Should Planning Board member have abstained from vote?

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NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | Farmer Lyle Wells at a Town Board meeting in 2011.

When the Planning Board granted site plan approval in November to the 122,000-square-foot Saber Riverhead shopping center on Route 58, Planning Board member Lyle Wells stayed out of the room for the vote.

He also didn’t participate in any prior discussions of the application.

At the time, Mr. Wells, an Aquebogue farmer, said he was advised to abstain because there was a possibility he would be selling development rights from his farm to the Saber Riverhead developer. Mr. Wells did in fact sell his development rights to Saber Riverhead in December, sending five agricultural preservation credits from the farm to the developers for $325,000. The sale means Mr. Wells’ property can no longer be used for anything other than agriculture. Purchasing those rights allows the Saber Riverhead developer to build more square footage than would normally permitted.

But at the Planning Board’s March 7 meeting, the Saber Riverhead project came up again, when the board was presented with a resolution to amend and clarify the original site plan approval.

The amendment pertained to the transfer of development rights, saying that because the TDR program was used, the developer is entitled under town code to a reduction in the number of parking spaces required — in this case from 634 to 591.

The November resolution didn’t mention this, though it did mention other changes that were allowed because of TDR.

Mr. Wells was one of only three Planning Board members in attendance on March 7, meaning that had he abstained, there would not have been enough votes to approve the measure at that meeting.

“It came up out of the blue, too, so I really didn’t have a chance to think about it,” Mr. Wells said in an interview Friday.

He said Planning Board attorney Bill Duffy and town planning director Rick Hanley were at the meeting and neither suggested he should abstain.

“In my mind, it was such a minor thing in regards to the total site plan,” Mr. Wells said. “The parking spaces had already been approved in the site plan in November; all this did was clarify why the number of parking spaces doesn’t match what the code requires.

“It was a clarification as to what had already transpired,” he said.

Had it been a vote to authorize a reduction in the number of parking spaces, rather than simply point out why it was reduced, Mr. Wells said, he would have recused himself.

Mr. Wells said that when Saber Riverhead first came before the Planning Board, he had no intention of selling his farmland development credits to them.

He said he was seeking to sell farmland development credits to make up for 2011 and 2012, which were both hurricane years in which his crops were hurt, but had originally planned to sell them to another developer, Stoneleigh Woods, w a senior citizen condo project on Middle Road.

“Saber Riverhead came along at the last minute, and they wanted to buy the five credits I had, which was exactly what they needed,” he said.

Mr. Wells and others have criticized the TDR program for lacking a central structure, meaning that farm owners often are on their own in trying to find developers who need the credits, and vice versa.

Some have said that Mr. Wells has a conflict by being on the Planning Board, where he would have knowledge about which developers are looking for farmland credits.

But Mr. Wells said that under that theory, anyone who owned land would potentially have a conflict by being on the Planning Board.

“You’d have recuse everybody in the community except people who are retired,” he said. “The Planning Board deals with land use issues, and I own land, so any land use issues may or may not affect me.”

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