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Spot Zoning: A Bad Sign

Wed, 09/08/2021 - 19:34


So-called spot zoning is illegal in New York State, which made a recent East Hampton Town Planning Board decision to recommend just that a head-scratcher. The owner of a residential (read “house”) lot on Three Mile Harbor Road in East Hampton wants to annex a portion of it to his adjacent commercial parcel and change its zoning to match. While the sliver of property is small and the change would seem innocuous, it is a bad sign of a growing willingness among land-use boards to meddle with the rules on behalf of individual owners. One does not have to follow town affairs closely to see where this could lead.

Rather than seek a variance from a zoning board of appeals, property owners and their advisers have figured out that the East Hampton Town Board is an easier mark. One of the key measures by which zoning boards evaluate requests is whether the issue is self-created by a property owner, or if a reasonable alternative that would not require an exception can be found. In the case of the Three Mile Harbor Road proposal, Ruddy and Sons Masonry would like to take about 8,000 square feet of residential land, change its zoning to commercial-industrial, and thereby increase the lot area and setbacks, which would allow more options for the business. The remaining portion of the residential lot would be used to build four small townhouse units.

The owner of the two lots, Michael Ruddy, has said that the units would be for his business’s workers, some of whom have to commute hours from points west. However, as town planners and the zoning board know well, such changes stay with the land well after an owner has sold or moved on to new things, hence the emotional pitch about affordable housing. But housing is beside the point when one looks at the proposal as a precedent.

Down-zoning — that is, going from a more-restrictive category to one that is more permissive — is frowned upon and not consistent with the town’s comprehensive plan, which seeks to reduce sprawl and protect ordinary homeowners’ interests. It also puts the town board squarely where it should not be on land use issues: making individual decisions about individual properties — in an election year, no less.

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