A pro-business town, but at whose expense?

08/12/2010 12:00 AM |

I was very alarmed, yet not surprised, by last week’s letter to the editor from Frank Seabrook. As a voting member of the Riverhead Zoning Board of Appeals, or ZBA, Mr. Seabrook is charged with interpreting town code and deciding on variances that allow applicants to operate or build outside town code. In his letter, Mr. Seabrook rails against any regulation of businesses and makes clear his disdain for those who dare to complain about such things as traffic. Does this sound like someone who weighs each case based on the law, its merits and its impacts?

Unfortunately, Mr. Seabrook, an outspoken blogger whose views are well known and who was appointed by this Town Board, appears to be in sync with the majority of the ZBA. The ZBA’s recent 3-2 ruling allowing outdoor catering for up to 4.5 years at the Jedediah Hawkins Inn is further evidence of the board’s ultra business-friendliness. After neighbors and civic groups put forth an extremely strong case against the Hawkins’ request for a use variance or a creative interpretation of country inn, the ZBA’s attorney shifted the hearing to an “area variance” despite the fact that this variance clearly attempts to change a permitted use — making it, by definition, a use variance. Seemingly inventing a new criterion for which to grant a variance, the ruling also cites proposed code changes by the town. The ZBA used this same faulty rationale three years ago in a similar decision! C’mon.

Then there was a July hearing about replacing an off-premises sign specifically prohibited by code with a larger billboard, during which another ZBA member questioned whether increasing signage isn’t really rural because he sees signs all over rural Tennessee and, in essence, why shouldn’t businesspersons be allowed to put up off-premises signs. It is clear to me that he currently places no value on the sections of Riverhead’s master plan and town code that seek to “perpetuate the open character and rural appearance of the town” through its restriction of signs. I hope this will change.

I would be remiss not to note that there seems to be a general disdain on the board for residents who speak in opposition of variances sought by businesses. During a June meeting of the Jamesport Civic Association, numerous residents complained bitterly of their treatment by the ZBA directly to Riverhead Town Councilman Jim Wooten. While pro business variance speakers are greeted cordially and allowed to go off track or repeat points without reprimand, residents who raise concerns are greeted with “ughs” and admonitions not to speak if they’re going to say anything that was previously said. This attitude borders on intimidation and it keeps some residents from stepping up to the podium and participating in the process.

In the Riverhead News-Review’s own opinion piece a week ago, the paper acknowledges “codes are in place for a reason.” They’re not there just so backyards can be safer and so the town can collect fees from residents for pools but also to preserve the livability and character of our town. Unfortunately, the ZBA seems to have created an environment where favored businesses can feel confident that they will be granted variances regardless of the rule of law or negative impacts on others.

Everyone knows businesses have deeper pockets than the residents who suffer the consequences of these variances and that without a court challenge, even the most outrageous ZBA decision will stand. Unfortunately, I fear we could be witnessing the deconstruction of Riverhead’s code and master plan one precedent-setting variance at a time.

What can be done to stop this? The Town Board can litigate when it feels a ZBA ruling is unlawful or is an abuse of discretion but certainly only against the most egregious decisions, as in the Hawkins case. The politics and cost of litigation make this something town boards are likely to shy away from — unfairly shifting the burden of litigation onto a handful of residents instead of taking responsibility to protect the town from the negative impacts of poor rulings made by a board they appointed. Still, in some cases it is the right thing to do and wouldn’t we be pleasantly surprised if our Town Board had the nerve to do the right thing by its residents in the Hawkins case!

In addition, ZBA members and attorneys must demonstrate they are fair-minded and should not serve as activists on that board for their philosophical or political views. We must insist our Town Board appoints board members who respect our code and master plan and will make decisions based on the rule of law and the good of the whole town, not just the good of a few favored businesspeople. ZBA board members should be retained and appointed for these traits, as well as for their job qualifications. That’s really not asking too much, is it?

Ms. Mendez is a Wading River resident, civic activist and co-founder of the Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition.