For the past several years, development proposals in Southold Town have been trending toward larger and larger projects. This is true in terms of both mega-houses and larger, landscape-changing commercial projects such as high-end hotels.
Ongoing debate about land use has energized and often sparked conflict between advocates for preservation and those who see affordable housing units as more critical to the town’s future.
Now, another side effect of the change has become evident in Southold: a shift in how town government has functioned that carries a high price tag. As our story this week states, “A spike in lawsuits against the Zoning Board of Appeals is costing taxpayers.”
In June, the Town Board allocated an additional $40,000 for court expenses to address the wave of lawsuits filed against the Zoning Board of Appeals by people who didn’t get the variances they wanted and are pursuing their grievances in court.
This new allocation adds to the $25,000 originally budgeted for this purpose, bringing the total available for the ZBA to defend itself to $65,000. And as of mid-August, Supervisor Scott Russell said, only $14,000 of that is left. Even more money will likely be needed before the end of the year for the town to defend itself.
This is how Mr. Russell summed it up: “You see the current trend to want to build bigger and better. People I think want to build things the code doesn’t account for. And quite honestly, there’s people that just don’t take no for an answer. So their first instinct is to take us to court and we are seeing a growth in that.”
A dozen lawsuits have been filed against the ZBA so far this year — with more than four months still to go. Mr. Russell said he hasn’t seen that many suits against the ZBA in the entire time he’s been supervisor.
The suits — including six more pending from previous years — range from appeals of denied variances to an application to reverse a stop-work order on a construction project.
Southold is changing and the coming years will decide what we are, what we want to be, and what our landscape will look like. It is not an exaggeration to say the town is at a critical crossroads, with the Town Board, and the taxpayers, facing off against some people who want what they want and will hire lawyers to get their way. With the sharp rise in the cost of defending the ZBA’s decisions, this feels like another indication that change is underway.
As Mr. Russell said, “This is the new cost of doing business in Southold.”