Southold changes process for ZBA fees; attorney says fees should be more transparent

The town passed an amended fee structure for applications to the town Zoning Board of Appeals in a 4-2 vote on Tuesday night, despite critique from a local attorney during a public hearing.

The adopted amendment strikes fee prices from existing code, with an added notation that future ZBA application fees will be established and changed as needed by resolution of the Southold Town Board. The changes also note that a copy of the fee schedule is on file in the town clerk’s office and that ZBA application fees are nonrefundable. 

Patricia Moore, a Southold attorney, criticized high ZBA fees and a lack of transparency about fee structure in the amended code.  

“I think it should be very crystal clear what fee structures are so it’s not the subject of interpretation and it’s also easily accessible,” she said. She emphasized that she understands the difference between adopting a local law and a resolution. 

“It’s a much more stringent process to change things when you have a local law,” she said. “I understand trying to make things easier, but this is not one of those that I think should be easy, I think it should be justified.”

Supervisor Scott Russell, who voted in favor of the amendment, pointed out that other fees are also set by resolution, which Ms. Moore said she disagrees with. 

“I don’t think any fee should be by resolution, I think the public should know what you’re charging,” she said. 

She also argued that application fees are too high. Southold is a fairly wealthy community so the money might not seem like much to some, she said, but “the ones that we hurt the most are not the wealthy, those that need small variances typically.”

“What I found in the last number of years is that we’re penalizing the smallest properties which are typically the least expensive properties, the ones that need variances, and I’ve had little cottages that need relatively minor variances but nonetheless, because of the size of the parcel, ends up with a $2,500 application fee,” she said. 

She’s seen “extremely high” application fees for people who are “struggling to try to keep costs down,” she said. The fee structure should be “careful” and “deliberate” because not everybody is wealthy and not every property is asking for extensive variances, she added. 

“I’ve been to code committee meetings where I listened to the argument by the zoning board saying ‘oh, our fees are too low, look at Southampton, look at East Hampton, look at this and that,’ but I think that in Southold, we have created a structure that pretty much everything needs a variance. We haven’t created a code that gives relief,” Ms. Moore said.

Mr. Russell emphasized that the law is not to change fees, but to change the way fees are assigned from local law to resolution. Upcoming fee resolutions would be noted on the town agenda, he said.

“We’re not setting fees by this legislation, we’re merely changing the way fees do get set,” he said. “We’ll do it by resolution like all other fees [by board action].”

Ms. Moore responded that application fees are often calculated by ZBA interpretation. “I think they’re trying to follow the code but take a look at what they charge, look at your own budget when you get it from the Zoning Board … These are significant fees, and my concern is that they’re going to just keep going up without any check,” she said. 

Mr. Russell said there’s no reason the town would take a different action on a resolution rather than a local law. “Same board, same action, same vote,” he said.

Town Board member James Dinizio, who voted against the amendment, pointed out that the Town Board used to publish fees in the code by public hearing. 

“There have been a few times where you could go to the code and know what the ZBA is going to charge you until the next time it comes up and has a public hearing and they change it,” he said, addressing Ms. Moore. “You look for that and that’s not happening now, what’s happening now is just that they’re going to change the code, the prices on basically a monthly basis if they so choose.”

He added that the board has been discussing ZBA fees for “quite some time.” 

Town Board members Louisa Evans, Jill Doherty, Bob Ghosio and Mr. Russell voted in favor of the code change. Town Board members Sarah Nappa and Mr. Dinizio voted against the amendment.