By Stephen J. Kotz
Southampton Town’s controversial, if not reviled, planned development district law is history. The town board on Tuesday voted unanimously to repeal the measure, which had been the subject of a year-long moratorium dating back to June 2016.
“I believe the law to be fundamentally flawed,” said Supervisor Jay Schneiderman following a relatively short hearing at which the law found no supporters. “Although I had hoped to fix it, it was too complicated.”
Under the PDD procedure, a developer was allowed to bypass the town planning board to directly petition the town board for a change of zone to approve developments that were supposed to carry with them a special community benefit. The catch was the nature of that benefit often proved hard to pin down, Mr. Schneiderman said.
The supervisor said a major problem with the law was that it was “endlessly flexible” and that theoretically any piece of land could be developed in any fashion if the town board approved of it.
That flies in the face of the way the public has come to view the zoning code, said assistant town attorney Carl Benincasa.
“The purpose of zoning is to create a balanced cohesive community where people understand not only what they can do on their parcels but what people adjoining them can do,” he said.
Mr. Schneiderman said town officials looking to revamp the law also stumbled over the concept of defining a community benefit that wasn’t necessarily tied to the development itself. As an example, he suggested that a developer could propose to build a shopping center and provide as a benefit a jamboree for local boy scouts.
“Suddenly, the room is filled with all the boy scouts,” he said. “If I say ‘no,’ now I have to disappoint every boy scout.”
“That’s not the way planning is supposed to work,” he concluded before calling for a vote. “You are supposed to look at the merits of a proposal, weigh the benefits to the community, to the applicant, and make an informed decision.”
Gasby Makes Pitch for Assisted Living
Immediately after repealing the PDD law, the board opened a second hearing on a proposed zone change that would legalize one of the uses that would typically go through the PDD process — assisted living facilities.
When the board first discussed the idea earlier this month, representatives of Peconic Landing in Greenport said they would be interested in pursuing a project on property just south of County Road 39 on Tuckahoe Road.
On Tuesday, Dan Gasby, the husband of Barbara Smith, the lifestyle guru and restaurateur who has endured a very public battle with Alzheimer’s disease, told the board he had joined forces with Maplewood Senior Living, a Connecticut firm, in an effort to launch a chain of “B. Smith-inspired assisted living homes” across the country, with the first one on the East End.
“As a caregiver for the past four years, I have been stretched to the very ends of my social and intellectual fabric to care for someone who can’t care for herself,” he told the board. The couple, who have written a book detailing her struggle with the debilitating disease, have sold their restaurants and recently sold their Sag Harbor home and moved to a home in East Hampton, where it is easier to care for her.
“We don’t take care and we don’t have enough facilities for people as they age,” he continued, adding that he had identified a particular vacuum on the East End for such facilities. “If you get lucky, you get to be old,” he said. “There needs to be a sense of dignity when you get old.”
Mr. Gasby said he had thrown his support behind Maplewood “as a brand we could stand behind” to provide high quality facilities.
Supervisor Schneiderman said an obvious concern would be whether developers would be able to find suitable, and affordable, parcels of land to build a large enough facility.
Tom Gaston, an executive vice president with Maplewood who accompanied Mr. Gasby, said that was a concern due to the high cost of East End real estate. “You need a critical mass,” he said. “Unfortunately cost is part of the issue.”
The current legislation would require developers to have a minimum of 3 acres of property and be limited to no more than 20 beds per acre. There would be a 90-bed cap. An assisted living facility would become a special exception use that could be approved in any of several zones by the town planning board.
David Wilcox, the town’s planning director, said that Southampton Town, which once had a much higher percentage of senior citizens than the rest of Suffolk County, has seen that demographic reversed sharply in recent years as senior citizens leave town because they can no longer stay in their own homes and have no real options.
Mr. Schneiderman said providing assisted living facilities for town residents was “a vital concern.”
“I want people to be able to age in place, really, from cradle to grave,” he said.
The board adjourned the hearing until August 8 and said it would schedule a work session to discuss the legislation further sometime this summer.