August 23, 2006

Waterfront Residents Say Include Me (And My Property) Out

For the second time in as many years, scores of speakers confronted the East Hampton Town Board. Their goal? Protecting their waterfront property rights.

Last year, residents, business owners and their attorneys appeared before the town board, weighing in in opposition to sweeping proposed upzonings during hearings on the town's updated Comprehensive Plan. Last week's outing involved an upzoning of sorts as well. (See accompanying sidebar for details about the proposed zones.)

On Thursday night, the board held a hearing on proposed amendments to the town code designed to protect the coastline. And as with the Comp Plan hearings, most who spoke sought relief from proposed changes that directly affect their land. Few looked askance at the philosophy behind the proposal: that measures should be taken to protect the town's vulnerable coastlines.

The most oft heard complaint came from property owners whose land was placed in the strictest zoning category. Many have neighbors whose properties have structures, like bulkheads, that protect against erosion. Residents from several sections on the town's bay side questioned the fairness in prohibiting them from installing erosion protections when properties surrounding their land already have them.

Robert Ehrenbard of Bay Inlet Road in Springs put forth that he and his immediately adjacent neighbors are sandwiched between landowners who installed erosion protection structures. Under the proposed change he and his neighbors would be prohibited from taking similar measures to protect their property. "We're being discriminated against," he declared.

Residents of Gerard Drive in Springs, and their legal reps presented what might have been the most dramatic argument. Five properties are "truly between the rocks and a hard place," Gerard Drive resident Margo Hardy declared. Paul Charczuk said his family has had a house on Gerard Drive for seven generations. They have seen the natural movement of beach throughout the decades. Charczuk agreed the use of hard structures has a detrimental effect on that natural flow. However, the town has allowed over 75% of the houses on the strip to install such improvements.

The town itself added insult to injury by constructing a culvert, he opined. When it washes out, he asked, "Are you going to follow your own rules and leave it as it is?"

"We've just been bleeding beach," said neighbor David Sokolin, reporting that residents at the end of the spit of land are "in the process of losing our houses right now." Referencing the myriad other homes in the neighborhood that already have protective structures, Sokolin said that while he respects the idea of keeping the coastline natural, in his neighborhood, the coastline isn't natural.

Attorney Richard Whalen, who is representing seven homeowners on Gerard Drive told the board, "Their situation is dire." He called prohibiting them from installing hard structures when others on the road have "grossly unfair."

William Power Maloney continued with the theme of fairness. An attorney with the firm of Esseks, Hefter and Angel, Maloney represents a number of clients on Louse Point Road on Napeague Bay. He condemned the proposal, and especially provisions relating to rebuilding after erosion damage, as ensuring private property eventually will become public beaches.

Echoing the comments of several other speakers, Louse Point Road property owner Robin Wilder took exception to what she called "illusory" remedies in event of erosion related damage to structures and homes. She'd prefer permission to protect her home before damage occurs, rather than the proposed "after the storm remedy."

And after the storm and damage occurs, the "cumbersome" process through which a homeowner can repair damage "creates a Chinese fire drill" of racing to obtain permits, Maloney rebuked. He predicted "years of litigation" should the town move forward with the law as proposed.

After offering some of the most passionate testimony of the evening, Maloney stalked from the podium. Councilman Pete Hammerle broke the tension with humor as he pointed out, "There are people asking for your card, sir."

Other comments offered last Thursday include:

• A request from Montauk business owners for a study of the downtown area with ocean frontage, and exclusion of the business district from the new law until the study is completed. (The legislation itself also makes note of the need for such a study.)

• A concurrent request for a long term program earmarking funds for sand renourishment, as well as a second hearing scheduled after Labor Day to afford working people a better chance to attend.

• A complaint that setback increases for small, nonconforming lots render them nearly impossible to build on.

In all, over 40 speakers signed up to address the board throughout the more than five hour-long outing. Board members vowed to take a close look at properties owners feel may have been designated incorrectly. They voted to leave the hearing open to written comment for 30 days.

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