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For Sports East, a single code definition could change everything

10/06/2016 4:18 PM |

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Sports East, a multi-sport athletics club proposed for Main Road in Mattituck, is officially back from the dead.

But the proposal, which has drawn both widespread public support and some pointed criticism from neighbors and community leaders, now faces a hurdle to clear: does it meet the Southold Town code’s definition of an “annual membership club?”

According to the code, such a club has a “principal purpose of engaging in outdoor sports.” The question the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals must answer is whether Sports East, which also includes indoor space for sports, meets that definition.

That question may seem trivial, but it has big implications for the project. Before Sports East can be approved, the Zoning Board must first rule whether it meets the definition to be eligible for a special use exception permit. Without that permit, the project can’t move forward.

The issue was raised by the town’s Planning Board as part of an at-times heated approval process that initially caused developer and project partner Paul Pawlowski of Mattituck to pull the project from consideration earlier this year. Mr. Pawlowski had been upset that the Planning Board was ready to require the developers to complete more costly environmental reviews.

The Planning Board has also asked the Zoning Board of Appeals to weigh in on the definition of an “annual membership club” in June.

The application was refiled unchanged to the Planning Board yesterday, Mr. Pawlowski said Thursday. Since the proposal was technically pulled before the Planning Board could reach a decision, Mr. Pawlowski said the developers have had time to respond to their environmental impact concerns.

The proposal calls for a “state-of-the-art” 140,000-square-foot indoor space for a gym, indoor and outdoor turf fields and tennis courts, an indoor pool and indoor running track at a wooded parcel on the south side of Main Road, just west of Sigsbee Road.

On Thursday afternoon, the ZBA hosted a crowded public hearing at Town Hall, where backers of the project and its critics weighed in on the proposal. Mr. Pawlowski, developer Joe Slovak, attorney Charles Cuddy and other businessmen all backed the project, with Mr. Pawlowski saying it “met every ingredient” of a special exception defined in the code.

Joseph Pfaff, general manager at Laurel Lake County Club, noted his golf course had been approved for a special exception despite having multiple indoor uses, like a pro shop, pool and a restaurant.

Mr. Cuddy took a different approach, arguing that the Planning Board — which he claims had already tacitly signed off on the definition — was trying to get a second bite at the apple.

“What they’ve asked you to do is to apply this code again,” he said. “What they’re really asking you for is a do-over.” Mr. Cuddy said following through with the decision would set a precedent for future proposals before the town’s boards.

Likewise, Mr. Pawlowski protested that the question of definition wasn’t brought up earlier.

“Is it surprising to you that this question was raised so late in the game?” he asked the board.

But ZBA chairperson Leslie Weisman said any board in town has the right to ask the ZBA for an interpretation of the code at any time.

“The process is what it is,” she said. “This is a very large project. It has very large impacts in our community and it is not surprising to me at all that it takes a while to figure it out.”

Some residents voiced support for Sports East, saying it would be a positive development for the North Fork, which has long sought a sports facility for youth and families.

But Ms. Weisman shut down those comments, noting the board was only interested in determining if Sports East could be defined as an annual membership club.

“Our job today is a very narrow one,” she said.

Neighbors who were critical of the project seemed more focused in their statements, questioning over and over whether Sports East was truly an outdoor-focused club in line with the definition.

“What concerns me is the multi-use of this,” said Denise Geiss of Sigsbee Road. “Once it’s built we cannot get back that property.” Neighbor Julie Amper said she felt the project had “a heck of a lot more indoor activities than outdoor activities.”

Mr. Cuddy responded that the definition doesn’t include any percentage of how much use must be outdoors and said the uses inside the building would be “virtually identical” to those outside. Mr. Cuddy said the project combined outdoor and indoor sports uses so that members would be able to play sports in winter.

Mr. Pawlowski warned that deciding against the proposal would doom the town’s chances of having a sports facility.

“There’s no property large enough,” he said. “It will have to happen on [residential] zoning. It will need a special exception or it’s never going to happen in our lifetimes.”

The public hearing was adjourned to be completed at the ZBA’s special meeting in two weeks. Residents who wish to share their take can send written comments to the ZBA before then.

Photo caption: Sports East developer Paul Pawlowski stands at a podium at the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting Thursday with Mary Eisenstein, a Mattituck resident and president of the Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association. Ms. Eisenstein didn’t comment on the merits of the proposal but asked what the next steps after the meeting would be.

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