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County OK’s new planning alliance with little local support

NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | An aerial view of Calverton Enterprise Park.

Is an effort by Suffolk County to tie funding for certain projects to attendance at a quarterly regional planning meeting an effort to get everyone on the same page, or strong arming by big government?

Despite concerns from several supervisors in the 10-town county — including leaders in Riverhead, Southold, Brookhaven and Shelter Island — who believed that an unnecessary layer of red tape was being formed prematurely, Suffolk County seems poised to create a Regional Planning Alliance Program to “coordinate among numerous municipal governments in the region.”

The program will focus solely on “projects of regional significance,” as the county of 1.5 million people looks toward what future development may mean for the entire region — and how to best harness pending projects for all municipalities in Suffolk.

The Suffolk County Legislature passed a measure approving the formation of the alliance by a 10-7 vote Tuesday. County Executive Steve Bellone also supports the effort.

Participation in the program would be voluntary, but funding for regionally significant projects in the county would be jeopardized — and likely withheld — if towns opt not to participate.

And some towns probably won’t.

“This legislation is a heavy-handed effort to infringe on each town’s zoning and land use powers and, if adopted, will make Southold Town re-think its participation” in its planning collaboration with Suffolk County, a letter from Southold Supervisor Scott Russell read. Elaborating further in person, he said he will consider removing the town’s sole representative on the existing Suffolk County Planning Commission in protest of the new measure.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter spoke in front of the Legislature Tuesday morning, reading Mr. Russell’s letter aloud, as well as another from Islip Supervisor Angie Carpenter opposing the measure. He said that while the Planning Alliance would be required to meet four times annually, “if you sit there and have a quarterly meeting, you’re not doing anything to promote economic development.”

Legislators at Tuesday’s Suffolk County Legislature meeting said six of 10 supervisors in the county oppose the formation of the alliance. Southampton Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst and former Greenport Mayor David Kapell spoke in favor of the bill.

“Fragmentation of municipal authority is public enemy number one in a quest to solve problems such as housing, jobs, water protection and other issues that can’t be solved at the local level,” Mr. Kapell said.

Mr. Walter, along with others opposed, pleaded with the sponsor of the bill — William Lindsay (D-Oakdale) — to table the resolution, saying that putting the broad effort on hold would likely not delay any business proposal. He hoped to sit down with all of the county’s supervisors and Mr. Lindsay to clarify questions pertaining to what the bill will do for businesses and towns as well as how it will impact a town’s effort to conduct its own economic development.

“I’m not saying this is wrong,” Mr. Walter said. “I’m just saying this legislation is not right. It’s not ready to be done yet.”

A project of regional significance, according to the legislation, is defined as one that “will have a substantial effect upon the health, safety, welfare, economy or environment of Suffolk County or upon more than one unit of local government.” It would also need that designation by the Long Island Regional Planning Council or the Suffolk County Planning Commission.

Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) voted against the measure, calling it unnecessary.

“I don’t want another layer of government imposed on anything, let alone planning initiatives,” he said.

Several legislators who voted in favor of the resolution, including Southampton’s Supervisor-elect and current Legislator Jay Schneiderman (I-Hampton Bays) said that further honing of the bill could occur in the future.

The idea of the Regional Planning Alliance Program came from a comprehensive plan the legislature unanimously approved in July, which suggested creating a “mechanism and incentives to promote intermunicipal planning.”

The same day the legislature approved the master plan, Mr. Lindsay introduced the concept of the Regional Planning Alliance Program in a formal piece of legislation.

The alliance will not have the authority to approve or reject projects; that responsibility still rests with local municipalities. The county will offer a list of preferred vendors it already works with to help expedite the process for developers, Mr. Lindsay said. And with representatives from surrounding municipalities around a single table, suggestions on large projects could be made with the county as a whole being in the conversation. And the county — as an incentive to promote regional planning — could potentially withhold funds if suggestions from the alliance are not considered in a project.

“I understand from a local level, [towns] want to exert as much control as they can,” said DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), Presiding Officer of the Legislature. “But I think from a county level, we have to exert as much control as we should be able to as it comes to regionally significant projects.”

Mr. Gregory said the legislation doesn’t go far enough in some respects, echoing a sentiment expressed earlier in the day by Legis. Lou D’Amaro (D-Huntington Station). Mr. D’Amaro dismissed Mr. Russell’s letter as “misinformed.”

“If you look up ‘good government’ in the dictionary, this is the bill you’re going to find,” he said. “We cannot put any strings attached to county funding? That’s ludicrous.”

Mr. Russell defended his position.

“So if someone proposed 40 affordable units in Southold, and grants for that project funnel through the county — is that a project of regional significance? The project might not be, but the issue of affordable housing may be. The definition is left to the new alliance,” he said.

Mr. Walter said that amid a busy run for re-election, the proposal flew under his radar and, to the chagrin of Mr. Krupski and other legislators, the bill’s sponsor did not reach out to supervisors to make them aware of the new incentive program that would mandate the towns’ participation in order for the projects to receive funding.

“It would make more sense, if the whole intent of the bill is to communicate better, to table the bill and communicate with the towns that are uninformed,” he said. “You could inform them and bring them on board. And maybe you would bring them on board, or maybe you wouldn’t.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that legislation proposing the regional alliance was introduced not long after the master plan was approved. It was introduced on the same day the legislature approved the master plan: July 28.