The City Council voted 3-1 on Aug. 15 to appoint two new members to the Zoning Board of Appeals, despite concerns expressed by a number of residents about one appointee’s potential conflicts of interest and ties to labor unions.
Though Councilwoman Anissa Moore cast the dissenting vote and had asked to table the measure, Council President Len Torres, Vice President Anthony Eramo and Councilwoman Chumi Diamond voted to appoint Long Beach residents Erica Rechner and Daniel Creighton to fill the expired terms of trustees David Bythewood and Stuart Banschick, who were not recommended for reappointment, those with knowledge of the candidate search said.
Councilman Scott Mandel did not attend the meeting.
Three current members of the board — longtime trustees Dr. Rocco Morelli, the board’s chairman, and Michael Leonetti, as well as Esteban Acevedo — were reappointed to three-year terms.
The seven-member zoning board, which serves without compensation, has the authority to grant or deny applications for variances or special exceptions for building plans that do not comply with local codes. A number of residents questioned Rechner’s affiliation with labor unions. They pressed officials on the selection process and called for the vote to be postponed.
Rechner earned a degree in economics from Keene State College and is the director of Opportunities Long Island — a nonprofit outreach and training program that provides residents of low-income communities access to careers in the unionized construction industry. Creighton is an engineer and senior adviser at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Capital Construction Company. They were among six candidates who applied for seats on the board, City Manager Jack Schnirman said.
“We began advertising for applications for the zoning board in September of 2016,” Schnirman said. “We continually extended the applications, as, frankly, we did not receive a lot of applications.”
Zoning and the future
The appointments come at a time when the city is looking to overhaul its decades-old zoning laws to address future development as part of a proposed comprehensive plan.
“I think, regarding future development, we obviously want the right development,” Rechner said, adding that resiliency and preserving the character of the community are top priorities. “No one wants overdevelopment. Looking at the zoning code and long-term vision of Long Beach, there’s a strategic plan, and I’m focused on keeping an open mind and listening to what the community has to say.”
In recent years there has been growing concern about overdevelopment in town, particularly after the zoning board approved a height and density variance in 2014 to the developer iStar to build two 15-story luxury apartment buildings on the Superblock that would be roughly 50 feet taller than the city’s current height limit of 110 feet, which many residents say set a precedent for future development.
Residents have also criticized a proposal to develop condominiums on former Hebrew Academy of Long Beach property, and complained about a number of lawsuits involving the zoning board, including a potential $50 million judgment the city may have to pay as part of a suit filed by the developer Sinclair Haberman.
“Development has obviously been a highly contentious issue in this town for a year or so, and the ZBA has played a fundamental role in all that, including, unfortunately, the iStar debacle and Haberman debacle,” resident John Ashmead said. “It’s heavily engaged right now in the HALB variance process, and there’s the complexity and uncertainty of the comprehensive plan and development of the [city’s] north side. What that says to me … is that it’s critical that the city not take any hasty steps in appointing ZBA members.”
The Hauppauge-based Opportunities Long Island is a free program that prepares young adults from poor communities to compete for a limited number of apprenticeships offered by construction unions each year. Last year it held an information session at the Martin Luther King Center as part of an outreach initiative for its apprenticeship training.
The program is part of an initiative of the Long Island Federation of Labor and the Nassau-Suffolk Building and Construction Trades Council. The trades council supported iStar’s application for a $109 million, 20-year tax incentive last year — which was rejected by the Nassau County Industrial Development Agency — as part of a labor agreement that was expected to create 2,000 local construction jobs.
“If we have someone [for whom] the success of her job is tied to securing work on development projects so they can put people in their program into this, I can’t see how that person can make unbiased and dispassionate rulings when developers come in front of the zoning board,” John Bendo, an Independent who is running for City Council this year on a Democratic ticket, alongside Diamond and Mandel, said of Rechner. “It seems like a very clear conflict of interest. Quite frankly, I think this is very problematic.”
Rechner said that was not an accurate characterization of her role, and added that she would not have been involved in any labor agreement with iStar. She said she would recuse herself from any vote that presented a conflict of interest.
“I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about what I do,” Rechner said. “I work for a nonprofit — I’m not working for big developers, and the City of Long Beach is my home. I think I can keep an open mind about what’s best for the community overall.”
“I’ve really fought hard for people in various communities who are unemployed or underemployed to give them access to … training and education at no cost to the individual,” she added. “These jobs have been both union and non-union.”
Those with knowledge of the interview process, who declined to be identified, said that while there were initial concerns that Rechner's work with the trades could impact her decisions as a trustee, the zoning board is rarely presented with large-scale projects that involve union labor. Rechner was recommended, they said, after she made clear that her career would not influence her decisions, in addition to her academic background, work in the community and understanding of the comprehensive plan.
Still, Moore asked for the measure to be tabled to allow for more time to gather information and discuss Rechner’s background. But the other council members did not back her motion, which sparked criticism from residents.
“This was a pretty extensive search,” Diamond said. “I believe that [Rechner and Creighton] are qualified.”
“We all collectively interviewed the candidates, and spoke at length about visions for the city,” Eramo added. “Both the two new appointments presented themselves in a way that I think reflected all of us at the time, and the entire council was in agreement at the time.”