Public Servant of the Year: Planner Heather Lanza

01/02/2014 11:00 AM |

KATHARINE SCHROEDER FILE PHOTO | Southold planning department director Heather Lanza describes the town’s plan for Plum Island earlier this year. The town later passed the first-ever zoning regulations on the island.

When Donald Trump announced his interest in building a golf course on Plum Island this past October, Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell was easily able to dismiss the billionaire’s dream.

“Unless he wants to get into the business of conservation or education I don’t think what [Mr. Trump] has in mind would be consistent with our zoning,” Mr. Russell told The Suffolk Times.

Behind Mr. Russell’s confident statement — he was effectively telling Mr. Trump’s representatives to take a hike — was the much-anticipated Plum Island zoning that passed in August and was written in large part by Southold Town planning director Heather Lanza.

As the nation watches to see what will become of the 840-arce island should the federal government move forward with its plan to decommission the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, the Southold resident never lost sight of the town’s intention to protect the island. For that, Ms. Lanza is the Suffolk Times’ 2013 Public Servant of the Year.

The zoning document was the result of a two-year process that included months of public testimony and numerous drafts. Both environmental groups and politicians have hailed the legislation as a victory.

Perhaps Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski, who helped spearhead the zoning during his time as a Town Board member, said it best.

“She really wrote the solution to our problem,” he said. “It took us years at the town level to get to this point. She and the planning staff did a tremendous job that you can’t put a price on. By zoning the island, we have authority over its use and it gives us control over its future rather than another government agency.”

Since the island is federally owned, it’s not currently subject to local planning regulations. The new zoning would take effect only if the island were sold for non-governmental use. The town’s planning department began working on the zoning after the Department of Homeland Security announced plans to replace the Plum Island lab with a new $1.1 billion animal disease research facility in Manhattan, Kan. The project calls for closing the Plum Island lab and selling the property to a private investor.

The pressure on the town to zone the island intensified in July when the federal General Services Administration recommended that government sell the land for the construction of houses on the property.

The zoning separates the island into two districts.

The Plum Island Research District would include the existing lab facilities and the 160 acres immediately surrounding it; the Plum Island Conservation District would cover 600 undeveloped acres.

The zoning satisfied environmental groups from both sides of Long Island Sound who championed protecting Plum Island’s undeveloped areas during the public hearing process.

“This was the most decisive action toward preserving Plum Island taken so far,” said Bob DeLuca, president of Group for the East End. “On a federal level it remains to be seen how this all plays out, but at least there is a regulatory backstop in place that gives us some reassurance if it’s sold.”

Reflecting on the process, Ms. Lanza said she always had a clear plan in mind when writing the zoning.

“The focus has always been what’s best for the people of Southold, their economic interests and environmental concerns,” she said. “So even though it had attention from beyond Southold’s borders it really didn’t matter because we still knew what we needed to focus on.”

Ms. Lanza, a graduate of the University of Massachusetts who has worked in the town planning department for the past six years, called the Plum Island zoning a career highlight.

“For a planner, the process of zoning a place that has never been zoned before is fascinating because it’s a rare experience,” she said.

While Plum Island took center stage in 2013, Mr. Russell said it was just one of many accomplishments for Ms. Lanza this year. She led her department and worked with the Town Board to complete nine out of 11 chapters of Southold’s Comprehensive Plan, a community-wide effort to map out the physical growth and development of the town.

Ms. Lanza’s expertise were also sought with numerous other efforts, such as the construction of affordable housing units on Fishers Island, amendments to the town’s code on wireless facilities and the town’s long-awaited special events law, which was passed over the summer.

“Each and every task gets done simultaneously,” Mr. Russell said. “In fact, under her leadership, no project has been delayed or not done to a very professional level.”

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