Pictured Above: A large house under construction last fall overlooking Ditch Plains Beach has drawn the ire of neighbors and surfers.
As massive new houses have become the new crop growing on every once bucolic backroad in East Hampton Town, the town is now committing to updating its zoning code to ensure a more sustainable future.
The public responded for the most part with an ovation for the first chapter of that zoning code update, on “The Purposes of Zoning,” at an Oct. 5 public hearing, but many cautioned both of the urgency of adopting the changes, and of the pitfalls in the details of the zoning changes, which have not yet been hashed out.
The newly outlined purposes read like a chorus of modern-day concerns — including 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.
The full text of the changes is online here.
The changes to the initial “Purposes” chapter are the first step in a rewrite of the town’s zoning code so that it will reflect the goals outlined in the town’s 2005 Comprehensive Plan, which was not accompanied by zoning changes at that time, said Town Planning Director Jeremy Samuelson in outlining the proposed changes at the public hearing.
“It was an aspirational document, but we didn’t really get under the hood and update the zoning to go along with it,” he said. “In the past 18 years, we’re seeing the result of not having updated our zoning code. We see applications for development that are things allowed under our zoning code, but not in alignment with who we said we are when we updated our comprehensive plan.”
“We think this reflects some of our hard-earned lessons,” he said, adding that the level of aspiration among property owners is at a much greater scale than it had before. “Once we get through this conversation, we will move into that finer, detailed work.”
“The biggest thing here that I heard was the climate emergency, something everybody knows but most people try to ignore,” said Paul Munoz from Springs, who was speaking for himself but also chairs the town’s volunteer Energy Sustainability Committee. “The comprehensive plan started in 2005 and we’re almost two decades behind in improving our code.”
“I’d like to take a stance and say we should be as strict as possible,” he said, adding an invitation to residents and businesses that may be affected by the changes to see them “as an opportunity to adapt and be better stewards of our beautiful ecosystem.”
“I imagine a real estate ad one day that says ‘be the envy of your neighbors and generations before and after you as the preserver of a beautiful property, with ancient trees and the most sustainable house on the block,” said Jolie Parcher, an East Hampton-based yoga instructor.
Laura Michaels of Montauk said she hopes the changes include balancing the size of houses to the size of lots, and including lot coverage and hard structures in that calculation, and to “start a movement to be kinder to the environment and allow the natural landscape to shine through.” She also asked the town to advocate for pesticide bans and do a survey of the condition of septic systems and find out why few people are taking advantage of grants to upgrade their septic systems, and that the town hire a septic engineer or a consultant.
Jaine Mehring, an Amagansett resident and the founder of Build.In.Kind, who has been advocating for an update of town zoning codes for several years, read a letter from architecture critic and author Paul Goldberger, who 40 years ago wrote a cover story for the New York Times Magazine called “The Strangling of a Resort” about overdevelopment in the Hamptons.
“Since then, more homes than I ever could imagine have been built… and more and more land has been lost altogether,” he wrote. “Replacing an agricultural economy with home construction will be compromising the very thing we claim to live.”
Some people were more cautious.
Peter Laurinaitis of Amagansett, said he came to East Hampton because he loves the natural environment, but his 1,200-square-foot, 80-year-old house might not always suit the needs of his family.
He said the board “should be cautious to not go overboard. Don’t be overly restrictive on ordinary citizens.
Tina Piette, an attorney in Amagansett, said the changes “look benign on the face,” but to “keep in mind that zoning changes are drastic.” She added that numerous large houses throughout historically smaller-scale neighborhoods will be made pre-existing, non-conforming properties.
“Not being able to build what they built devalues my property,” she said. “Use your own common sense.”
“The bottom line is, nobody needs a 10,000-square-foot house,” said Lynn Blumenfeld. “Nobody needs seven ensuite bathrooms, three freezers, four dishwashers, three washing machines and five dryers for their 16 guests, three times a year.”
“You’ve got everybody in this room, we all love East Hampton Town, that’s why we’re here. That’s why we came out of work to be here,” she said of the mid-afternoon meeting. “We want to save what we love. What i want to know is, when it all comes down to this, does it boil down to a bunch of millionaires, billionaires and spec investors who are able to do what they want? If you’re on the town board, I’m imploring you to please protect us, because we need protection.”
“Every time I go to Ditch Plains, I want to cry, and I’m not the only one shedding tears” she said, referring to a notorious large house overlooking the local favorite Ditch Plains Beach on the site of the former East Deck Motel. “Climate change is here and the destruction of the town is happening.”
Idoline Duke read a letter on behalf of her husband, Biddle Duke, thanking the town for “doing this crucial work for our community.”
“‘The purposes are simply excellent,’ he wrote. “Yes to orderly growth! Yes to proper use of land! Yes to protecting neighborhoods from huge and out-of-scale development.”
He added a hallelujah to the goal of protecting community housing “to enable older community members to retire and remain here, younger members to stay or return here and for all to thrive.”
“What’s not to love here?” he asked. “Go forth and make it happen. You’re going to need political strength and courage.”
After taking more than an hour-and-a-half of comment from more than 35 speakers, the board closed the public hearing.
“I am so incredibly proud of our community -—you are engaged in protecting your town, and you are speaking directly to your elected representatives,” Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc told the crowd. “This is how democracy is supposed to work. I want to commend you on your civility.”