacted, permitted large projects already under construction wouldn’t have to be stopped if the Town Board wants to allow them to proceed, Mr. Kiely said.

Noting an election coming up in November will result in 40% to 60% of the Town Board being in new hands, candidates need to address their views on a moratorium, potential zoning changes and water use, Mr. Colligan said.

He and Ms. Ianfolla are not seeking re-election. Supervisor Gerry Siller would need to win a primary battle against Gordon Gooding, and if he succeeds there, he would have to defeat his deputy supervisor, Amber Brach-Williams, in the general election to return to Town Hall for another two years.