Property rights versus community character.
Those issues took center stage during a public hearing on whether Southold Town should seize the corner property at Main Road and New Suffolk Avenue in Mattituck via eminent domain to create a community park.
More than two dozen community members spoke during Tuesday’s virtual hearing, the majority speaking in support of the town’s use of eminent domain. Dozens of letters and emails were also received by the Town Board both in favor of and against eminent domain.
The 1.75 acre property in question features 265 feet of frontage along Main Road and is currently owned by the Brinkmann family, who have plans for a 20,000 square-foot hardware store at the site, which is zoned Hamlet Business.
The project is currently thwarted by a building moratorium in place along Main Road in Mattituck first enacted in February 2019. The moratorium and now eminent domain proceeding have sparked concern among other commercial developers in the area.
Speaking at the start of the hearing, assistant town attorney John Burke said acquiring the property would be consistent with a 2005 Hamlet Study and 2007-2008 Hamlet Stakeholder initiative that specifically addressed the need to create recreation opportunities and green space within the hamlet center of Mattituck.
“It’s very, very concerning,” said Paul Pawlowski, a local developer. “When you buy property or sell property, we all have to live by a playbook and that playbook is our town code,” he said, arguing that the moratorium and use of eminent domain effectively “threw the playbook out.”
Brothers Hank and Ben Brinkmann, who own the property with their sister, stated their vehement opposition to the property seizure during the hearing that included a contentious exchange with Supervisor Scott Russell.
As he spoke in opposition to the “most extreme action that can be taken against a property owner,” Hank Brinkmann accused the supervisor of “clearly demonstrating that [he] intends to pick and choose who can and cannot build and do business in his town,” and entangling the board and public into a personal, political issue.
Hank Brinkmann also indicated that an ongoing legal battle and monies that would be spent to seize the property are a “reckless” use of public funds that would be better used towards preservation efforts outside of the hamlet center.
“I don’t even know you,” Mr. Russell shot back at Hank Brinkmann, claiming that they’ve only met at a political fundraiser at which the business owners attempted to discuss their application. “I’m going to hold my tongue because there is pending litigation,” the supervisor added.
Tami, a Mattituck resident who did not provide a last name during the Zoom call, said the hardware store isn’t desired in the area.
“That place with green trees that you see as a worthless parcel is priceless to us,” she said. “You can’t put a price on public space.”
Other residents took a similar stance. “Interlopers from up-island are not welcome here,” said Chris Shashkin of Mattituck.
Those who spoke in favor of eminent domain all touched on themes of community character and safety, citing the dangerous intersection at Main Road and New Suffolk Avenue and, slightly to the east, Love Lane and Old Sound Avenue.
Mattituck Laurel Civic Association president Anne Smith described that specific area as a gateway to the heart of town and while respectful of property rights, advocated for addressing traffic concerns, creating a village green and preventing retail sprawl in the hamlet center.
“Until vehicular and pedestrian hazards are resolved, nothing should be done in the heart of Mattituck that increases density and worsens traffic,” Ms. Smith said.
Denise Geis said a community park would help keep Mattituck’s rural character intact. “I believe this is in the best interest of the town and community,” she said.
Speakers against the use of eminent domain were quick to point to those traffic concerns as reasons the parcel is not suitable for a park — and that a park is not as important as property rights.
The town initially voted 5-1 to begin eminent domain proceedings against the Brinkmanns in September 2019, with Councilman Jim Dinizio opposed.
Officials said the town began the proceedings after “several attempts to acquire” the property were rejected. Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) spoke during the hearing to again extend an offer to preserve the corner parcel. “That is certainly still an option,” he said.
But co-owner Ben Brinkmann said they are holding on, threatening a second lawsuit if the proceedings continue. “We did not come to Southold looking for a fight,” he said. “But I will never give up or be bullied off of our land.”
He refuted community claims that their proposal would bring overdevelopment to the area, noting that they have only proposed 20,000 out of an allowable 30,000 square feet of development on their site. “A big box store such as a Home Depot is 100,000 to 150,000 square feet,” Ben Brinkmann said.
Resident Robert Dunn spoke near the end of Tuesday’s hearing and said that while he sees merits on both sides, this is an opportunity to hold onto what makes Southold unique.
But he said the town should pay fairly. “[The Brinkmanns] bought the land in good faith and if they’re going to get bounced, they need to get paid,” Mr. Dunn said.
Mr. Dinizio, who voted against taking the action, cautioned against further board action. “Eminent domain is using a sledgehammer when we probably could solve this problem in other ways,” he said. “I think we’re going in the wrong direction.”
State law mandates that following Tuesday’s hearing, Southold Town will have a 90-day deadline to adopt and publish its findings and determinations concerning the acquisition of the site. The report must address the public use and benefit of the proposal, location and reasons, general effect on the environment and local residents and other factors.