Raising the Roof Over House Size
Speakers like limits but say a ‘behemoth’ may be in the eye of the beholder
A trend toward large houses, even on small lots, has prompted a new East Hampton Town law that would restrict their size. Dozens spoke at a hearing on the proposal on Friday.
By Joanne Pilgrim | The East Hampton Star
(1/24/2008) A hearing on Friday on a proposed law placing much tighter limits on the size of houses that could be built in East Hampton drew a room full of people to Town Hall and lasted over four hours as nearly 40 speakers weighed in.
Most agreed with the objective — to protect the character of East Hampton by ruling out overbuilt McMansions that loom over other houses. However, many feared the law could hurt property owners, people who rely on the construction economy, and tax revenues. Several speakers urged the board to more carefully analyze and redraft the law.
The proposal is to limit the size of a house to 12 percent of the lot size, plus 1,000 square feet. Considering how broad its impact would be, many people said each and every property owner should have been notified by the town of the proposal. Legally, only zoning district changes require mailed notices to individual property owners; otherwise the town notifies residents of pending legislation through published legal notices.
The size of a house that may be built is already based on the size of the property, but is expressed as the building’s “footprint.” Two stories of footprint size may be built: For instance, on a half-acre lot an 4,000-square-foot “footprint” is the maximum, allowing a two-story, 8,000-square-foot house.
Under the new law, the maximum house size, no matter how many stories, would be 3,400 square feet on a half-acre lot. Current setback requirements and an overall maximum house size of 20,000 square feet, throughout the town, would be retained.
Because of the widespread reaction to the proposal, the town board agreed to accept written comments from the public for an additional two weeks, until Friday, Feb. 1.
Members of the Amagansett Citizens Advisory Committee and others have for several years been urging the town board to act, alarmed at the explosion of teardowns and large new houses replacing them in such areas as the lanes south of the highway in Amagansett.
“The invasion of these super-large houses that have taken away the character of our community,” said Betty Mazur of Amagansett at Friday’s hearing, amount to “a mass case of identity theft.”
“We do not want inappropriate development to hurt the place that we love the most,” said Joan Tulp, a member of the Amagansett Village Improvement Society.
The proposed legislation grew from the efforts of a committee including Town Supervisor Bill McGintee, Don Sharkey, the chief building inspector, Marguerite Wolffsohn, the town planning director, Frank Dalene of the Long Island Builders Institute, Greg Zwirko, an architect, a town attorney, and representatives of the citizens advisory committees of Montauk, Amagansett, and East Hampton.
First to speak at Friday’s hearing were a number of attorneys who, with clients in mind, had investigated various impacts of the law and called the board’s attention to a number of them that they suggested had not been fully considered.
One lawyer, Christopher Kelley, said the legislation took “a broad-brush approach where perhaps a more refined surgical approach would be more appropriate.” The law, he said, does not distinguish between areas of East Hampton where overbuilding is a problem and where it is not.
Mr. McGintee said, however, that neighbors have been concerned about oversized houses not only in Amagansett but also in areas like Ditch Plain in Montauk and Maidstone Park.
Mr. Kelley laid out four suggestions with which a number of subsequent speakers concurred.
House size limits should be tied to the minimum lot size of a zoning district, he said, rather than to the actual size of a lot. That would address an inequity for the owners of lots in a clustered subdivision, whose properties would have been larger if the town had not attempted to preserve as much open space as possible by making them small.
Second, he said, property owners who have already obtained building permits for renovations to houses that do not comply with the new rules should be exempt.
Many speakers echoed Mr. Kelley’s third recommendation, that the property size on which house size is based should include protected easements, common driveways, and the like — in other words, all land within the lot’s boundaries. Large portions of some lots contain dunes or wetlands, said Richard Whalen, also an attorney, who called the law “over all . . . very reasonable.”
Mr. Kelley’s final point, that the law may be inappropriate in some areas, was also echoed by many other speakers. He noted that in Amagansett’s historic district, for instance, large houses are the community’s character. On other properties, he said, such as flag lot or wooded acreage, a large house “may have no visual impact from the road, or no impact on its neighbors.”
Mr. Kelley proposed that the law provide a way for property owners to get exemptions from the building inspector instead of having to apply to the zoning board, which, he said, is time-consuming and often costly.
“This law is saying to people it’s better if you subdivide,” said Bill Esseks, representing Ron Baron, who bought 41 acres on Further Lane in East Hampton. He suggested having lawyers representing property owners meet with the town board “and see if you can’t come up with a formula that works for everybody.”
Ken Silverman, an Amagansett resident who said he thought the law “kind of reasonable,” urged the town board to re-examine its particulars, adding that “when you have Chris Kelley and Bill Esseks agreeing on something, I think you should take it seriously.”
An “unintended consequence” of the proposed law, said Richard Hammer, another lawyer, could be that property owners who were not permitted to add on to their houses would build “detached accessory structures” instead. “Is that worse or better than having it attached?” he asked.
