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May 25, 2018 12:02 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Planning Board Seeks Recommendation From Chief Building Inspector On Golf Course In East Quogue--Despite Public Comments Supporting It

The Lewis Road property.
May 30, 2018 11:07 AM

The fate of a proposed luxury golf course resort community in East Quogue appears to be in the hands of a single Southampton Town official: Chief Building Inspector Michael Benincasa.

The Planning Board unanimously approved a pre-application report on May 24, then passed the baton to Mr. Benincasa when it was time to make the biggest decision of the proposal—whether the luxury housing development can include an 18-hole golf course as an accessory use.

Mr. Benincasa, an East Quogue resident, has already offered a public opinion on an earlier version of the proposal: He spoke, as a private citizen, in favor of “The Hills at Southampton” proposal at a public hearing in December 2016, when it was in front of the Town Board for special zoning.

This week, project opponents said he should recuse himself for his lack of impartiality.

Town Attorney Jim Burke said on Tuesday that Mr. Benincasa was within his rights at the time to speak on the proposal as an East Quogue resident—but he said he would suggest that Mr. Benincasa defer to a deputy in his office or the Zoning Board of Appeals in answering the key question in the application.

Reached on Tuesday morning, Mr. Burke said he had not yet consulted with Mr. Benincasa. Mr. Benincasa did not respond to calls seeking comment.

“My department is not involved in the planning process for The Hills project, as folks know, but I’m here tonight to speak in favor of the project …” Mr. Benincasa said at the December 2016 public hearing held by the Town Board. “But we have the opportunity here to scope the plan that benefits our community, not just the taxpayers, but the environment. We can’t let this opportunity slip by.”

He continued: “There is not an as-of-right or standard subdivision process that can be used, and it doesn’t really do what we need it to do.”

During his testimony, Mr. Benincasa continued to note that the community benefits associated with the PDD—they included student scholarships, Main Street improvements, the installation of a sewage treatment system, and more—were real and would have been written into the town code if the project were approved.

The Hills application, which was struck down in December 2017 by the Town Board, and the newer Lewis Road Planned Residential Development, currently in front of the Planning Board, are similar proposals. Pitched by Arizona-based Discovery Land Company, both proposals include a plan for a 118-unit residential development with an 18-hole golf course. The property is zoned for 5-acre residential zoning—the most restrictive in the town.

The major difference is how the golf course would be built under town code.

In the former proposal, the developer sought a special change of zone called a planned development district, or PDD, to build the golf course. The PDD needed super-majority support—or votes from at least four of the five Town Board members—to be approved. It did not secure the necessary support; Councilman John Bouvier and Councilwoman Julie Lofstad voted against the project, citing potential environmental concerns.

Under the current proposal, the developer insists that it can build its golf course development without securing a change of zone. The company points to a little-used portion of the town code that permits the addition of certain recreational amenities, such as tennis courts, in residential developments. Discovery Land argues that a golf course to be used only by the development’s residents is a comparable amenity permitted by current zoning.

A group of opponents of the project penned a letter to the Town Board on Tuesday asking its members to make sure that the decision does not fall solely into the hands of Mr. Benincasa.

“Because Mr. Benincasa is on record as a vigorous advocate for The Hills proposal, he has a material conflict in rendering an objective opinion about the nearly identical Lewis Road PRD proposal and should recuse himself from any decision-making related to the further advancement of the Lewis Road PRD application before the Planning Board,” the letter read in part. It was signed by 14 leaders of community groups opposed to the project.

If the ZBA or the Building Department ultimately rules that the golf course can’t be built under current zoning, the developer has an alternate plan that calls for 137 residential units—including some workforce housing—with several amenities, but no golf course. The golf course resort is the preferred option of the developer.

Since the pre-application arrived in the Planning Department last year, the Planning Board has been hesitant to determine if it should give its mark of approval to a development with an 18-hole golf course. An 18-hole golf course has never been built in the town as a recreational amenity—though small private courses with as many as nine holes have.

Principal Planner Anthony Trezza, the lead planner on the application, said on Friday that the Planning Board is looking to Mr. Benincasa in the report because the golf course is more of a zoning question than planning.

“Neither the town’s zoning code nor the residence districts table of use regulations lists every permitted accessory use, building or structure allowed in a [5-acre residential zone], nor does the town code readily identify a golf course,” the Planning Board notes in a report on the pre-application.

“This analysis, or interpretation, is properly made by the chief building inspector, the administrative official charged with interpreting the zoning code,” it continues. “Thus, the Planning Board hereby refers to the chief building inspector the following question: Is applicant’s proposed 18-hole golf course, available only to the owners of the subdivision parcels and not the public at large, customary and accessory to the 118-home residential subdivision located on 591 acres, or does said golf course—together with maintenance and operating buildings and structures that accompany said golf course—constitute a second principal use?”

The question posed by the Planning Board in the report is at the heart of the discussion surrounding the proposal. Project supporters have said the golf course can be built as an amenity; opponents said the golf course shouldn’t be built because it would be a second primary use of the property.

It was not immediately clear when Mr. Benincasa planned to make a decision.

