June 07, 2006

Supe Nixes Engineer Delays in Traffic Study?

An "independent" consultant Southold Town was set to consider hiring to study how the Cross Sound Ferry affects traffic has worked for a group that is trying to put the ferry out of business, a ferry company spokesman charged.

Recently, negotiations on a pricey proposal, presented by Patrick Cleary, of Northport-based Cleary Consulting and Nelson & Pope Engineers, screeched to a halt after it was revealed that the study would set Southold back almost $100,000.

Councilman Tom Wickham said although Cleary's proposal was good, it was too costly, and instead suggested interviewing another consultant.

To that end, he contacted Steven Schneider, a Coram-based former planning director of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council who, Wickham said, has both planning and traffic/transportation experience. Rather than dividing up duties, as would have been the case with Cleary and Nelson & Pope, Wickham said that Schneider might be able to provide all the necessary services at substantially less expense.

However, a subsequent investigation revealed Schneider has a major conflict of interest.

Last week, Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell learned that at a 2001 Southold Town planning board meeting, Schneider testified on behalf of the Southold Citizens for Safe Roads, an organization whose members have rallied against CSF-generated traffic.

"He had actually been hired by the Citizens For Safe Roads," said Russell. "That would make him ineligible for hire by the town in this instance." The supervisor added: "The idea of the study is to provide objective guidance to the town."

Stan Mickus, marketing director for the CSF said at the 2001 meeting, which was held on an application for site plan approval made by CSF, Schneider "made comments against both Cross Sound Ferry and the Town. His appearance as a paid consultant and advocate for Safe Roads should immediately discredit him from doing any work on behalf of the Town, especially this traffic study, should it go forward."

As this publication went to press, other possibilities of conflicts of interest were uncovered: A letter, dated May 2, 2001, was written by Jeri Woodhouse (who is now Planning Board Chairperson) and her husband, John. In the letter, Woodhouse said that she was a member of Southold Citizens for Safe Roads. "Clearly, we have a bias," she wrote. "We favor full-scale environmental reviews for any projects that may have an impact on the critical environmental areas in our town and which may impact on the town's utilization of resources to ensure the safety and well-being of its residents."

Although Woodhouse did not respond to calls for comment by press time, a recent photo taken of the pre-Easter gathering of Southold Citizens for Safe Roads showed Woodhouse in attendance.

And that's not all: The sign-in sheet at the event listed the name of Leslie Weisman, a newly appointed member of the Southold Town Zoning Board of Appeals. Weisman did not return calls for comment regarding whether or not she is a member of the Southold Roads organization by press time.

"Obviously, we are concerned that certain members of Town government and its agencies appear to have aligned themselves with a special interest organization, a partisan organization with a bias against Cross Sound Ferry who continuously disseminates false information and creates unwarranted ill-will towards our company and the service we provide," said Mickus.

"It should be an issue for the ethics board to consider," Russell said of Woodhouse and Weisman. Both should "recuse themselves from any ferry business that comes before their respective boards."

Russell pointed out, "the issue cuts both ways," noting Jim Dinizio is a ZBA member who offers public comment at hearings in support of the ferry. "The ZBA is quasi-judicial and neither Leslie nor Jim can argue impartiality here."

As for Woodhouse, Russell said that he agreed, when and if the planning board reviews the site plan, she should recuse herself.

But, he added, "The basis of the legal fight is that the CSF does not want to come in for a new site plan." In the meantime, he said, there is no "issue" for Woodhouse to review.

Southold has been engaged in ongoing litigation with the CSF as a result of the CSF's alleged failure to comply with an approved site plan that expired on August 1. The town is seeking an injunction to curtail the CSF's operating service to what it was back in 1995, something the CSF said would have severe impacts and cause a profound loss of revenue.

Despite the litigation, Russell and the board agreed to reach out to CSF seeking cooperation on a traffic study.

Freddie Wachsberger, president of Southold Citizens for Safe Roads, appeared at a work session recently and urged the board to undertake a comprehensive traffic study.

Wachsberger emphasized voiced concern over an application filed by CSF with the Southold Town Zoning Board of Appeals for a parking plan that would bring 450 additional cars to the site, and suggested expansion at other sites. 

CSF filed an application to the ZBA on February 23, 2006 requesting a special permit to park cars on the two parcels of land that "Cross Sound has owned for over a decade or more," said Stan Mickus, CSF director of marketing. The land is directly adjacent to the existing snack bar parking lot was "used for ferry parking for over 50 years, long before Cross Sound owned the Orient Ferry," he said.

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