Our Open Letter to the East Hampton Town Board
-Keep East Hampton a beautiful and economically vibrant, thriving year-round community for all residents and visitors
-Protect and restore our community character, historical resources, natural resources, agricultural land and water quality
-Enhance and ensure our sustainability and resiliency
-Sign this letter to compel the Town Board to take steps immediately to make the necessary Code changes and restore balance to our Town
We're asking the Board to take four actions:
1) Announce intent to reduce house size & clearing.
2) Initiate the process to review & amend the Code.
3) Set process timeline & completion targets.
4) Begin moratorium on oversized new building.
Read The Full Letter Below
April 17, 2023
To: Members of the East Hampton Town Board
CC: Jeremy Samuelson, East Hampton Planning Director; John Jilnicki, East Hampton Town Attorney
From: Citizens of the Town of East Hampton
Re: Critical Actions Necessary To Save Our Town
Dear Members of the East Hampton Town Board:
We are writing to you from a place of deepest concern about the most significant issue facing our beloved Town: overdevelopment.
Overdevelopment is a problem in and of itself for quality of life and ecological reasons, but it is also a root cause of a number of other major problems we grapple with in East Hampton, including: the affordability crisis, inability to fully staff businesses and essential services, the highly compromised quality of water bodies, water shortages, over-consumption of energy and over-reliance on fossil fuels, overuse of pesticides, overburdened and gridlocked roadways, maddening and deafening commercial overuse at the airport, encroachment on public beach access, disgusting amounts of litter along roadways, the loss of dark skies, and an incessant string of lawsuits against the Town.
Every day and everywhere we go, we see what is happening…each time we look out our windows, sit in our backyards, or step out of our front doors; whenever we look through our windshields as we travel to and from work, drop off/pick up our children at school or run errands; or when we simply go for a walk. So, we implore you to take the proper action that is within your legal jurisdiction and required by your sworn responsibilities.
By signing this letter, we have come together to state clearly what we are seeing, what we know needs to be done, and the actions we expect from you. Whether we have been here for 6 months, 6 years or 6 or even more generations, hundreds of us are aligned in this cause.
I. The Conditions and Our Concerns:
As you are aware, the pace, scope and scale of new building and redevelopment — both residential and commercial- have accelerated aggressively and expanded excessively over the past ten and especially these last five years. House size — whether new builds, expansions, or redevelopment — continues to balloon. Existing homes of 1,000-4,000 square feet daily meet the wrecking ball, to be replaced by structures of epic proportions. We see 7,500 -15,000 square feet quickly becoming a “new normal” … even bigger ones are happening. Whether it’s 2,400 of pyramid-piercing square footage shoehorned into a 0.17-acre sliver or 20,000 square feet dominating in an A3 zone, a sense of proportion, context and respect for the land in East Hampton is gone, eclipsed by gigantism that sadly is still allowed under current regulations.
Rural, peaceful, agricultural, and historically meaningful residential neighborhoods are being densified, and our established unique character is being transformed rapidly into suburban sprawl and “luxury” estate sections. Expansive “compounds” consume the larger parcels, while in our more modest “B” and “A” residence zones, lots are being “maxed out” — stuffed corner to corner and bottom to top with a proliferation of structures, impermeable “hardscape” and a slew of so-called “amenities.” Quite often, these new houses are fed right into the high-end seasonal and short- term rental market. All this added density is extraordinarily unproductive from a community land use standpoint
The new extra-big, extra-tall houses press right up to property lines and loom over neighbors, often infringing upon their rights of privacy and peaceful enjoyment of their own properties. These acres are stripped of much or all native/natural vegetation and carpeted with expansive chemical- and water-hogging lawns, while a suffocating monoculture of “green giants” and ever-taller fences and ever-wider gates overwhelm the open space and rural quality of local streets. Precious view sheds are destroyed forever.
