Wells, councilman spar over ethics allegations

Farmer Lyle Wells was ousted from the Planning Board last week. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)
Farmer Lyle Wells was ousted from the Planning Board last week. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

After longtime Planning Board member Lyle Wells expressed surprise and disappointment after being replaced at the beginning of the year, one Town Board member who voted to remove him said Mr. Wells had acted unethically by voting on applications he was also in a position to profit from — a charge Mr. Wells emphatically denies. 

Mr. Wells, an Aquebogue farmer who had served on the Planning Board since 2002, has sold development rights from land he owns to the developers of three projects that have come before the Planning Board: Stop & Shop, Stoneleigh Woods and Saber Riverhead, where the Dick’s Sporting Goods shopping center is located.

The town’s transfer of development rights program allows farmland owners to sell the rights to develop their land to developers looking for more intense uses on their land. The swap in building density allows more development where it is considered appropriate, and permits less development in a town that cherishes its agricultural past.

“What he was doing, in my book, was real unethical,” said Councilman George Gabrielsen, who is also a farmer. “He sits on the Planning Board and he sells TDRs. He was approving the plans and selling them TDRs. That’s like insider trading.”

Town Board members offered different explanations for choosing George Nunnaro, owner of Prest-O-Peconic, to replace Mr. Wells. Supervisor Sean Walter said at first that Mr. Wells had not properly reapplied for the position, though he later supported Mr. Gabrielsen’s contention.

However, minutes from more than one Planning Board meeting are incorrect, and indicate that Mr. Wells voted on measures involving the developers to whom he was selling TDRs when he was actually out of the room during the vote.

Mr. Wells contends that he recused himself from votes when he was advised to do so by the Planning Board’s attorney, deputy town attorney Bill Duffy. Mr. Duffy himself admitted that he was unaware in some instances that Mr. Wells was selling TDRs.

“I know in my mind I did nothing wrong,” Mr. Wells said. He added that he sold TDRs while on the board to champion the TDR program, which requires no public funding to preserve land in town.

“Those are a huge win for everybody,” he said.

The former Planning Board member sold TDRs to Saber for $325,000 in 2012, to Stoneleigh Woods for $80,000 in 2008, and to Stop & Shop for $472,500 in 2007, according to Mr. Duffy, who said Planning Board records indicate that Mr. Wells did abstain on some votes pertaining to these projects, but voted on others.

Some Planning Board minutes also were incorrect or just didn’t indicate how Planning Board members voted.

• Planning Board minutes indicate that Mr. Wells voted in favor of three resolutions on Stoneleigh Woods, a senior community on Middle Road, between 2010 and 2013 and was absent for another vote on Stoneleigh Woods.

Mr. Wells also was out of the room for a vote and discussion on Stoneleigh Woods on Dec. 18, 2014, according to a video of the meeting, although the draft minutes state that he voted in favor of the application.

• On Saber Riverhead, official Planning Board minutes indicate that Mr. Wells voted in favor of the project’s site plan approval on Nov. 8, 2012. However, a News-Review report of that meeting indicates that Mr. Wells was not in the room for either the vote or the discussion of Saber Riverhead that night.

Mr. Wells said in an interview at the time that he was advised to recuse himself from the discussion and the vote because he might sell development credits from his farm to the applicant, which he later did.

Mr. Wells did vote on an amendment to the Saber Riverhead site plan on March 7, 2013. However, that resolution was merely to clarify the number of parking spaces. Mr. Duffy said he advised Mr. Wells that he could vote on that resolution.

On Dec. 18, 2014, video shows that Mr. Wells also was out of the room for the vote and discussion on a resolution pertaining to Saber Riverhead’s landscaping plan. However, the draft minutes again state that he voted yes.

• The Town Board, not the Planning Board, originally granted site plan approval to Stop and Shop in 2006, the first time the town’s TDR program had been used.

After site plan authority was transferred to the Planning Board in 2007, however, its members voted on four site plan amendments for on Stop and Shop, but the minutes at the time didn’t record who voted or how they voted, so it’s not certain how — of if — Mr. Wells voted on those resolutions.

Mr. Wells said that whenever it became clear he would be selling TDRs to any developer, he notified the Planning Board chairman and counsel and stopped voting on the application at that time, though could not recall any particular votes from several years ago.

He said he doesn’t feel there’s anything unethical about asking lawyers representing developers who come before the Planning Board if they need development rights because Planning Board meetings are public and anyone can attend or watch them on television to find out which developers need TDRs.

“I’m interested in the big picture, which is limiting future population and preserving farmland, because those are the things that people come to Riverhead for,” he said.

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With Joseph Pinciaro