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What’s the hurry? Residents ask for more info on Comprehensive Plan and time to digest it

Let’s all take a breath. That’s what several residents requested when they heard about the timeline for completion of the Comprehensive Plan by the end of 2023.

A municipality’s Comprehensive Plan dictates policy on multiple fronts, including development, land use, the environment, transportation, housing and other aspects of community life. It’s not merely a statement of beliefs and a guide to successful planning, but shows a commitment to serious ideas to improve the municipality, which in turn is used to attract funding from the state, federal, county and other entities.

In 1994, a Plan was adopted by a Town Board resolution. In 2008, seven months of discussion and research produced an update to that plan, but the board at that time didn’t act on it. The current effort has been ongoing for more than two years.

After enduring raucous meetings, several resignations of key players, including the project manager, discussions and meetings have been more orderly and focused. At Tuesday’s Town Board work session, however, serious disagreements surfaced. 

Residents heard from consultants offering an overview on structuring an updated Plan for Shelter Island. But when Noah Levine and Susan Favate of New York City-based BFJ Planning finished outlining in broad strokes each of the chapters they’ve been working on, and goals and action items related to each, they drew questions about:

• How the timeline to complete the plan by December could be met when there still isn’t a complete draft for the public to examine.

• Why the consultants are declaring the plan would need only a short environmental study instead of a full SEQRA (State Environmental Quality Review Act) examination? 

• Why information about the chapter on zoning is still unavailable and given its absence, what is the value of an Aug. 24 virtual workshop without that chapter?

Comp Plan Advisory Committee (CPAC) member Lily Hoffman charged that committee members have been left out of discussions the consultants have had with the Plan’s Task Force.

The Task Force includes Councilwomen BJ Ianfolla and Meg Larsen and Planning Board representative Julia Weisenberg. The two councilwomen were appointed by the Town Board and Ms. Weisenberg was selected by the Planning Board to represent its interests.

The CPAC was also appointed by the Town Board and most of its members were on the CPAC prior to the resignation of Comp Plan Director Edward Hindin and some CPAC members in the spring of 2021. A seven-month hiatus ensued before Ms. Larsen and Ms. Ianfolla, along with Senior Building Inspector Reed Karen, started work again in January 2022.

For months, the group ran without a professional consultant to give a clear voice to residents prior to bringing on BFJ Planning to organize what the Task Force — with input from CPAC members and residents — contributed to a draft.

The councilwomen have had weekly talks with the consultants. At the same time, every feasible idea that has been suggested by CPAC members and the public has been incorporated in drafting the chapters so far.

When the consultants first met with the full Task Force and CPAC, Mr. Levine announced they would be working through the Task Force. That met with immediate complaints from CPAC members. Mr. Levine quickly reversed himself and promised he or others from BFJ would be at meetings of the full group. They have kept that promise and engaged with all members.

But Ms. Hoffman countered that, saying she has put in several years as a CPAC member and is “strongly upset and very, very hurt” that CPAC members haven’t had a chance to have their say.

“It has been a political agenda,” Ms. Hoffman said, charging the plan pushes affordable housing, accessory dwelling units, and wastewater solutions embraced by Supervisor Gerry Siller. She referred to the current Town Board as lame ducks, given that three of its current members will not be in office as of Jan. 1.

Councilman Jim Colligan, who will end his Town Board service at the end of the year, said he objects to being characterized as a lame duck, adding that he and his colleagues work long hours. He has been joined in his decision not to seek re-election by Ms. Ianfolla; Mr. Siller lost his primary election to Democratic candidate Gordon Gooding and won’t be returning as supervisor.

Deputy Town Supervisor Amber Brach-Williams will still be in office through the election, either as supervisor if she wins in November, or remaining as a councilwoman. Ms. Larsen’s four-year term also continues through the election.

A request came from Heights Property Owners Corporation General Manager Stella Lagudis for more time to speak about aspects of the plan that could affect the approximately 200 property owners in that area of town.

Mr. Siller tried to take on the many requests asking for a slowdown in creating an updated plan, saying, “You can talk until you’re blue in the face” but at some point, you have to act.

In response to a question from Mr. Siller following the Comp Plan discussion, Ms. Larsen said she and Ms. Ianfolla have spoken to many neighborhood groups, town committees and individuals, and no one has complained that the process is moving too fast.

Ultimately, the Town Board agreed to push forward with the understanding that if the plan isn’t ready to be adopted by the end of the year, the newly constituted Town Board would continue the process in 2024, for as long as is necessary.

As for the question about why the consultants expect to declare the Comp Plan as needing only a short environmental study, Mr. Levine said the plan provides a blueprint to guide ways to meet various objectives, but doesn’t change code or policies that would be subject to an evaluation of what kind of environmental study is needed as potential changes emerge.

Ms. Favate said Comp Plans usually need only a short environmental examination because they don’t typically recommend anything that would be detrimental to the environment.

You don’t want to have a plan that creates an adverse effect on the environment, Ms. Larsen said.

No zoning changes would be incorporated into the Plan, Mr. Siller said. Such changes would be forthcoming after the Plan is completed and those would be subject to public discussion.

Among elements of the town code that have been discussed and could be subject to change could include zoning, waterways issues and environmental protections that could need strengthening.

If some of the discussion was antagonistic, there were several people who appealed for a change in tone. Resident Bill Mastro encouraged speakers to bring the temperature down while advising the Town Board that asking for more time to get the Plan right isn’t stopping progress.

“There’s a crying need for a new Comprehensive Plan,” said resident Stephen Jacobs. At the same time, he said there needs to be a study of the aquifer and how much it will support to assess future development.

Mr. Gooding reminded everyone people came to air their opinions and everyone should be respectful of one another. The call for more time is evident from the many speakers, he said. “We want to really explore everything,” he added. “This was a good discussion, not a bad discussion,” Water Advisory Committee Chairman Peter Grand said. If a Plan needs to take longer, “keep on and keep going,” he said. “We’re not on a treadmill,” Mr. Colligan said, and a Plan will get done.