One of the key objectives of Build.In.Kind/East Hampton is to inspire conversation and engagement among citizens and help shift mindset about development. But we also have a very tactical goal: to bring specific recommendations to The East Hampton Town Board to consider with regard to how they might continue to evolve our current zoning and building codes in order to restore balance to land use and to ensure the Town's natural resources, sustainability, coastal resilience, affordability and quality of life imperatives are sustained.
Public discourse on the issue of overdevelopment has indeed been bubbling up over these last months while the staggering and destructive pace, scope and scale of construction continues unabated. Moreover, we believe "behind the scenes" members of our town reviewing boards and departments are also expressing an urgent need for change.
So to get a bit more specific, or as the saying goes, "getting down to brass tacks" here are my first four specific recommendations for consideration and debate.
A version of this post that follows appeared at a Letter To The Editor in the May 5, 2022 Edition of The East Hampton Star under the title "Reducing Maximums."
The photo above is part of the actual public real estate advertisement discussed in this piece below. Note the proposed dimensions being pushed by the broker and developer in the lower right corner: residence structure of over 17 thousand square feet, outdoor living structures of nearly 10 thousand square feet, for a total of just under 27 thousand square feet of new development.
I begin my letter quoting someone else’s words: this text from a real estate listing for a property in Amagansett newly come on the market.
“472 Further Lane…this 2.5+/ acre property is a virtually blank canvas on which you can develop a true Hamptons Estate accentuated by mature privet hedge, an abundance of massive specimen trees across rolling lawn as well as pre-existing 100% clearing. This remarkable offering currently includes plans for a new home with approximately 12,000 sq ft of living space. If more space is needed, this rare estate sized parcel can potentially accommodate a primary structure of up to 20,000 sq ft with pool, pool house, accessory structures and tennis...”
As reported in the Star, this property changed hands just 16 months ago: “Furthest East L.L.C. to Pleasant J5 L.L.C., 472 Further Lane, Dec. 24 (2020), $8,000,000.” The new listing price is $13 million, so this spec developer and collaborators stand to make a quick multi-million-dollar profit.
But as we see often with these projects, their gain might be at our expense.
This is one of about a hundred similar listings I could highlight of a certain ilk: pushing over-the-top redevelopment of properties, prodding buyers to build mega structures, and promising maxed-out parcels. These all-to-common listings proclaim “plans are in place!”…that even though the ink is barely dry on the blueprints and there’s no actual homeowner in sight, there are permits in hand.
I happen to be focusing here on this listing in part because, as an Amagansett resident, it’s a property I pass regularly. Though it has an “exclusive” Further Lane address, this isn’t a parcel sequestered down a long private drive, out of sight to everyone but its intermittent inhabitants and the battalion of hard-working people who keep it running.
Instead, 472 sits prominently at an important crossroads: right at the well-travelled intersection of Further Lane with Indian Wells Hwy. This corner is central not only in location, but also to the very spirit of Amagansett. Sitting quite close to the Further Lane “Agricultural Overlay” as well as to the Bluff Road and Amagansett Main Street historic districts, it impacts the character of all three. The parcel also has its own historic patina; as a prior sales pitch for it stated: “this spectacular setting owns a rich and vibrant pedigree once a thriving hunting compound and later inspiration for a notable avant-garde artist.”
All in, this property as it stands now has a distinctly rural feel to it. Redevelopment of this parcel with a 12,000, let alone a 20,000 sq foot ,structure will have profoundly negative impact in this location.
One might simply brush off this listing as just silly advertising hype, but these aggressive promotions jump from ad copy to actual construction very quickly these days with minimal oversight and no public transparency. What some might disregard as nothing more than pie-in-the-sky hype is actually cake on the plate, and the developers are gorging upon it. This scale and scope of development is happening all around us, across all our hamlets and most every one of our neighborhoods, at an astonishing and accelerating pace.
In a prior letter you on 1/13 called “At Code Red,” I addressed the urgent need to evolve our EH Town zoning code to address the run-amok state of real estate development. Today, I’m focusing on this listing to bring a more tactical view to the urgent need for change: this ad highlights four specific elements of our Town Zoning code that need adjustment:
1. Dimensional Allowances: EH town zoning code, primarily as set forth in Chapter 255-11-10, specifies the maximum allowances for a series of building metrics: house size (measured by GFA), building coverage/total lot coverage, height, setbacks, as well as clearing ratios.