Planning Board Chairman Dennis Finnerty added that the pre-application report is adopted before the developer files its application to give it direction on what the town will be looking for—such as suggestions on lot configuration and drainage requirements.

Mr. Finnerty noted that Mr. Benincasa won’t necessarily be making the recommendation on his own; he has the option to consult with the Zoning Board of Appeals on the matter. If Mr. Benincasa decides to consult with the ZBA, the appointed board would hold a public hearing on the proposal, according to Mr. Finnerty.

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Given that the blog inspector interpreted a swampy back yard in Bridgehampton as Waterfront to allow for a front yard pool, this doesn’t bold well for opponents
By GlassHouses (64), anywhere on May 25, 18 3:32 PM
... too funny. This guy will have absolutely nothing to do with this. The elected town board says no, the appointed planning board passes it off to a single employee. I don’t think so.
By William Rodney (561), southampton on May 25, 18 4:21 PM
1 member liked this comment
If it ever passes, make sure they pay regular taxes, not like Southampton, Shinniecock. National and Sebonac that the town board gave them exemptions...
By knitter (1941), Southampton on May 25, 18 6:04 PM
2 members liked this comment
The Town Board did NOT give the exemptions.....NYS Tax Law did!
By Robert I Ross (250), Hampton Bays on May 27, 18 8:47 AM
The golf courses do not have tax exemptions. They pay the same tax rate as all parcels in the district and the assessed value formula is prescribed by NYS real property tax law so that golf courses across the state are valued in the same manner.
By Theresa Kiernan (26), Southampton on May 29, 18 9:53 AM
Another ploy for the Discovery Land Company to get their golf course. It is pathetic that SHT wants the Chief Building Inspector to make this decision. Under SHT Law.....just who is responsible to make this decision? One SHT employee who may very well be courted by DLC to vote yes. Clearly something is amiss in Southampton Town.
By crusader (391), East Quogue on May 26, 18 2:39 PM
1 member liked this comment
Mike Benincasa? Mike Benincasa? Seriously? Isn't this the same Mike Benincasa who spoke strongly in favor of The Hills project, more than once during the PDD review?

Sure it is. So how can the Planning Board possibly expect an impartial answer from this guy on the technical question they posed to him? If I were advising Discovery, I'd tell them to be very concerned about a poison pill here. If Benincasa offers a pro-golf course opinion and the Planning Board relies on it, that's an ...more
By Turkey Bridge (1979), Quiogue on May 26, 18 5:02 PM
The Southampton Town Board voted "NO" to The Hills PDD. One would think that the story has ended--not at all.
Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, a Hills supporter, helped DLC find another back door--The Southampton Town Planning Board. This Board should rule "NO' and end this nonsense. Instead, they show no backbone and decide to toss this major decision onto the Chief Building Inspector Michael Benincasa. What a joke !
Benincasa expressed his support for The Hills at a public meeting in East ...more
By HamptonClassic (132), Southampton on May 28, 18 1:56 PM
2 members liked this comment
In this "Trump" era of mass government deception and criminality, one would think they've seen it all. Leave it up to the Southampton Planning Board to trump, Trump's crooks. In a move that can only be called unnatural, the Town Planning Board, mostly appointed by Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, abdicated their responsibility to the people of Southampton Town, and gave Building Inspector Michael Benincasa, a known "Hills" supporter, their power, if any such power exists, to override our ELECTED TOWN ...more
By SpeedRacer (160), Southampton on May 28, 18 9:02 PM
2 members liked this comment
It's the same type of abdication of responsibility by congress that got us into the Iraq mess.
By bird (829), Sag Harbor on May 28, 18 9:20 PM
Remove the emotions that The Hills application invokes and ask if we are ok with a town board decision effectively being overturned by way of an appointed board punting final say to a single town employee? Are we ok with that scenario playing out with any application?
May 29, 18 8:03 AM appended by Craigcat
By Craigcat (258), Speonk on May 29, 18 8:03 AM
2 members liked this comment
He should take at least 6 months to study the issue from this new perspective, then recommend a further 8 month review by a non partisan Special Review Committee and subpoena the George Clooney, a part owner/investor in the Hills, to testify. He can have his wife represent him as counsel.
By dfree (818), hampton bays on May 29, 18 11:37 AM
1 member liked this comment
The proposed community benefits: student scholarships and other nonsense. In exchange for contamination of the groundwater.
You’re kidding, right?
By sak (6), sag harbor on May 31, 18 11:17 PM
Great! Let’s approve this and move on with improving East Quogue and help local businesses and support the schools - let’s accept this opportunity!
By HBester (1), Westhampton Beach on Jun 1, 18 10:31 AM
2 members liked this comment
public does not support this. The land needs to be preserved
By kuali (32), southampton on Jun 4, 18 8:45 AM
3 members liked this comment
Kuali - I'm part of the public and wholeheartedly support the Hills. . the vocal minority has sidetracked this project for too long. Its going to get built. and EQ loses all the originally offered perks. way to think that thru gang.
By rockford (2), westhampton on Jun 4, 18 3:30 PM
2 members liked this comment
Ridiculous. Benincasa should do the right thing and recuse himself.
By 2329702 (67), East Quogue on Jun 5, 18 12:08 PM