When a group of three local businessmen first proposed building Sports East in Mattituck nearly a year ago, they felt confident they could do so without applying for a change of zone on the Main Road property.
The R-80 Residential Zoning District allows “annual membership clubs” by special use exception permit from the Southold Zoning Board of Appeals. With two previous proposals for the property having already encountered some opposition from community members and town officials, the indoor-outdoor athletic facility was something property owner Paul Pawlowski described as sorely needed and he was cautiously optimistic it could be built here.
Whatever hope still existed after a year-long process with several bumps in the road was crushed last Thursday when the ZBA ruled that Sports East’s application does not meet the requirements for a membership club.
Before the unanimous decision, ZBA president Leslie Kanes Weisman said that because the proposed indoor facilities encompass more of the property than outdoor fields, Sports East is more consistent with the category of “recreational facility commercial” than with the “club, membership, or country or golf” designation the developers were seeking.
The Sports East application calls for a state-of-the-art 140,000-square-foot building with an indoor athletic field, courts for tennis, volleyball and basketball, a gym, rock climbing wall, exercise classrooms, 32-seat eatery and space for child care. The proposal also features outdoor athletic fields and tennis courts on the 21-acre wooded property just west of Sigsbee Road.
The project received overwhelming public support, with only a handful of detractors speaking during multiple public hearings.
The ZBA decision, which halts the planning process, deals a significant blow to the chances the facility chances will ever be built. But Ms. Weisman said the developers still have options, including submitting an amended application that’s more in line with the club membership definition or filing a change of zone request. Either way, the project would also need site plan approval from the Planning Board.
Sports East partner Joe Slovak of Laurel said in an interview last week that while he found the ruling disheartening and frustrating, he and his partners will take the ZBA’s comments to heart and “try to craft something that’s permissible for the property.”
“We’re going to keep on going,” he said. “We respect their decision. They spelled everything out and gave us a sense of what needs to be done.”
In a statement on The Suffolk Times’ Facebook page, Steve Marsh of New Suffolk, the third partner in Sports East, wondered why a conversation about the indoor vs. outdoor square footage didn’t occur earlier in the process.
“Simple negotiations over the ratio of indoor to outdoor square footage, which sports to add or remove, would have occurred over a series of brief discussions spanning no more than a few days,” he wrote. Mr. Marsh also stated that many of the sports being proposed for the indoor facility can be played outdoors, but the enclosure allows them to be played in all weather, something unique to the region.
In an interview Tuesday, Mr. Marsh confirmed that plans for a new proposal are in the works. Since the new plan will likely include more outdoor fields, less land will be preserved, a situation Mr. Marsh described as unfortunate.
Planning Board chairman Donald Wilcenski defended the planning process in an email, saying “all applications get fair treatment by the Planning Board and staff.”
“In hindsight, it is easy to say, ‘We should have done it another way,’<\!q>” Mr. Wilcenski explained. “But during the process the board has to balance private property rights, [try] to be business-friendly and [weigh] input from public hearings. The input we took from the public hearings made it clear that we needed an interpretation from the ZBA.”
Town Supervisor Scott Russell described what happened to the Sports East plan as a “travesty” and believes the applicants have “every right to be rip-roaring mad” since they were brought through the planning process prior to having the permit issue settled.
“That’s a question that should have been answered at the very beginning,” he said. “I think applicants deserved that answer. They don’t necessarily need a yes or no, but they deserved that answer.”
The supervisor also described the Sports East application as “probably the most poorly handled one I’ve seen in my 10 years here. We have a lot to choose from and that’s at the top.”
Mr. Russell said he’d like to work toward a solution with the Sports East team.
Earlier this year, Mr. Pawlowski requested that the site plan for the proposal be withdrawn after planning staff recommended a stringent environmental review for the project. The matter before the ZBA continued anyway.
In a statement to The Suffolk Times, Mr. Pawlowski expressed frustration with the process and placed some of the blame on the Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association, which he called selective in how it handles development proposals.
Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association president Mary Eisenstein took exception to the remarks and noted that after the civic reached a consensus on Mr. Pawlowski’s previous proposal for a mixed-use development on the site, her group has “remained neutral” on the Sports East application. “The civic has been honest, open and transparent in its process,” she said.
Ms. Eisenstein added that the civic is currently looking to organize roundtable discussions with local stakeholders to discuss Sports East. She said the process would be similar to how the group has worked to improve traffic safety at the Love Lane intersection.
“Here’s an opportunity to shape how we want our community to look,” she said. “We invite the public to participate in this endeavor.”
In his statement, Mr. Marsh said he’s “as passionate about the project as ever,” but has concerns about going back to the drawing board.
“I fear that we might waste more time and money only to encounter another turn in the road,” he said.
Photo: A public hearing sign posted on Main Road in Mattituck where Sports East is proposed. (Credit: Krysten Massa)