We witness and grieve the unrelenting extinguishment of local, authentic, long-time businesses, as their yearly rents skyrocket beyond reach, or they are supplanted by new "upscale" tenants or colossal commercial redevelopments chockablock with new “uses” that often are not in any way useful to or needed by most in the community, except for the wealthiest of the seasonal multi-house owners, transient renters, or tourists.
These big new houses are an ecological blight, turning into over-irrigated rental resorts in the summer and energy-sucking empty shells for most of the year. Meanwhile, an increasing number of those upscale new stores and restaurants last but a short season or two before being flipped to the next so-called “investor.”
These dynamics are structural and ongoing and cannot be explained or be excused by the idiosyncratic months of COVID. Nor is this a normal construction “bubble.” This is a malignant, speculator-driven, corporate-interest-only assault that is consuming each hamlet and undoing almost every beloved neighborhood across our town. East Hampton is a jewel in the real estate crown, and speculators along with anonymous consortiums of unlimited capital from away have flocked here to capitalize on it. Their interests — to extract as much value as possible for themselves in the shortest amount of time by building the biggest structures that the town code allows — have overtaken the interests of the community and our town government. Too many appear to have slipped the bonds of rational restraint or comportment with the codified land use principles and boundaries. Balance has been lost.
However, zoning code is meant to establish balance and provide protection by equilibrating individual ownership rights with stewardship responsibilities as well as with the rights of neighbors and nature, and the interests of the community. The code is meant to be something of a bulwark to protect us from development that erodes the quality of life, land and water, and to protect us from corrosive excess. It appears now that parts of our Town code are facilitating the excess.
This level of development is undermining so much that we cherish about East Hampton, destroying the essential rural character, open space, sense of place and natural-resource-based beauty that is the actual and irreplaceable source of sustainable value for this community and future generations.
Our concern about overdevelopment is not merely about “aesthetics” and “neighborhood character.” The issue is more tangible:
It is about the harmful impact this scale of structural development, including deep, massive below-grade spaces and huge impervious surface areas, has on the environment/climate, the land, wildlife, shorelines, waterbodies, groundwater and our resiliency and sustainability.
It has created and continues to expand what is already a 2000-plus-unit deficit of economically accessible homes for the people who live and work here.
Our town infrastructure, including essential services, is groaning under the weight of this type and scope of development and the demands it makes on critical Town resources. In particular, the blistering pace of building activity, with applications ever larger and more complex, is overburdening our Town Building, Planning, Natural Resources, and Ordinance Enforcement Departments as well as the Zoning, Planning and Architectural Review Boards to such an extent that it is impossible to believe appropriate review and sufficient oversight of development can be sustained.
Oversized structures, from the moment they “break ground” through to their ongoing maintenance, have a massive carbon-footprint – it’s not just about emissions, but it’s their profligate overconsumption of resources and materials that is anathema to climate, sustainability, and resiliency priorities. It is antithetical to a municipality like ours that sees itself as an environmental leader and has declared a “Climate Emergency” to endorse or permit the continuation of this kind of development and construction activity.
We see clear evidence that we are moving rapidly to — or already reached — a point of exceeding the carrying capacity of our land and infrastructure. Because of the scale and scope of construction, we are witnessing incessant and unnecessary destruction of most important ecosystems. Each week, because of what is being built, we lose acres of mature woodlands, dune lands, native vegetation, soil biomes and natural wildlife habitat, and no small amount of this development impinges upon wetlands, displaces and fouls our groundwaters and surface waters, and threatens our aquifer. This pace and scope of consumption, construction and destruction in East Hampton is well beyond what the land and water can regenerate.
The amount and scale of construction is upending daily quality of life and turning our neighborhoods and roads into endless, ground shaking, window rattling, noisy, truck-jammed, trash-filled construction sites.
Though some gleefully push the narrative that the Town will be enriched mightily by increased property tax revenues associated with more and larger development, the opposite is true: above-the-cap property tax increases now look inevitable if we don't make change as we will be forced to upsize our entire town infrastructure --personnel, facilities, systems, utilities, waste services, etc. -- to meet the demands of and address all the pressures caused by massive new development, and to defend perpetual litigation. Page 1 of our Comprehensive Plan in 2005 warned us of “the fact that most residential development burdens the community with more expenses than the taxes it generates.” This appears to have come true.
