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A Better Balance

Inspired by the East Hampton Star’s editorial of September. 23, 2021 entitled "Speak Out Now," I thought I'd offer some additional thoughts regarding the topic of overdevelopment I raised in my last post “Preserve and Pre-empt.” In particular, here I’d like to speak up directly about some concrete things I believe the town can — and should — do to address the surge of residential development activity.

The accelerating pace and expanding scope of building taking place is adding too much density and intensity of use to our town, often destroying neighbors’ right to peaceful enjoyment of their own property, undoing the cherished vistas and sense of place in our hamlets and neighborhoods, excavating or putting at risk mass quantities of natural resources, and bringing to a breaking point our infrastructure, affordability and quality of life.

In particular, the extraordinary deluge we have seen over the last five years in speculative building activity as well as an overall trend to max out parcels relative to current East Hampton building code is extremely damaging and should be regarded by all as unsustainable. For the most part, these spec developers and builders, and the real estate brokerages that collaborate closely with them, care not about East Hampton or all its residents; they focus only on filling in every last inch of the allowable coverage ratios and extracting every last dollar possible for themselves.

It is time to do everything we can to ensure better balance among individual homeowner interests, overall community needs, and our environmental and natural resources imperatives. Words and actions are required now if we are to pre-empt the looming destruction of the beauty, uniqueness, natural resources, livability and rural character of our town overall. Those elements — and not an individual’s so-called right to build 8 bedrooms and 11-1/2 bathrooms on half an acre — are the foundation of and truly sustain the value of our properties and our quality of life here.

Some people see the surge in population and development activity and the straining of town resources as just a sudden pandemic-related one-off bubble. But indeed, this wave has been building for nearly a decade. Between 2012 and 2019, the number of building permits issued annually in East Hampton Town (excluding the village) rose nearly 80 percent to 1,750 from 990, and the number of certificates of occupancy, or C.O.s, just about tripled to 2,300 from 750.

And we know that the number of permits and C.O.s doesn’t tell the whole story. I don’t have access to the data of everything that has been built, rebuilt, or expanded across the town. However, as a proxy, I looked just at sales of houses across East Hampton in the last three years (as tracked on Zillow, which is not a complete record), and I counted over 200 houses sized between 4,000 and 12,000 or so square feet. Of those, nearly 80 sales were houses of 5,000 to 12,267 square feet built or expanded in the last decade. And of those, 55 to 60 of them appear to have been constructed just since 2018, with most of those looking like they were the product of speculative construction activity. Currently there are at least 107 properties for sale across East Hampton sized between 4,000 and 12,000 square feet, with many of those listed as “new construction.”

Meanwhile, many real estate transactions and much of the development activity take place outside of the public line of sight. Currently, half of all recorded deed transfers reported out here hide the actual identity of one or both counterparties behind anonymous L.L.C.s. Looking back at The Star’s archives, just a decade ago, that “mystery” portion accounted for only 15 to 20 percent of deed transfers. In addition, as I understand it, our current code allows for a significant number of building permit applications for new development or material redevelopment to proceed without public notice or public hearings and without the benefit of assessment from our planning, architectural review, or zoning boards.

Except perhaps for those who live cosseted in a privilege-bubble of private jets, self-contained compounds and armies of staff, pretty much everyone else here sees what’s going on with development, and many people can foresee the consequences. Yet, so far, the town board and members of the other key boards, departments and committees have remained mostly silent on the topic of overdevelopment in our hamlets.

A few months ago in local primary season, I noticed that during the four debates for supervisor and town board members, though there was discussion about the need for affordable housing, moderators posed not a single question to the candidates about overdevelopment, even though this issue is pretty much central to just about everything else that happens here. And for the most part, though individually, some of us talk amongst ourselves, and the comments sections on local social media posts seethe with frustration about what is happening, more broadly, public engagement and citizen activity regarding the topic of development has remained mostly dormant.

