Obstacles Ahead

It’s tempting to cast aspersions at the Southampton Town Planning Board for its 4-3 vote in October approving the preliminary subdivision and site plan applications for a major golf resort in East Quogue. But the truth is that, with a tip of the hat to the three women on the board who voted on principle to try to slow its progress, there was little traction to allow the Planning Board to derail the Lewis Road planned residential development.

For that, there are really only two places to turn at this point.

The first is the Pine Barrens Commission, which must sign off on the plan for 118 luxury summer homes and an 18-hole private golf course on 588 acres of East Quogue. Since a good portion is within the Central Pine Barrens Overlay District, the commission will have some say in whether a golf course is an appropriate use in the environmentally protected region. The state put the commission in place precisely to add a layer of oversight to be a check on local governments that might be seduced by the “benefits” of such a major proposal targeting a rare stretch of empty acreage.

But even the Planning Board vote smacked of something … unusual. This application, from the start, has gotten white glove treatment, and beyond, from town officials. Each step has involved some sense of urgency, as if town planners have been escorting it past a security line. The Planning Board vote involved three members, Chairwoman Jacqui Lofaro, Robin Long and Glorian Berk, lamenting that they felt pressured to vote on something they hadn’t even been able to fully read. Ms. Long noted that what was at stake was an “informed decision” — and she voted no rather than being robbed of the opportunity to make one.

That all came after another odd occurrence in October, when the Pine Barrens Commission sent a memo to the Planning Board outlining its concerns about the project and the ways it violates the Central Pine Barrens Comprehensive Land Use Plan. That memo was approved, 4-1; the lone “no” vote was cast by Southampton Town Planner Kyle Collins, who was sitting in for Supervisor Jay Schneiderman as the town’s representative on the Pine Barrens Commission. Before it was sent, Mr. Collins also took the opportunity to add “corrections and clarifications” — in essence, answering the commission’s concerns on behalf of Discovery Land. It seemed to reek of passion at a moment when dispassion is required.

Regardless, the 4-1 vote to approve the memo suggested something of a firm statement that the Pine Barrens Commission isn’t going to be bullied into anything. Which gives hope.

The other possibility is the courts. There’s still a chance that a judge will throw out the Southampton Town’s Zoning Board of Appeals November 2018 decision. That ruling — it said that an 18-hole championship golf course can be considered a recreational amenity along the lines of a shared tennis court or swimming pool, something allowed in the current code for a planned residential development — will go down as one of the most farcical sellouts in the town’s long history. It’s not hard to imagine a judge seeing the flailing argument by the board to try to justify it as “arbitrary and capricious.” It’s hard to shake the feeling that it might have been something worse.

The argument in court by the plaintiffs — they include the Group for the East End, the Long Island Pine Barrens Society and Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., in addition to residents of East Quogue — can be a simple one: It would stretch the facts like taffy to suggest that the town code had envisioned such a proposal as a simple accessory to a subdivision. That clearly wasn’t the case, because the application initially came looking for a change of zone, which was required to allow such a project — and the applicants have sued the town for $100 million, arguing that it should have been granted when it wasn’t. This is the “see what sticks” strategy of development.

The company has the resources to wait it out. Every legal action has costs; every regulatory board that gives in a little builds momentum that makes the project a little harder to stop. But that doesn’t mean it’s unstoppable. There are at least two obstacles ahead. It will be interesting to see if Discovery Land is able to so easily bulldoze past them.

By The Editorialists, The Southampton Press

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