The seven-member Southampton Town Planning Board could be reduced to five members if a resolution introduced by Town Councilman Chris Nuzzi is adopted.
A public hearing to discuss the measure has been set for January 13. Mr. Nuzzi’s plan would also cut the Zoning Board of Appeals to five members and reduce the individual term of service for both boards from seven to five years.
Mr. Nuzzi said his plan was aimed at cutting costs and increasing efficiency. “If you add up the salaries and benefits of all the boards, then over a seven-year period you’re talking about saving some half million dollars,” he said. Mr. Nuzzi said he is working on a resolution to cut the seven-member Conservation Board to five members as well.
But current Planning Board member Jacqui Lofaro, whose term expires at the end of this year and would be removed from the board if Mr. Nuzzi’s plan goes through, charges that the councilman’s resolution is more about politics than belt tightening. Ms. Lofaro is one of two Democrats on the board; Alma Hyman, whose term expires at the end of 2009, is the other Democrat and also opposes the measure. Mr. Lofaro said she thinks that she and Ms. Hyman are the targets of the Nuzzi plan.
“Both Alma and I are very vocal,” Ms. Lofaro said. “We both opposed the approval of the Woodfield Gables application, which was highly contentious. We both called for a reversal of that decision.”
Mr. Nuzzi, however, dismissed any assertion that his motives were driven by politics. “I didn’t look at who it impacts on a personal basis,” he said. “This cuts across the entire political spectrum. In no way am I casting aspersions on any particular board member.”
Mr. Nuzzi added that former Town Councilman Steve Kenny, a Democrat, took the initiative to limit the terms board members could serve to two. “We’ve also increased the cost-share formula for health benefits for those serving on these boards, and this is just another means of cutting costs.”
Planning Board Chairman Dennis Finnerty said he hadn’t had time to study Mr. Nuzzi’s resolution, but he didn’t believe the councilman’s actions were political. “I really think this is about numbers in this economy,” Mr. Finnerty said. “I don’t think Mr. Nuzzi’s plan is directed at anyone in particular.”
Mr. Finnerty also noted that the Planning Board consisted of five members from 1957 until former Town Supervisor Fred W. Thiele Jr. added two additional members in 1991, a point made by Mr. Nuzzi as well. “This board used to be only five members. I haven’t heard a compelling argument why it can’t operate with five again,” he said.
That argument may come from Town Councilwoman Nancy Graboski, who served on the Planning Board when it had five members as well as after Mr. Thiele expanded it to seven. “I think the board worked quite well with seven members, and I’m against reducing it back to five,” Ms. Graboski said.
In her view, seven members are needed to provide a better geographical representation. “On the Planning Board, you have to act within certain time frames. You’re making major decisions and you have to be able to provide adequate representation,” she said.
Ms. Graboski said the Planning Board deals with land use issues, which she said are some of the most controversial. “We need to continue to search diligently for additional cost-cutting measures,” she said. “But not at the expense of weakening these boards and potentially compromising their ability to function optimally and in the best interest of the town.”
Town Councilwoman Anna Throne-Holst agreed that cutting costs in the weak economic climate was a top priority for the town, but said the amount of dollars that would be saved by Mr. Nuzzi’s resolution was not worth it.
“Planning and zoning is such a huge part of what affects and shapes this town,” Ms. Throne-Holst said. “We need as much balance and representation as possible for both denials and approvals. I voted in favor of holding a public hearing because I want to hear more. But these decisions coming out of these boards have great consequence for the town, and I’m not sure that the money saved on a yearly basis relative to an $80 million budget is a good trade-off. We need the variety of perspectives that these members bring. By shrinking the size of the boards, we shrink that balance.”
Mr. Nuzzi, however, said he thinks that in government an argument can be made that less is more. “When people sign on for the Planning Board, they are making a commitment, just like any other board,” he said, adding the Town Board consists of only five members and requires a simple majority of three for making crucial decisions.
When the public hearing is held on January 13, new Town Board member Sally Pope, a Democrat, may well cast the deciding vote. Co-sponsors of Mr. Nuzzi’s resolution are Town Supervisor Linda Kabot and outgoing Town Councilman Dan Russo.
“This is being done for cost saving and efficiency,” Ms. Kabot said. “Right now there is not a high volume of applications. I am supportive of the resolution, at least temporarily. If there is a building boom again, then we can reconsider it.”
For now, Mr. Russo’s absence on the board seems to leave the matter split. Ms. Pope could likely represent the tie-breaking vote.
However, Mr. Nuzzi also pointed out that he was open-minded to opposing arguments. “We only set a public hearing. If certain facts come to light that I’m unaware of, I am certainly willing to listen.”