As we see from the development activity over the last 5-10 years, the current dimensional allowances are oversized and underpowered to be in step with our crucial natural resource, affordability, sustainability, rural and quality of life imperatives. In particular, the prevailing formula used to calculate maximum allowable GFA --“10% of lot area +1,600, or 20,000 sq ft, whichever is smaller” -- is too generous. This is especially true in our B and A residence zones (sub one acre) and also in areas where a preponderance of parcels is undersized to lot size requirements. This code formula has been facilitating the proliferation of 5,000-15,000 sq ft houses that are pressuring so many of our neighborhoods and eviscerating our inventory of more modest sized and affordable homes across our town. And the 20,000 maximum is too big… perhaps by a factor of pi.
As an interesting comparison, a few years ago the residents of Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard, facing a rash of 10,000-15,000 sq ft builds, came together as a town and voted to adopt a 3,500-sq-ft house size maximum (with an ability to apply for special permit to exceed that cap in very specific circumstances). Clearly, East Hampton must decide what works for East Hampton, but the Vineyard changes provide a legitimate template for us to consider scaling back house size and lot coverage.
2. Redefining GFA: In the listing above, one way of getting from a 12,000 to a 20,000 sq foot residence would be to add an 8,000 sq foot lower level. Our current code and permitting processes define house size with the metric of “gross floor area” or GFA, which is the size of the space inside the walls above ground. But this metric is insufficient to capture the overall mass, scope, and scale of development.
Gone are the days of basements being creepy dark, dank spaces for mechanicals and perhaps your washer/dryer. Now, below grade space is built out as entirely habitable and luxurious, with multiple bedrooms, bathrooms, and a stunning array of other living and recreational spaces.
Similarly, the trend is to build a lot of outdoor living space as part of the residence structure, particularly extensive upper-floor and roof decking. These areas -- heavily furnished and comprising outdoor kitchens, living and dining rooms, with lighting, fireplaces, giant-screen TVs, and in one case we’ve seen, a putting green -- often double the size of the house structure and loom over neighbors and roads.
All in, below-grade and attached outdoor living space add meaningfully to occupancy, intensity of use and visual density. Therefore, it is time for these areas to be counted, at least in some part, as a part of code-based house-size calculations, by moving from GFA to what I’d call GLA, or Gross Living Area, and to add a volume metric to our code as well.
3. “Grandfathering”: A “nonconforming use” is generally defined as a type of land use (e.g. additional structures, multiple dwellings, stories or clearing amounts) that were legal per code when established but would no longer be permitted under current zoning ordinances. The listing for 472 Further raises two of these: “pre-existing 100% clearing” and “potential" to build 20,000 sq ft of GFA – both of which would meaningfully exceed the allowances specified in Chapter 255 currently. Perhaps, at some point in prior decades or centuries, this parcel might have included these.
In many cases, these “grandfathered” conditions continue in perpetuity. I can think of a few pre-existing, non-conforming conditions that should endure, but it is time for the town to rethink and revise its stance on many of these grandfathered elements and ensure that they “sunset” after some period of disuse, when ownership transfers, or when properties are redeveloped in their entirety.
4. Permitting of “Spec” Development: Speculative developers/builders, obscured behind generic sounding LLCs, secure permits from the Town easily, proceeding most often “as-of-right,” with no oversight by any of our boards, and beyond the sightline of the public. Yet, they have an entirely different set of motivations than a traditional homeowner, focusing only on extracting maximum value for themselves, generally without regard to neighbors, neighborhoods, natural resources, environmental needs, or quality of life. They “max out” parcels, small or big, from front to back, side to side and up into the air, mutating neighborhood character in matter of months and blotting out cherished vistas.
Therefore, it seems reasonable they should have to conform to a more rigorous permitting and oversight process than is currently in place. I suggest that all spec development building permit applications, or at least those over a certain dimensional threshold, require review by of one of our boards, and all should be subject to public notice and right for public comment.
There are many other ideas that can be floated and considered for how rationally to evolve our zoning code, but these four could be a good way to start the conversation and the process.