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Guest Column: Eminent domain decision sets a dangerous precedent

How long does a parcel of land need to be considered undesirable for commercial development for elected officials to act? For Southold Town, that number is right around 14 years. Let me state that again: This has been going on for 14 years. 

Since 2005, no less than four well-informed and well-documented traffic and hamlet studies have flagged the area of Main Road in Mattituck as an area that cannot afford more commercial development, which would result in more dangerous traffic. The parcel on the corner of New Suffolk Avenue and the Main Road has been specifically flagged. The reasons that this parcel was flagged as a poor location for development — it’s a dangerous corner, too much traffic, not accessible by pedestrians, no space for adequate parking — are the same reasons that this is not a good location for a public park. 

The Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association has been exhausting their concern over this parcel with Southold Town elected officials for years only to be “yessed” over and over, yet no action was taken. According to Southold Town elected officials, there was never an opportune time to purchase that parcel as it was “never for sale”, yet in the time between the 2005 traffic study and 2019 that parcel changed ownership several times. And when did town elected officials finally decide to act? When an application for a specific business was before the planning board.

Now, I would like to be clear, I am not in support of this business in this location.

I am not in support of a large “box” store in any of our hamlets. I am not in support of increasing traffic in an area that is already dangerous. But this is privately owned land that the owners purchased with certain legal rights intact. They are not asking for anything beyond what the town code allows. If this town wants to prevent a certain size of business or not allow certain types of businesses in a certain zone, it needs to be written in the code. For a decade the status quo has been using talking points in reelection campaigns stating they are working on updating the code to prevent situations like this from happening, but now we can see it was little more than empty talk. 

A comprehensive plan has been languishing for over 10 years, and although it is finally completed and adopted, it is still not implemented. However, keep in mind the comp plan is not the be-all and end-all; it is just a guide, it is not law. Now, due to previous lack of action from our elected officials, we are in this situation that could’ve been avoided. Now this community is in a situation where the public is so desperate they are asking us to take away someone’s private property. The end doesn’t justify the means.

I completely understand and see the desperation that the members of this community have and feel that this drastic action is the only thing they have left. I would like to express that I struggled with my decision and that I truly heard and empathize with residents’ concerns. I felt the weight that this decision holds and how big of an issue this is. As an elected official, part of what is required as a public servant is to see a larger picture beyond a single issue. 

Perhaps this matter will help us come together to take the necessary action to ensure this doesn’t happen again. However, I can’t help but wonder, if this application had been filed by anyone but an outsider, if this business was owned and operated by a member of the “old boys club,” would the town still be seizing their private property? The use of eminent domain by Southold Town to take private property from an owner because it doesn’t like the family or their business model is a dangerous precedent to set. 

I will not support the taking of the private property simply because this administration couldn’t get its act together. The future of development in Southold Town must be driven by updated, well-written code, a comprehensive plan, and an administration that will work to see it through. 

Ms. Nappa is a member of the Southold Town Board.