Members of the Amagansett Citizens Advisory Committee were left stunned and confused Monday night following an often tense meeting, eight months after Connecticut developers had presented to them their proposal for the market-rate senior citizen housing complex known as 555 Amagansett.
During a prolonged inquest, Kieran Brew, the chairman, said both committee members and other residents of the hamlet had created “hysteria” around the proposed development, and sharply questioned East Hampton Town Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, the town board’s liaison to the committee, over her approach to the project.
Last month, the town board’s three outgoing Republicans scheduled Dec. 19 public hearings on the creation of a required new zone and its application to the 79-unit development. Since then, the Suffolk County Planning Commission’s Dec. 4 decision to oppose the zone change has made it almost inconceivable that 555 will be built as proposed. A town board vote of 4 to 1 would be necessary to override the commission’s vote, and the board’s two Democrats, Ms. Overby and Peter Van Scoyoc, are against the plan.
The planning commission, Ms. Overby said Monday night, found the project to be incompatible with the town comprehensive plan, noting that “prime” agricultural soil on the site would not be preserved and that there was a dearth of affordable housing. “The other thing is, [Putnam Bridge, the developer] didn’t have an environmental impact statement done,” she told the advisory committee. “Usually, they have an environmental impact statement by the time they get that far in the process.”
“Could the town board have voted on this and approved it if there was no [State Environmental Quality Review Act] determination at the Dec. 19 hearing?” Mr. Brew asked.
“I assume they could have voted for it,” Ms. Overby replied.
“A SEQRA determination is required by law in order to be approved by the board?” Mr. Brew asked. Yes, was the answer. “So the board wasn’t really going to vote on it that night?”
“We don’t know,” said Ms. Overby, echoed by several committee members.
“No,” Mr. Brew protested. “It was very unlikely that this thing would have gone through” at the hearing. He complained that since the Putnam Bridge presentation in April, Ms. Overby had not addressed it with the committee, despite its appearance on the agenda of all but two subsequent monthly meetings.
“These people came to us in April,” Mr. Brew said. “They put forth a plan, and they said, ‘We want your input. We’re open to change, and we want to talk to you, to the community, and the town board.’ This idea that there was never discourse on it, that it was rushed through at the last minute and was going to get voted on, this hysteria. . . .”
“We never got to ask questions of them,” said Rona Klopman. Representatives of Putnam Bridge had been expected to attend the committee’s November meeting; their absence bolstered many members’ fears that the town board majority intended to pave the way for their project on Dec. 19.
But without a SEQRA determination, Mr. Brew said, “they really had no grounds to approve this thing.”
“So what are you saying?” Ms. Klopman asked.
“I’m saying that we created this hysteria,” Mr. Brew said. “Everything I read and everybody that I talked to said [the town board] was going to ram this down our throat, when they really were not in a position to do that.” He accused the 555 opponents of “scare tactics.”
“You had the proposal for the legislation,” Mr. Brew said to Ms. Overby. “All the town board members had it, and every time I brought it up for discussion, you said there was nothing to discuss.”
The town board “never had that discussion,” Ms. Overby answered — only presentations by Richard Whalen, an attorney representing Putnam Bridge, and the town Planning Department.
Mr. Brew said that when the committee is confronted with a major proposal such as this, “and the town board has . . . the draft legislation, the proposal to rezone it . . . when we ask for that, we [should] be given it.”
“It was online!” Ms. Overby exclaimed. “When [the town board] noticed it for public hearing, then the law was online.”
Mr. Brew continued, charging that Ms. Overby and Mr. Van Scoyoc had “buried” the proposal, rendering the advisory committee unable to discuss it.
“How could I bury it?” Ms. Overby asked.
“Because when I asked for it, you said you didn’t have it.”
“I had the law the last time we were here, and I went through it,” Ms. Overby replied. Forty or more members of the community attended that meeting in November.
“And they were supposed to come to answer questions, and they didn’t,” Ms. Klopman repeated.
“We had plenty of information,” Mr. Brew said. “We could have had the discussion without them.”
Ms. Klopman, a former chairwoman of the committee, then told Mr. Brew that “the chair is supposed to listen and work with the group” and “not be so defiant and angry about something that he feels didn’t go his way.”
That was a misinterpretation, Mr. Brew said. “My concern is about the process . . . This whole process kept getting kicked down the road, to the point where all of a sudden it’s the last minute.”
The proposed law was only put online last month, when the town board noticed it for the public hearing, Ms. Overby repeated. “That’s part of the problem,” she said.
“But you had copies of the proposal for the law,” Mr. Brew insisted.
“I had copies of the proposal written by Rick Whalen,” the developer’s attorney, said the councilwoman. “I had no copy of the proposal written by my town attorney. I have an attorney — that you guys pay for — and I would have liked my attorney to look it over.”
Among procedural anomalies, she said, “the Planning Department was looking at the change on this property . . . before we ever had the law that would allow that to even happen.”
The upshot of the County Planning Commission’s 11-2 vote, Mr. Brew said, was “a barrier that’s going to be almost impossible to overcome. We don’t know what’s going to become of the property, and there are a lot of things that could happen that are not necessarily what most people in this room would want.”
There are development capabilities on that property, Ms. Overby agreed. “If we want to change the zoning, that is something we can all do as a community.”
“Kieran, I again want to ask why you’re so incensed,” Jeanne Frankl, a committee member, said. “Here comes a developer who’s . . . looking for their own interest. They come up with a proposal that brings into the picture something we’ve never heard about before. Our town board sets a hearing without ever having discussed it either with the whole board or with the public. Why wouldn’t the ordinary people in the community be very alarmed at this process?”
A long discussion of alternatives for the 24-acre site ensued, with a combination of affordable housing, commercial uses, freestanding houses, and a horse farm among the possibilities envisioned.
As the discussion wound down, Mr. Brew repeated his frustration. The 555 project, he said, “deserved discussion that I don’t know we had the opportunity to have.”
“We’re not recognizing some basic realities,” Ms. Frankl answered. “The only possible reason this was put on for public hearing so quickly was to get it heard by this particular board, and the favoritism of this particular board for big-business ideas in town is too obvious to be denied . . . The ‘hysteria,’ if you want to call it that, goes back some time, and nothing was done to allay those fears.”
On another matter, the committee voted 9-0, with two abstentions, to advise the town board that it was opposed to a change of zoning for Balasses House, the former antiques shop at the corner of Main Street and Hedges Lane, from limited business overlay to central business. Increased traffic and the danger of setting a precedent, thus encouraging more zone-change applications, were among members’ concerns.
Mr. Whalen, on behalf of the owners of Balasses House, had sought the committee’s support for the zone change at its meeting last month. On Dec. 19, along with the hearings on 555 Amagansett, the town board has scheduled a hearing on the Balasses House proposal.