June 07, 2006

Neighbors Say: Less Is More

Can government legislate taste? East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill McGintee's not so sure. Last Friday, following entreaties from homeowners urging the board to revisit its regulations relating to house size, McGintee said he'd have to think very carefully about whether zoning regulations based on how big neighbors want homes in their area to be should be enacted.

Traditionally, the supervisor told The Independent after last week's meeting, zoning laws have been adopted to protect the environment, and especially groundwater. "Everything we've done, historically, has had an environmental reason," McGintee said. "I'd be hard- pressed to pass something based on aesthetics alone. This needs a lot of careful consideration."

Ten speakers addressed the board on the issue during its public comment period on Friday. John Sheehy kicked off testimony. A 27-year resident of Meeting House Lane in Amagansett, he, along with several others who spoke, asked the board to limit the size of houses on small building lots. "We're losing the beauty of our neighborhoods to teardowns replaced by huge houses," he said. Harriet Friedlander, another Meeting House Lane resident, spoke of how mega-mansions loom over smaller neighbors' dwellings, infringing on their privacy and quality of life. She and Carolyn Preische asked the town to enact zoning regulations mirroring those recently adopted by East Hampton Village "with no community uproar." The village adjusted setback rules and house sizes in relation to the size and shape of individual properties. The law, Preische said, was designed to prevent houses that overwhelm the lots.

In a village setting, houses are part of a "visual symphony," Constance Denny observed. She believes it's time the ratio between home and setting be newly defined to ensure houses enhance neighborhoods. They should be "part of a civilized amalgam in which no one unit dominates," Denny pronounced.

'Gansett activist Betty Mazur likened the advent of McMansions to a virus that's spreading throughout the town. Alan Klopman of the Amagansett East Association continued the theme. He said mega houses that dwarf building lots are "an infection only the town can cure."

Joan Porco added a Montauk voice to the mix. What's happening in Amagansett and the Village of East Hampton is happening throughout the town's hamlets, she said. Out-of-towners who construct the mammoth manses – Porco called them "second castle owners" — build houses, then only use them 32 days of the year. "People used to come here to hide, now they come here to show off," she declared.

Lyda Cunningham was more blunt. She said, "People who have more money than sense are coming out here and ruining our town."

Robert Schwagerl disagrees. Also boasting decades of residency in the town, he said he studied the historic homes in Amagansett for a year before he designed his house. He told The Independent that he purposely designed the structure to reflect indigenous dwellings. Older style houses in the hamlet are traditionally larger, with enough room to accommodate a family and all its needs. Meeting House Lane, where his house was built, has nine historic homes —three story houses situated on a third of an acre — and "everybody just loves those homes." Admitting he didn't understand where the concern was coming from, he opined that property owners building large houses on small lots are returning to the historic and correct proportions for village neighborhoods.

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