Development here no longer looks to be about “improvements,” or “good planning” or creating sustainable value for the Town. Instead, East Hampton is being exploited — the land and waters are being strip-mined for maximum, outsized profits for a few.
Most important, as Supervisor Van Scoyoc has put it poignantly several times, it is unraveling the fabric of our community. Currently, there is no end in sight, and there is significantly more planned activity already in or coming into the pipeline. The next phase will be even more aggressive, more destructive. This is an existential threat to East Hampton.
II. The Rational Basis For Change
Two primary documents guide and define land use in East Hampton: (1) Our “East Hampton Town Comprehensive Plan,” in its clearly stated Vision Statement, Goals and Objectives section; and (2) Our Town Code, specifically the “Purposes” stated in Chapter 255. Both make crystal clear the codified and incontrovertible intent that our Town Board members as well as our other boards and departments are required to facilitate and uphold.
Though these all are known to you, the core responsibilities as stated in these foundational documents are compelling and definitive and should be restated:
to maintain and restore our rural/semi-rural character and unique multiple historic communities.
to protect the established character of neighborhoods.
to “take forceful measures” to protect and restore the environment, particularly groundwater, surface water, wetlands, dunes, biodiversity, ecosystems, scenic resources, air quality, the night sky, noise and energy consumption.
to reduce the total build-out to protect the natural and cultural features.
to ensure ample housing opportunities to meet the needs of current year-round residents and those locally employed here.
to encourage local businesses to serve the needs of the year-round population and reduce environmental impacts of commercial uses.
to encourage and retain traditional local resource-based fishing and agriculture.
to protect historic buildings, hamlets, neighborhoods, landscapes and scenic vistas from incompatible development, and prevent further loss of the Town's cultural and archaeological resources.
to provide adequate facilities, land and programs for critical infrastructure and municipal services
to provide adequate light, air and convenience of access for all properties, to avoid the creation of nuisances and other conditions.
to prevent the overcrowding of land or buildings.
to avoid the undue and unnecessary concentration of population and to lessen and where possible, to prevent traffic congestion on the public streets and highways.
to protect the quiet enjoyment and use of property and to prevent environmental pollution and degradation of whatever kind.
to promote in the public interest the preservation of prime agricultural land, productive wetlands, protective barrier dunes and beaches, unique vegetation, important animal habitats and other natural resources and man-made features of historical, environmental or cultural significance to the community.
to promote the economic vitality of established commercial centers.
to perpetuate and enhance areas of natural beauty, to retain outstanding water views and other open vistas available to residents and visitors and to perpetuate generally those aesthetic attributes and amenities which not only please the eye, but which together are the essence of the nationally recognized character of the Town.
Most important, the overarching codified responsibility states: “to guide and regulate the orderly growth, development and redevelopment of the Town in accordance with a Comprehensive Plan and the long-range objectives, principles and goals set forth therein as beneficial to the interests of the people.”
Words to live by and work toward: “...beneficial to the interests of the people.”
The forgoing passages are not our words or loose interpretation – they are verbatim from the documents.
Over the last several years, in addition to the Hamlet Plans, the Board and other town agencies have completed and adopted three crucial plan documents and incorporated them into the Comprehensive Plan, addressing our most pressing issues and absolute imperatives:
Even with all of this, so much of what is happening in our built environment --what is happening on, above and under the ground -- what is being permitted each and every day by Town-issued “as-of-right” building permits as well as the granting of hundreds of variances and special permits-- is incompatible with, and in fact, often directly in opposition to these codified, legally binding purposes, principles, objectives, goals, values and imperatives. That is primarily because all the current dimensional and clearing allowances in the code are far too generous. They are now inadequate to sustain “orderly growth.” Growth today is “disorderly.”
