Pictured Above: A large house under construction last fall overlooking Ditch Plains Beach has drawn the ire of neighbors and surfers.

The last time East Hampton Town updated its zoning code, as part of its 2005 Comprehensive Plan Update, builders from throughout the region descended onto town meetings en masse to protest upzoning plans at the time.

In the 20 years since, new construction has run rampant throughout the East End, but nowhere has it become more obscene than in this place that is a hideaway for people who will spare no expense in creating the lifestyle they want.

In the midst of all this, East Hampton has embarked this summer on the quixotic task of updating its zoning code to face these modern challenges, though some worry the town is closing the barn door after the horse has already gone out to pasture.

East Hampton has done a great deal of planning in the intervening years, particularly with regard to the town’s precarious location in a warming world. 

The town folded a Climate Action Plan into its Comprehensive Plan in 2017, followed by Hamlet Studies of each of its hamlets in 2022, a Coastal Assessment and Resiliency Plan in 2022 and a Community Housing Plan this year. 

“Zoning and a Comprehensive Plan go hand in hand,” said Councilwoman Cate Rogers, who has been heading up a new Zoning Code Amendments Working Group for the past two months, as she unveiled the committee’s proposed changes to the Purposes of Zoning chapter that sets the framework for the zoning changes at a July 11 work session. 

The new purposes, which were applauded by a chorus of community members during the public comment portion of the work session, read like a chorus of modern-day concerns, and include housing affordability, town sustainability, coastal resiliency, climate change, clean water, natural resources conservation, historic resources preservation, open space protection, safety and health and density and congestion.

Ms. Rogers said that, while the working group has been meeting in private to date, they will be holding “multiple engagements with the public” along with formal public hearings, throughout the process, as well as public hearings for the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) review of propose zoning changes, which must be considered as a whole in order to not “segment” the project, which is not allowed by SEQRA.

Eat Hampton’s new Purposes of Zoning chapter highlight’s the town’s priorities, which include water quality and coastal protection like this oyster reef project spearheaded by South Fork Sea Farmers and East Hampton and Springs students in Accabonac Harbor last fall.

Ms. Rogers said that, after the Purposes of Zoning chapter, the Working Group will then turn its attention to Definitions and Residential Dimensional Regulations.

While some in the audience said they’d like the town to enact a building moratorium while it is updating the code, Ms. Rogers said a moratorium in conjunction with the 2005 Comprehensive Plan Upstate “became the issue,” instead of the zoning changes.

“I really want to be mindful in this document,” she said. “We don’t want to be hurting people who pay their mortgages here by working in this industry. Second homeowners are not really impacted, and large companies can go out and work in other towns. But the people that live here and work in the construction industries, I don’t think they should be penalized.”

Jaine Mehring, an Amagansett resident and the founder of Build.In.Kind, has been advocating for an update of town zoning codes for several years.

“East Hampton is my home,” she said. “I have responsibilities to my neighbors and community, to the land and to nature.”

She read out the new purposes, applauding the town’s decision to address “the stark realities of climate change and the existential threat of the staggering community housing shortage.”

She urged the town to “engage directly and often” with the public throughout the process.

Leonard Green applauded the purposes’ respect for the interconnectedness between human activity and nature.

“What we do in our yards does not stay in our yards,” he said. “That is the nature of regional ecosystems, and I’m grateful you recognize this.”

Perry Burns, an East Hampton resident teacher at the Hayground School in Bridgehampton, said that 75 percent of the teachers at his school “don’t live on the South Fork because they can’t afford to live here.”

He added that he’s seeing the beginnings of a building height arms race here, similar to one he’s witnessed in Sarasota, Florida, where “every single building is trying to get bigger and bigger to take advantage of the view. That’s already happening at Two Mile Hollow Beach. I think the town has to really look carefully. We can strictly check how and where development is done.”

Yoga instructor Jolie Parcher said she tried to convince people to come tell the town board they support the zoning effort, but “almost everybody says ‘isn’t it too late?’ That’s what I hear. The purposes are written so beautifully. It’s like climate change — it’s too late, and of course it’s not too late. I hope you’re going to be the town board that said, yes, we did this! But I strongly believe we need a moratorium. We have to stop gigantic buildings.”     — BHY

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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