But now is the time to start saying the hard parts out loud; I think it is urgent we begin a serious, comprehensive, and transparent public discussion about how to deal with searing levels of development and its irrevocable impact on quality of life, critical infrastructure and the safety and well-being of residents and visitors in East Hampton. In particular, this seems like the time for the building code to be rethought and revised in favor of a better balance between individual ownership rights and broader stewardship responsibilities by leaning towards greater restraint and more moderate proportions.

In this dialogue, I think we need to put a lot of things on the table, including:

1. the East Hampton town dimensional building code (including allowable gross floor area, height, setbacks, building coverage, total lot coverage and clearing ratios) in order to ensure that some sense of open space and breathing room can be maintained in our neighborhoods;

2. the entirety of the building permit application, review, approval, oversight, enforcement processes to design and implement clearer, more robust and transparent guidelines;

3. the mandates, responsibilities, resourcing and coordination of the various boards and departments that are a part of development oversight, including the planning board, the planning Department, the Natural Resources Department, the architectural review board and our zoning board of appeals to ensure that their expertise has maximum impact;

4. the potential for expanded use of “overlay” districts and other zoning measures for unique or fragile or otherwise overdeveloped or overdeveloping neighborhoods;

5. the ways to track, oversee, and regulate speculative development activity more effectively;

6. the development and implementation of a real time, publicly accessible database that tracks all the crucial data points and trends about building activity;

7. the implementation of a moratorium on some forms of development while the necessary analysis is being done and any amendments are formulated and voted upon.

So yes, I just said it: I uttered the dreaded “M word” — moratorium.

I am well aware that moratoriums should be temporary in nature and must be clearly tied to the accomplishment of an end goal to be legally viable as well as viewed not as capricious overreach but as an appropriate step for the good of the community. And I know how much criticism will likely rain down on the idea.

But how can this not be viewed as an appropriate time for a temporary pause to be put in place? A moratorium for the most aggressive types of not-yet-started construction for a clearly defined period of time now seems to be in the best interest of our community overall. It is a proportional and rational response to the current mindset of excess and to the pressing quality of life, environmental and safety concerns we now face.

When the town supervisor was presented a few weeks ago with a request from the Amagansett citizens advisory committee to address overdevelopment with a formal review, possible changes to the building code and a moratorium, he demurred, saying that he just doesn’t hear people complaining about development or house size like he does about other things such as airport noise and cellular service. He also noted that changes to the code were attempted in East Hampton a few years ago, but that initiative received a lot of opposition and failed, so it is unclear to him what the path forward would look like this time around.

That response was not inconsistent with what many politicians would say. But it is certainly not consistent with “the kind of visionary leadership that East Hampton really needs now,” as discussed in the “Speak Out Now” editorial. I do not think that our board members look at everything only through a narrow political lens, but instead I believe they can be analytical and intuitive enough to diagnose and try to solve problems, and to understand that what might seem like separate and distinct issues, such as crushing airport noise and lousy cell service and unbearable traffic, vexing labor shortages for our local businesses and unacceptable lack of affordable housing, really are all intertwined and tie back in large part to unchecked overdevelopment.

The other day, I was looking for some data from a decade ago, and while I was scanning through some pages in East Hampton Star archives, I stumbled upon this paragraph in an article from the Sept. 29, 2011 issue. Quoting the then-candidate for the East Hampton board on his leadership style: “Back to the talk of the campaign and the position he hopes to win in November, Mr. Van Scoyoc counted his time as an appointed member of the planning and zoning board as an asset. ‘I have a lot of experience sitting and listening to people’s proposals and ideas and weighing them against the needs of the community’ he said. If the current administration ‘took the ideas and presented them in a way that people could explore them, they could find out exactly what the support is on any particular issue.’ Mr. Van Scoyoc said.”

So, let’s get back to all that. I hope many of the residents of East Hampton will find their voices, and that we and the board will start proposing and shaping ideas and weighing solutions on this crucial issue.

(Published as a Letter to Editor in the October 7, 2021 edition of the East Hampton Star)


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