The development pressure on the town is so fierce that we are seeing much-expanded demand for natural resources special permits, variances, and Zoning Board, Planning Board and Architectural Review Board approvals driven by applicants who see no reason to abide by the regulations as they exist today. This loss of regard for the community’s stated standards makes a mockery of the code overall and the current provisions in place to protect our natural resources, our historical assets and districts, and agricultural overlays.
Even when any of the three appointed review boards render denials well within their legal discretion and in keeping with the proscribed standards for such permits and variances, they and the Town are being harassed and threatened by a phalanx of powerful attorneys representing unyielding clients with seemingly endless resources.; East Hampton is being smothered by intimidating litigation.
When the current zoning code was written and adopted, it was considered “robust” and even thought by some as being “too restrictive.” And for many years, indeed the code served us well. But when the code was adopted, and even the last time dimensional allowances were minimally updated, it is clear that no one anticipated the intense local and global real estate dynamics that now have overtaken us. Moreover, pressing issues of climate, sea level rise and an affordable housing crisis were not fully considered at the time. As a result, several provisions of our zoning code have become outdated and insufficient to meet the dynamics and pressures we face. The Code is a living document — It is time to update it. It is time to evolve it.
III. Actions Needed
We implore you to amend parts of the town code to restore “orderly growth,” to ensure more productive land use, to get back in compliance with the Comprehensive Plan and the statutory purposes of the Town code, and to be truly in synch with our most pressing imperatives of climate emergency, coastal resiliency and economically accessible community housing. Specifically, we look to you to:
Initiate the Process: Announce a formal process to review the zoning code Chapter 255 and related other code sections and regulations regarding land use.
Engage the Planning Department: Prioritize a comprehensive, focused, forward-looking, and properly resourced process lead by the Planning Department to recommend a set of adjustments to the code, including especially:
To adjust residential dimensional allowances, –reducing house size/bulk, height, building and lot coverage ratios and expanding setbacks– as stated in Attachment 4.1/4.2.
To review the commercial dimensional allowances and their review and approval/disapproval processes in order to achieve rational restraint in future growth in mass, scope and scale.
To change the primary house size metric, moving away from “Gross Floor Area (GFA) as currently defined, and towards a “Total Living Area” that includes conditioned, habitable below grade space, as well as all other habitable/living areas.
To reduce allowable clearing ratios, including the elimination of "grandfathered" 100% clearing, and adding “woodlands” to the list of specially protected natural resources covered in 255-4, especially 255-4-12 and 255-4-15.
To add overlays or new coastal zoning districts along all shorelines and in shoreline-adjacent areas to modulate development in those areas.
To add restraint around the granting of variances (area and natural resources) and NRSPs overall.
To review issues such as the gaps in current code provisions related to expansion of pre-existing non-conforming structures and pre-existing non-conforming uses, as well as house size/coverage allowances on parcels materially undersized relative to their zoning district, and to implement proper “sunsetting” on outstanding prior approvals and permits.
To update all town “historical asset surveys” and look to extend protections to structures or areas of historical, natural and scenic significance; consider implementation of a “demolition review.”
Set Timeline: Establish reasonable but prompt calendar goals for completion, including Board work sessions, community input and public hearings.
Implement Moratorium: Establish a moratorium, related to the timeline of the completion of this review/change process, covering all speculative building activity, all new development, total and substantial* redevelopments, material* expansions, and all new subdivisions, while still allowing for renovations/replacements in kind, and non-material* additions to proceed for individual residents. (*parameters to be defined)
Town Board, we are aware that we are asking you to take actions that are not easy. Local history warns of the strenuous and litigious opposition that emerges in response to such initiatives. This letter is not to make arbitrary or capricious demands; our purpose is to make the case and make clear that a very significant part of this community will engage and support you as you move forward with this.
Thank you for your attention and we look forward to your response and actions.
Jaine Mehring, Amagansett, Founder: Build.In.Kind/East Hampton
And the Undersigned: