Greenport’s ‘administrative moratorium’ facing growing opposition

The “administrative moratorium” adopted unanimously last December by the Greenport Village Board is coming under increasing fire as it stretches into the spring.

 In January, the Suffolk County Planning Commission (SCPC) staff issued a report recommending that the village board scrap a proposed formal moratorium, saying it is “not justified by the findings of the proposed local law” and “there is absolutely no data cited in the local law to support the written contention” that there is a growing demand for development in the village’s commercial zones.

At a Feb. 1 SCPC meeting, county commissioners questioned the legality of the village’s existing administrative moratorium.

Late last month, Greenport was served with a notice of claim — the first step in filing a lawsuit — against the village and its zoning board of appeals, challenging the administrative moratorium as illegal, outside the scope of the board’s authority and a violation of due process rights.

At an SCPC meeting on March 1, despite a plea from Greenport Village Attorney Joe Prokop for an up or down vote, the commission postponed its decision, contending that materials requested last month had only reached the commission one week earlier. (While the village is seeking the county planning commission’s endorsement of its proposed local law, the board can overrule objections from the SCPC with a super majority vote.)

At last week’s first village mayoral debate, Greenport Mayor George Hubbard Jr. distanced himself from the controversial moratorium, saying he opposed it, but voted in favor of it because “everyone was screaming at me.” He said that if the village continues with the administrative moratorium, lawsuits could pile up that “we may end up not winning.”

“The [administrative] moratorium, per se, if it continues for a long period of time, it could be detrimental to the downtown business district,” Mr. Hubbard said at the debate. “Somebody wants to open a sewer or do something down there? It could take them a year or two to … get it done. If it’s not an as-of-right use, you’d have to go through planning and zoning, and that cannot happen during the moratorium.”  

He went on to say that the administrative moratorium could prove costly to the village in the long run.  

“We got served with one lawsuit from downtown for the moratorium… I’m afraid there will be more coming up if we continue with the moratorium without an endgame … We don’t need ten lawsuits that cost the taxpayers … a lot of money in lawsuits that, per legal counsel, we may end up not winning the lawsuits if we override and continue with the moratorium.”

While Mr. Hubbard described the action as a lawsuit, it is in fact a notice of claim.

At the debate, candidate Kevin Struessi — who spearheaded the petition drive that convinced the board to enact an administrative moratorium — claimed the mayor’s stance on the moratorium remained unclear, prompting Mr. Hubbard to clarify why he voted in favor of the moratorium.

“I was trying to push the village board to move forward to try and change the code and not do the moratorium,” he said. “When we got the petition, everyone was screaming at me saying ‘you’ve got to do this’ and all. I voted in favor of scheduling a public hearing to move it forward, so that all of you people could talk to us and tell us what you wanted, instead of the decision just coming from the board.”

At a subsequent debate for candidates running for village trustee, Jack Martilotta — a current trustee and the village’s deputy mayor — said the moratorium concerns him as well.

“Initially, I wasn’t for the moratorium because I think we’re conflating two things. We’re saying ‘the only way we can [update] the LWRP [Local Waterfront Revitilization Plan] is if we have a moratorium.

“That’s not true,” Mr. Marilotta continued. “My concern is that it’s a very big, blunt instrument. Whoever wants to open a business, we’ve now created this barrier. We’ve tied the moratorium to doing the LWRP and I don’t think the two should be tied together.”

At this month’s SCPC meeting, developer Erik Warner, who submitted a proposal last year to build a 22-room inn on Main Street where Sweet Indulgences stood until last year, said that Greenport is becoming “an unstable place run by unstable people.” He accused the village board of “messing around with my property rights” and “haphazardly stopping all growth in the downtown area.”

Mr. Warner’s attorney, David Gilmartin, told the commission that a moratorium is unnecessary and is an extreme response to any need to update codes. He accused the board of “showing bad faith” and called their action “a dereliction of duty.”

While Mr. Warner has not taken legal action against the village, Eugene Avella’s application to add a second-floor apartment to his single-story property at 27 Front Street is the subject of the notice of claim that was filed last month against the village.

Mr. Avella’s application was rejected by the village inspector, according to the notice of claim. When he appealed the decision to the Village Zoning Board of Appeals, he claims, the appeals board delayed setting a hearing date and then the village board issued the administrative moratorium — placing his project on hold indefinitely.

Mr. Avella could not be reached for comment, but his attorney argued that the administrative moratorium is illegal.

“We believe that the facts as alleged in the notice of claim are true,” said attorney Eric Bressler. “They have been reported on,” he said, citing Mr. Hubbard’s debate remarks. “Village officials have conceded that the facts are so, and we further believe that given those facts [the administrative moratorium] violates the statutory law … violates the constitutional law, and the village should be held liable for that.”  

Still, given the 200 signatures on the petition calling for it, the administrative moratorium has support among a significant portion of the village’s likely voters.

At the March 1 SCPC meeting, Greenport Trustee Julia Robins defended it as a “unique situation.”

“I want to give a little historical perspective as to why I believe this is a unique situation in Greenport,” Ms. Robins told the commissioners. “The village has a business district that is intertwined with the residential districts. This has an impact on parking, the construction and increased use of even one building has a direct impact on this area. Greenport’s business district had fallen into decline with the advent of Riverhead’s rampant development of County Road 58. This development forced the decline of most of the small retail on Front and Main Street[s] that residents used to use to purchase most of their clothing, household, hardware and sundry needs. With this came the closure of many of those businesses, and the downtown business district had an economically depressed feel to it. The development of Mitchell Park and the marina began a turnaround for the village.”

Ms. Robins said that the transformation of the village into a tourist destination “created  an ongoing friction between the residents who live in the village and the new businesses attracting tourists” that continues today.

In recent months, Mr. Stuessi has been Greenport’s most vocal voice in favor of the moratorium.  

At the mayoral debate, he said a moratorium is necessary to protect the character of the village, and that only a moratorium would stop sites that once held small businesses from being purchased by multi-million dollar companies.

“We are a village of one square mile with very limited resources [and] we have things we need to take a look at.” He said that Stidd Systems marine engineering operation, “one of the largest properties on the waterfront” was for sale.

“The movie theater has been quietly listed for sale for a significant amount of time over the past year, before being publicly listed. A number of other buildings on Front Street have been listed, as well as some on Main Street. There are things that we need to be concerned about, and we all need to work together to protect.

“I’m prepared to protect them,” he concluded, “and I’m not afraid of big developers and lawyers.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the first name of a developer. He is Erik Warner, not Eric Warner.