Subdivision in Limbo

Family seeks resolution; neighbors see bias issue

    An East Hampton family that has tried for many years to gain final planning board approval for a four-lot commercial subdivision on land between Springs-Fireplace and Three Mile Harbor Roads expressed frustration and pleaded for help at a town board meeting earlier this month. They were hoping, it appeared, to find allies in Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and Councilwoman Theresa Quigley, who from the start of the administration last year have said the planning process here is onerous.
    However, opposition to the proposal among some who live in the area has again been galvanized by the revived suggestion that the landlocked parcel be accessed over the southern portion of West Drive, routing commercial vehicles through what is now a quiet, dead-end street.
    Carolyn Lester Snyder and her husband, Harold, who has since died, applied to the planning board for subdivision approval in 1999. She still hopes to offer the spaces as storage and vehicle depots for service businesses, such as construction companies, plumbers, and landscapers. The lots would be created on seven acres behind the family’s popular gourmet and fresh produce market, Round Swamp Farm, on Three Mile Harbor Road, stretching east toward Springs-Fireplace Road.    
    It was determined then that the family had legal access to the property from the southerly portion of West Drive, which adjoins Springs-Fireplace Road. However, John Jilnicki, the town attorney, said last week that an urban-renewal map of the area appears to show conflicting information.
    The planning board granted preliminary site plan approval in 2009, but required instead that access to the subdivision be over the northern portion of West Drive, a stretch bordered by industrial properties.
    That plan was formalized in a 2004 resolution by the town board, which called for the creation of a cul-de-sac at the end of the southern West Drive, to prevent through traffic.
    That is when things became mired down.
    Gaining the right to use the northern portion of West Drive required the town to condemn land from uncooperative property owners, and that process has now stretched over six years, according to Laurie Wiltshire, a land planner representing the Snyders, who spoke at the East Hampton Town Board meeting on May 3.
    Ms. Quigley said that the board must take costs to taxpayers into account. Condemning the land will cost an estimated $60,000, plus incidentals, she said.
    “Six years is a lot to impose on an individual, and $70,000 is a lot to impose on the taxpayers,” she said. “I don’t know why we went down this road.”
    “The planning board is not allowed to make decisions in a vacuum,” she later remarked.
    “I just remember a lot of residents years ago, begging us not to change the character of their quiet little street,” said Councilman Pete Hammerle.
    “Every road in town has trucks on it,” said Carolyn Snyder. In a shaky voice she said, “We should be suing the town for what we have lost over 25 years.” The family has spent $80,000 on roadwork on the northerly end of West Drive, Lisa Niggles, her daughter, said.
    The process has been inching forward, according to Mr. Jilnicki, the town attorney. He said the town has acquired title to some of the needed land (some through a land swap), but that it has encountered a number of legal snags along the way.    One property owner, he said, will not cooperate unless the town creates a road improvement district, in which the changes to West Drive would be funded by taxes assessed on landowners bordering it.
     “I think it’s reprehensible,” Ms. Quigley said. “I don’t know what the problem is.”
    “You’ve been present at discussions with the condemnation counsel,” Mr. Jilnicki told her.
    If the process cannot be completed soon, Ms. Quigley said, then the southern access option should be used. “I’m with Ms. Snyder,” she said. “There are trucks on every road in this town.”
    But in order for the southern option to go forward, the planning board would have to modify its conditional subdivision approval.
    Both Ms. Snyder and Charlie Niggles, another family member, said that when the family began the subdivision process, the southern portion of West Drive was a dirt road, without residences.
    Ms. Niggles said that a neighborhood resident she had spoken to expressed concerns about drug trafficking at the dead end of West Drive, and noisy dirt bikes in use. The area would be safer if the road were opened up, Ms. Niggles said: Lights and a gate would be installed if that becomes the entrance to the Snyder subdivision.
    Residents of West Drive, Morris Park Lane, and the environs painted a different picture when they spoke to the board last Thursday night.
    “What you saw at the last work session was what I call theater at its best,” J.B. D’Santos told the board. “They could go through their own land at any time, but refuse to do so because they want more freebies.”
     “There is a socioeconomic problem,” Mr. D’Santos suggested, with the decision to route trucks through “a neighborhood that is basically formed by African-Americans, Latinos, and a few whites.”
    “Quality of life has to be an equal playing field, and we can’t just take a longtime family in East Hampton and place their quality of life above ours,” said Elizabeth Cotter, a West Drive resident, of the Snyder family, which has deep roots in East Hampton. “I’m asking you guys to slow down,” she told the board.
    “Whatever the decision has to be, it’s taken too long,” said Mr. Wilkinson.
    “It’s about the planning process for me,” said Ms. Quigley. “I’m looking at a process that’s completely unacceptable, because that’s a quality of life issue.”
    “It’s been 20 years that we’ve been dealing with this,” said Jennifer Steph­ens, who grew up in the Morris Park neighborhood. “Why is it that they can’t use their own property?”
    Ms. Stephens took issue with Ms. Niggles’s comments about drug trafficking. “That’s how it seems, that the Snyders are saying that we’re beneath them,” she said.
    After watching a videotape of the board’s discussion with the Snyder family, Mr. D’Santos said it appeared as if the family had found allies among the board members. “You were smiling,” he said.
    “I’ve been told I should smile more,” Mr. Wilkinson replied.
    “You should smile more; it’s good for your face,” said Ms. Stephens. “You don’t look like you’re approachable. You were smiling when you needed those election votes.”
    “My passion is to figure out why the process is taking so long,” Ms. Quigley said. “I don’t care about the color of skin of the applicant. I care about the people of our town who should be treated with respect.”
    The town attorney had been asked to provide information for a discussion of the Snyder application at a board work session on Tuesday, but speakers last Thursday night asked for the discussion to be moved from a daytime work session to a nighttime meeting, so that working people could attend.