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Dec 21, 2011 9:44 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Building Inspector Defends Three Controversial Rulings

Dec 21, 2011 11:02 AM

A massive volume of Southampton Town’s zoning code sits at the center of Chief Building Inspector Michael Benincasa’s desk, with several other code books stacked on a shelf nearby. Mr. Benincasa says he flips them open frequently when dealing with land use questions—even though he often already knows the answers.

“An inspector can use these books two different ways,” Mr. Benincasa said. “To help people get through the process, or use it to try to stop people from getting through the process. I use these books to help people.”

Lately, he’s faced some challenges to his methodology.

Civic groups and residents have attempted to overturn determinations he has made in at least three controversial land use cases where neighbors and property owners have clashed, by appealing to the Southampton Zoning Board of Appeals. Some residents have even questioned whether Mr. Benincasa should be making such important determinations.

Meanwhile, town officials offered mixed opinions this week on Mr. Benincasa’s work. Town Councilwoman Nancy Graboski said she was greatly concerned with Mr. Benincasa’s recent rulings, while members of the ZBA and Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst defended Mr. Benincasa as a fair building inspector.

Last week, neighbors of a Bridgehampton homeowner who sought to install a swimming pool in her Hildreth Avenue front yard, claiming that her swampy backyard was waterfront property, successfully asked the ZBA overturn a determination by Mr. Benincasa that agreed with the claim.

A proposal for a large summer day camp on Majors Path in North Sea was also reviewed by Mr. Benincasa this year. He determined the proposed camp wouldn’t be a change or expansion of a preexisting, nonconforming use—a ruling that drew a sharp reaction from members of the community. They mobilized to appeal the determination to the ZBA, claiming the preexisting, nonconforming camp use on the property had been abandoned. The decision is still pending.

The third case involved the Wainscott Sand and Gravel Corporation, a long-standing sand mining business on Middle Line Highway. Mr. Benincasa issued a preexisting, nonconforming certificate of occupancy to the business owners for several uses outside of sand mining—much to the dismay of residents who live near the site and who have claimed the current composting and rock pulverizing at the site offensive. That appeal is pending as well.

“There is great concern about his unilateral and arbitrary decisions,” said Francis Genovese, a Southampton Village resident who has been following the cases. “They seem to lack due diligence and reflection. And the community is responding to that by appealing them.”

Mr. Benincasa said he sees his role as using the town code primarily to help property owners. He has made no secret of his pro-property rights views. His background and personal experience with government colors that.

As a property owner, he spent nearly 20 years unsuccessfully fighting in state and federal courts for the right to build a home on a 100-foot-by-100-foot property in Mastic Beach. He filed lawsuits against Brookhaven Town for initially failing to issue him a building permit to construct a home on the land. Seven years later, he said he settled the lawsuit with the town after the municipality issued him a building permit conditional on DEC approval. He eventually sued the DEC because they agency denied him a wetlands permit after remapping his property into a freshwater wetland area, when Mr. Benincasa said he was only adjacent to freshwater wetlands.

“Everything a government could do to somebody to stop them, they did to me,” he said

Finally, in an ironic twist, Mr. Benincasa sold the land to Brookhaven Town last winter to be preserved as open space. He said he had poured an estimated $150,000 into the property, both in the purchase of the land and legal fees. He sold it to the town for about $40,000.

“Am I bitter about it?” he said. “No. It was an experience. And that experience made me the person I am today.”

The Town Board is charged with setting policy, and a chief building inspector’s role is to interpret facts, said Ms. Graboski. Mr. Benincasa’s recent actions seem to breach the line between policy and interpretation, she said, adding that she disagreed with all three rulings and that they “shocked” her—particularly the determination on the Hildreth Avenue property.

“It was another added to the list that took my breath away,” Ms. Graboski said. “The people in the community were outraged. They struggled and struggled to hold on to the essence of what Southampton is, and determinations like this just fly in the face.

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Sadly, this town's government is growing more and more dysfunctional each day.
By nellie (451), sag harbor on Dec 21, 11 2:39 PM
Ms. Graboski says "It took my breath away", "decisions are dangerous", and "alter the very character we struggle to maintain". That is how she described the decision to allow a pool in the front yard because the back yard is a wet land. The town should make sure the pool is built safely and not a harm to others, thats it. She should not be deciding zoning and permits on what she finds appealing.
By Spinny OHO (94), Speonk on Dec 21, 11 3:28 PM
Nancy is NOT deciding zoning etc. she is expressing the current zoning regs and the ability to "get around" the regs, She has been an exemplatory council person during her tenure and we should all look to her decisions over the years to see what is best for our town. Nancy, you will be missed.
By xtiego (698), bridgehampton on Dec 21, 11 6:32 PM
Having dealt with Nancy Graboski, In my opinion she is a horrible council person who only cares about her own selfish ways. She is going to deny this family the joys of a pool just because she might drive by and have to view it for 3 to 4 seconds each day. And another example is tomorrow she will probably vote to spend over TWO MILLION dollars to restore a old building and beautify the area with new trees and bushes, and then a hour later lay off police officers and tell other town workers they ...more
By Spinny OHO (94), Speonk on Dec 21, 11 11:25 PM
1 member liked this comment
ATH has a strident follower who does the bidding. i No wonder she would support him. He is a property rights guy, buy mostly for those he knows or favors. If one cares to look at his departure from Brookhaven, a clear picture will emrege.
Now that Murphree is leaving, what better time for a fresh and fair look in this department.
The Highway Deptartment could use some part time help.
By waterboy (11), southampton on Dec 24, 11 8:14 AM
hey! as a homeowner in the hamptons, it is uncivilized to not have a pool - preferably heated. how can one possibly live without one?! a house has no rental/resale value without it. does any one ever do a cost per use breakdown on their pool???? ouch. this is all so sad... i'll go run myself a bath now.
By bh nematode (10), bridgehampton on Dec 25, 11 3:51 PM
The Brookhaven import just keeps on "interpreting" and "helping", because no one from Brookhaven would ever allow Zoning law to get in the way of an individual's right to profit at the expense of the public good. And the ZBA is there just in case! Just like the good ole' boys back in 'bama.
By kelbas (30), Southampton on Dec 25, 11 5:21 PM
It is enough to read Benincasa's decision in the Little Fresh Ponds Summer "camp" controversy. In it he simply says he agrees with everything the developer's lawyer has stated -- period. This is being challenged at homeowners' expense, and it should be. It is not enough for the books to sit on his desk. Let him provide precedents and explain his decisions more fully. He was foisted on SH Town by the Republican Party after their defeats in Nassau County. He earns $100,00+ salary; another $40, ...more
By Phanex (83), Southampton on Dec 29, 11 7:46 AM
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