We were surprised to learn this week that a planned hospital annex to be built on a site off Pantigo Road would have a staff of just 14. For a 23,000-square-foot building, this seems implausibly low. It also brings into further question just what the supposed emergency care facility could handle and whether it would actually lighten the burden for ambulance companies that now have to take patients through nearly year-round traffic to Stony Brook Southampton Hospital. Unfortunately, the East Hampton Town Board, which is spearheading the project through the permit process, does not seem to be willing to address this or other important issues.
Not to go too deeply into the planning and zoning details, nonetheless it is highly improper for the town board to have assumed “lead agency” status in reviewing the hospital’s proposal. Normally, the apolitical planning board would be the lead agency on this kind of undertaking — and rightly so. Planning board members are appointed for seven-year terms with the explicit purpose of isolating them from political pressure. Given the complexity of the annex, it would have been far more appropriate as well for the planning board to have lead agency status. The town board’s role is generally thought of as that of lawmaker, not land-use review. This project is a clear example of why there needs to be this separation.
Charging ahead because of a fall state funding deadline, the town board this week removed a major hurdle for the hospital annex when it made an official determination that a zoning change for the site would have only a negligible effect on traffic and the environment. This is ludicrous, of course, unless the staff figure stays at 14, which no one seems to believe. Had the board majority made the right decision by asking for a detailed study, the process would be getting the careful scrutiny it deserves. It is difficult to gauge what the outcome would have been had the planning board been the lead agency, but we suspect a more measured pace would have prevailed.
The power grab led by Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc away from the planning board must be noted. A so-called negative declaration under the State Environmental Quality Review Act made this week was hasty and ill advised. As Town Councilman Jeffrey Bragman pointed out, the vote that the board made claiming the hospital annex would be of minimal impact is illogical, given that the board only the week before had received a study of the traffic implications for the Pantigo Road-Route 27 corridor.
Despite years of hard work on a comprehensive town plan, this project is destined to add to a sense of eastward sprawl along Montauk Highway. By changing the proposed site’s designation from parks and recreation to commercial, the town board would go against a long-held conclusion that East Hampton needed more recreational options, not fewer — there are two Little League ball fields there at present. It also raises questions of whether the board is engaged in improper “spot zoning,” that is, changing laws to benefit a single applicant — in this case itself, since the town would be the hospital’s landlord.
Few people disagree with the idea that additional medical services within East Hampton Town would be a good thing; however, that does not mean that the planned hospital annex with a tiny staff — in this location — would actually meet that call. Unfortunately, by taking control over an already fast-track review process, the town board is assuring that those questions never even get asked.