Opposition Stalls Vote By North Haven Board To Ease Clearing Code

Barbara Roberts as she appeared at the April 20 North Haven Village hearing on proposed revisions to the clearing code.

Facing a longtime resident’s complaint that their proposed revision of the clearing code “would substantially change our unique rural character,” members of the North Haven Village Board on April 20 defended — but agreed to table — the proposal for further review.

The new code would clarify and ease vegetative clearing restrictions the board first imposed in the early 1990s to protect surface and groundwaters. The board’s hearing on the plan will resume at its next monthly Zoom meeting at 5 p.m. on May 18.

Also at the April session, the board adopted a budget for the coming fiscal year after a hearing at which no one spoke in opposition. It raises spending 4.6 percent to $1,918,926 — mostly to cover higher costs for ambulance and fire protection provided by Sag Harbor — but reduces the anticipated tax rate 4.07 percent from $0.5508 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $0.5284.

Using $200,000 from an expected fund balance of $990,000 to avoid a tax rate increase, the budget does not pierce the state-mandated cap on annual increases in municipal and school district tax levies.

The budget includes an increase in spending for leaf pick-up to $49,500. That amount will be recovered through a new special assessment tax district the board voted unanimously to create at the meeting after a hearing at which no one spoke in opposition.

The special district includes only properties on public roads, which are the only ones that legally may receive the annual fall service. The owners of each will pay a flat rate of about $140.

In the past, leaf pick-up was funded by all taxpayers, including the many whose properties are in private communities where the village is not permitted to provide service. The village last fall tried to limit the service to qualifying seniors who live on public roads so the program budget was slashed. Many non-seniors put out their leaves and the village had to pick them up anyway.

Clearing Code Debate

The only controversial topic at the monthly board Zoom session, which up to 27 people attended, was the proposed clearing code.

Barbara Roberts, a former member of the Suffolk County Planning Commission and former member of the environmental organization Group for the East End, told the board the proposal allows “much higher clearing” levels on lots of 2 acres and more and it was “erroneous to believe we no longer need to protect our well drinking water” just because public water is available. She noted many residents still have well water and argued there was no logical reason for allowing more clearing.

“Please don’t vote on this tonight,” pleaded another resident, Architectural Review Board member Susan Edwards, who said she “agreed 100 percent” with Ms. Roberts. She asked what the board’s purpose was in seeking to change the code, a question Ms. Roberts repeated later in the hearing.

Mayor Sander initially said the sole goal was to clarify the rules, which resident Henrik Brun and Planning Board member Chris Fiore agreed at the hearing were much easier to understand in the revised code.

Trustee David Saskas, a surveyor who said he had dealt with the issue of clearing restrictions for 30 years, and the mayor went on to explain that another goal was to eliminate the “sawtooth” spikes that can be seen when the current code’s restrictions are plotted on a graph.

As Mayor Sander put it, a property owner with a 120,000-square-foot parcel “can clear a lot substantially more than you could if you had a lot that was 120,000 and one square feet” in size.

The current rules “are not very fair to certain homeowners versus others,” Mr. Saskas said, adding that a “very strict” code like one East Hampton Town had before it eliminated its sawtooth effects encourages “a knee-jerk reaction.”

“What happens is homeowners move into their house, they try to improve their property and they find they can’t live with that strict” level of regulation so “people then take it upon themselves to clear” more of their properties “after they get the COs.”

The proposed clearing code would increase the maximum area that would be allowed to be cleared of natural, indigenous vegetation on undeveloped lots of a quarter-acre in size to 100 percent from the current limit of 65 percent. On half-acre lots, the limit would be raised to 10,999 square feet or 75 percent, whichever is greater, up from the current 55 percent.

On lots larger than a half-acre, clearing would be allowed up to 10,000 square feet plus 25 percent of the lot area. Current limits range from 55 percent down to 25 percent on lots up to 4 acres and 20 percent on lots larger than 4 acres.

Ms. Roberts said at the hearing that, according to her own analysis, the proposed rules “at the higher end” of property sizes will allow an increase in clearing from 20 percent to 30.5 percent.

“I believe that’s a significant change. Let’s look at something not so dramatic,” she said.

The proposed code makes it clear that there would be no requirement for village approval before removing dead trees and invasive vines or for “landscaping, planting, removal of dead trees, etc. within areas which consist of established cleared/landscaped areas,” particularly on developed properties where clearing took place before any limitations were first imposed in July, 1990.

In the case of waterfront properties with pre-existing clearing and lawn all the way to the shoreline or bluff, however, the proposed code would allow the Planning Board — whenever a building permit application is filed for the property — to require “revegetation” to create the 75-foot natural buffer that is mandated under the current code and will continue to be required under the proposed code.

Planning Board member Chris Fiore, who served as a trustee by appointment last year to fill a vacancy on the board, called for clarification of the clearing code during his campaign when he ran unsuccessfully for election.

At the April 20 hearing, he disclosed that — after he had cleared poison ivy, cat briar and dead trees from a property — he had been “on the receiving end of a violation and a major lecture.” The new code, he said, makes it clear “we can remove” poison ivy and cat briar “without pulling the fire alarm.”