Like many others, Mr. Hammer agreed with the principle of the proposed law, but said the issue was “more an argument about mass” than square footage. He suggested that a panel of architects, land planners, and members of the Architectural Review Board could find a way to “characterize volume” and write limits into the law.
Mr. McGintee said the committee had examined approaches to building height and visual mass versus actual size, but found the solutions unworkable. The committee will reconvene to look at other solutions along the same lines, he said Tuesday, before the town board discusses the comments made at Friday’s hearing.
Jennifer Hartnagel of the Group for the East End expressed the group’s support for the law, but acknowledged some fine-tuning may be needed.
Bill Crain, who heads the East Hampton Group for Wildlife, said the law will “help to maintain the rustic, natural beauty. There’s a need for a shift in values,” he said. “There’s a growing recognition of the need to live more simply.”
Also expressing support were members of the Amagansett Citizens Advisory Committee and Ed Porco of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk, who added, however, that there are questions to be addressed.
“One of the reasons people come here is to be with nature,” Carol Morrison of Montauk said in support of the law. “People bring their ideas from other places. What you build and live in here is different.”
Larry Cantwell, the East Hampton Village administrator, showed up at the hearing to “encourage” the town board. If previous officials had not had the courage to enact groundbreaking zoning rules, he said, “a lot of us probably wouldn’t want to live here any more. For all that has been accomplished here . . . if we don’t take the steps that you’re discussing here today, we’re going to be Garden City anyway.”
But Jeannette Schwagerl and her husband, Robert Schwagerl, residents of Amagansett, expressed vehement opposition — to applause. The new law, she said, would be “too drastic of a change. The town’s overly restrictive proposal impairs a lot of people’s plans and dreams, and should not be enacted hastily.”
“Limiting living space is more of a lifestyle regulation than an architectural regulation,” she said. “Merely controlling gross floor space may still allow for a large visual mass . . . and large bulk.”
“This legislation is taking a sledgehammer to my ability to build a house that’s comfortable for my family,” Peter Mendelman said. “It’s really hard to get a small fixer-upper and renovate it for a family, and this legislation makes it practically impossible.”
The Amagansett residents who pushed for the law, he said, should “solve their own problems without attacking me. People who live south of the highway in multimillion-dollar houses do not represent the working families of Springs. I don’t think, even in these hearings, you get the full flavor of people who have to work for a living,” he told the board.
His brother, Mark Mendelman, also spoke. “I 100-percent support the goal of preserving the natural beauty and the character of this town,” he said. He added, however, that “this legislation will stifle my dreams,” and “adds to an already long list of limits to what a homeowner can do.”
Others questioned whether the town board had fully considered all the economic ramifications the law could have.
“The Town of East Hampton is driven economically by the people who happen to have some money, from working or because they inherited it, and they’re really not interested in living in a house that’s only 3,500 square feet,” Roy Parker said.
Mr. Parker said that he had looked at the houses in the historic district in East Hampton Village, which enacted a similar house size restriction, and found that “not one of the houses there could be rebuilt under current regulations, and yet the people wanted to preserve them.”
“The underlying value of our real estate is the house that can be built on it,” said Kevin Conboy, a real estate broker. “This is a complicated situation. Everybody in the room has the same goal, to protect the community. But we have to balance the economics,” he said.
He suggested more architectural review rather than overall size restrictions, saying, “There’s nothing wrong with a 5,000-square-foot house if it’s in keeping with the community.”
“The value of taxable assets throughout the town will be lowered under this proposal,” said Dominick Stanzione of Amagansett. “If the town wants to preserve the visual character of a neighborhood, then maybe they should pay for those development rights.”
“I feel that I am being selectively taxed or hurt by this,” said John Talmage, who owns land in East Hampton but hasn’t built on it yet.
“Property values are heavily dictated by the beauty of the area,” Mr. Crain said. “If we allow all these, I’ll say ugly McMansions, to pile up, who is going to want to live in a place like this?”
Speaking for the East Hampton Business Alliance, Margaret Turner, the group’s executive director, said the proposal poses “way too many unknowns.” In a letter submitted to the board on behalf of the organization, she delineated its concerns, including how limiting building will affect the different workers in the building industry, banks, and revenues for the Community Preservation Fund and school districts.
“Real estate is a major revenue producer for the town,” Ms. Turner read aloud. “There is a slowing economy, especially in the real estate market. Will limiting renovations and expansions slow sales down even more?”
The law is “not taking into account what something that’s well-designed can look like,” said Jennifer D’Auria, a real estate broker, whose husband is an architect. If the intent is to soften the “visual mass” of buildings, she suggested it could be accomplished in other ways.
“It’s not just the beauty of our environment. . . . Yes, buy the open spaces, preserve the fields,” she said. “But beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
“We’re heading into a recession,” she noted. The Mendelman brothers, she said to the board, “are really appealing to you to not take away their rights. If you restrict their ability to improve, and to live within those four walls — I find that just un-American. You have to respect people’s rights — they’ve made investments. And maybe they’re not going to be able to build a house that meets their needs.”
The East Hampton Star