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Feb 16, 2011 10:55 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Questions Raised Over County Preservation Of Riverside Land

Feb 16, 2011 10:55 AM

In any other part of Southampton Town, the multimillion-dollar preservation of environmentally sensitive land would have elicited cheers.

But in the commercial business-barren hamlets of Flanders, Riverside and Northampton, where much of the tax burden falls on private homeowners because a large chunk of land is already preserved and removed from the tax rolls, recent news that Suffolk County plans to buy 20 acres in Riverside—land overlooking the Peconic River and once slated for a 98-room hotel and conference center—elicited jeers.

That’s because the pending $3.5 million purchase, which still must be authorized by Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, will mean that the hotel project—viewed by many locals as their last hope for what has been an elusive economic boost for their communities—will effectively kill their hopes for tax relief.

And the agreement, which many in Flanders, Riverside and Northampton claim was completed behind closed doors and without their input, has refueled bitter claims that the three hamlets will forever remain the most neglected corner of the town.

“The Town of Southampton should have bent over backward to make this happen, and they helped kill it,” said Northampton resident Chris Sheldon, referring to plans, dating back nearly a decade, to build a hotel and conference center on land that sits about 450 feet east of the Riverside traffic circle.

In recent interviews, Dede Gotthelf, the current owner of the property, repeated allegations that Southampton Town officials deliberately stalled her hotel project, dubbed the Rivercatwalk, for more than a decade. She said those allegations, which are laid out in a federal civil rights lawsuit that she filed in 2008, in which she is seeking $25 million in damages, essentially forced her to sell the land to the county.

In her lawsuit, Ms. Gotthelf is claiming that she was a victim of gender discrimination by town officials. She also charged that those officials purposely delayed her project so they could push a town-backed project, the Riverside Hamlet Center, that was later built across the street from her property. That project’s approval, she said, resulted in traffic and sewer limitations for her proposed hotel.

The thrust of the lawsuit, Ms. Gotthelf said, is proving that town officials treated her application differently from other planned development district applications. A planned development district, or PDD, is a tool that can be used by developers to build projects that would not normally be allowed under existing zoning as long as they offer some sort of public benefit.

“In the purest sense, this was a planned development district working hand-in-hand with the community,” she said.

In spite of the repeated roadblocks, officials at several different governmental levels said it was the proposed density of her hotel and conference center that ultimately killed Ms. Gotthelf’s project.

Bill Fonda, a spokesman for the State Department of Environmental Conservation, explained in several e-mails that Ms. Gotthelf never completed the required tidal wetlands applications for her project. A section of her Riverside property is wetlands and therefore subject to close environmental review.

Mr. Fonda also wrote that Ms. Gotthelf “never seemed to take seriously the state regulations” affecting the property.

In addition to several Southampton Town officials, including former Town Supervisor Patrick Heaney, the lawsuit filed by Ms. Gotthelf originally listed George W. Hammarth, the DEC’s deputy regional permit administrator, as a defendant. He was later dropped from the litigation, according to Mr. Fonda, who received notice in January that Ms. Gotthelf’s attorneys voluntarily removed him. Ms. Gotthelf declined to comment on why the DEC was no longer listed as a defendant, noting that the matter was related to active litigation. “I can’t answer that,” she said.

Town documents show that Ms. Gotthelf filed her original application in 2001, asking that the town rezone her land from a mixture of resort and waterfront business district to PDD. The zoning change was needed for her to construct a four-story, 83,441-square-foot hotel with catering and conference facilities, and other recreational amenities. The application also called for four two-story cottages, a 16,000-square-foot building for either a restaurant, office or retail store, and several access points to the Peconic River.

A hotel is not a permitted use under current zoning, according to town documents. But the documents also state that, with a special exemption, a waterfront business complex, motels, marinas and yacht clubs are allowable uses for the property. Ms. Gotthelf, meanwhile, originally contended that she would have been allowed to build a 25-room hotel on the site under current zoning. When pressed, she later said she could not recall what she could legally build on the site.

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Everytime Ms. Gotthelf was asked to submit revised plans that lessened the impact, she would submit something more ridiculous and absurd than before.

Her claim that the "Town kept changing the wetlands" is ridiculous - freshwater wetland are not static systems and change over time.

The DEC would never approve this and she was basically told such but ignored them. Her plans called for parking lots within a couple feet of freshwater wetlands when the law requires 150' seperation. ...more
By Nature (2966), Hampton Bays on Feb 17, 11 9:52 AM