Pictured Above: The Enclaves resort hotel project in Southold began clearing land in late February.

The Southold Town Board has set a public hearing for Tuesday, June 18 at 4:30 p.m. on a proposed 12-month moratorium on hotel, motel and resort development proposals while the town updates its zoning code.

The board declined on Tuesday to take up a request earlier this April from the North Fork Civics coalition for a broader development moratorium while the zoning update is underway. That process is expected to be finished next spring with the help from a consulting company called ZoneCo.

In an April 10 letter to the board, and at a special meeting April 18 to discuss the hotel moratorium, members of the coalition asked the Town Board to extend the moratorium to new commercial development, major subdivisions, special exception permit applications, zone change requests, and use variances.

In a presentation at the Town Board’s work session Tuesday morning, April 23, Southold Town Planning Director Heather Lanza said she understands “why people want to put a pause on everything while we do the zoning update. People are worried about what might happen, and that we don’t have adequate protection in place.”

Ms. Lanza said the town Planning Department is not seeing a high volume of applications for large projects other than hotels, and her staff’s time that would need to be used to prepare the rationale for a moratorium “would be better spent on getting the zoning update done.”

“I think anyone proposing a project between now and next spring is taking a big risk, especially since those sorts of large projects are going to get the most scrutiny in the zoning update,” she said. “Most large commercial site plans end up taking a year or more to be finished… Savvy developers understand it would be a risk to spend time and money to apply now, especially because there’s a potential for it to be made obsolete by whatever we do with the zoning.

Ms. Lanza added that the town has strengthened its State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) process for environmental review of major applications since a consultant working for the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals drafted an Environmental Impact Statement for controversial hotel “The Enclaves,” which received its final site plan approval earlier this year.

“Since then, we’ve switched the procedure. The Planning Board takes Lead Agency status. With a department of professional planners, we’re better able to manage the process and get the best outcome for the town,” she said.

She added that it is up to the Town Board to consider zone change requests, and the board can decide at will to not entertain zone change requests.

“Last year, the Town Board did agree to hold in abeyance several zone change requests,” she said.

Ms. Lanza added that the section of the code regulating subdivisions is not part of the zoning update, and that most developers who are considering large subdivisions opt for the town’s conservation subdivision process, which involves preserving 75 to 80 percent of the land.

“One of the things people are alarmed about is they’re seeing a lot of houses go up,” said Ms. Lanza.

Many of those houses, she said are in subdivisions that were created decades ago that are just now being fully built out.

“We can’t say ‘you can’t develop those lots now.’ That would be litigation,” she said.

She added that Town Building Inspector Michael Verity has provided her with figures showing the town grants an average of 80 building permits for new residential construction each year, with a high point of just over 140 permits in 2021, the year the 124-unit Harvest Pointe condominium complex in Cutchogue received many of its building permits.

“The facts don’t back up the alarm that we’re getting an enormous number of new homes built,” she said.

Ms. Lanza said her department is considering redesigning the town’s special exception permit process, which allows the Zoning Board of Appeals to set additional restrictions on large uses like hotels and restaurants.

“We’re looking at more conditions for different uses, more scrutiny for hotels, and other uses presumed to have a higher impact,” she said.

Town Attorney Paul DeChance said that, because the items the civic groups asked to be included in the moratorium aren’t being considered for changes in the zoning update, the town would have a difficult time justifying a moratorium on those types of development.

“Moratoria have to be based on a valid purpose,” he said. “The hotel moratorium being considered by the board was very specific as to the purpose. It was a real purpose.”

“There are regulations in place to deal with every other development residents of the town seem to be concerned about,” he added. “They’re not being changed by the ZoneCo work. They will still be in place. When looking for purpose for a broader moratorium, there appears to be none. It cannot be based upon worries or public support.”

Mr. DeChance added that Greenport Village’s moratorium last year on new development proposals was confined to very specific areas downtown where the village was planning to change the zoning.

“It was a very specific purpose, and they were able to explain that purpose,” he said.

Town Supervisor Al Krupski likened the civic involvement at this stage in the zoning update process to Spring Training for a year that’s going to be filled with debate over Southold’s zoning.

“We’re going to get into the nuts and bolts pretty soon,” he said. “I see no downside to this. If anything, it’s positive. The community’s been so engaged in this process. We don’t want people to come to meetings next March (when the zoning recommendations are complete) saying ‘we never heard about this.'”

Several community members spoke before the board’s unanimous vote to hold the June 18 hearing on the hotel moratorium at Town Board’s regular meeting that same afternoon, April 23.

Describing the hotel moratorium as “small,” Anne Murray of the North Fork Environmental Council pointed out that if the moratorium “was more broad, you’re not singling out one particular group of businesses. That’s something you might want to think about.”

“Have any East End towns ever been sued over a moratorium? I don’t think they have,” she said. “You’re perfectly within your legal rights to consider it.”

New Suffolk Civic Association Treasurer George Maul thanked Ms. Lanza for her presentation earlier that afternoon.

“It did a lot to help people understand what’s going on in terms of development,” he said. “The more information you have, the less fear there is. I still think a lot of work needs to be done. The zoning process has been a real community process. How nice it is to see that the community wants to be engaged.”

(Editor’s Note: Mr. Maul also serves as the Creative Director for the East End Beacon, a non-editorial role)

Southold resident Margaret Steinbugler read from a white paper on land use moratoria prepared by the New York State Department of State, pointing out that a moratorium based on changes a community outlines in a comprehensive plan prevents a race to apply for building permits before the zoning is changed.

“The validity of this type of ordinance has been held up by the courts,” she said. “I do think it should be broader, and there might be other land uses inadequately controlled in the current zoning.”

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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