Storm flags were flying on Feb. 19 when the East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals considered a request from a Montauk man for several variances, as well as a natural resources special permit, for a property containing seven cottages on Fort Pond Bay.
According to the Planning Department, granting Morgan Neff’s requests could jeopardize the town’s ability to qualify for national flood insurance. In a memo, JoAnne Pahwul, the department’s assistant director, had strongly cautioned the board about the risks of granting the requested variances. She wrote that one of the cottages under consideration, called the Crowley, straddles two flood zones, and is thus required to meet the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood zone height and construction standards.
She stressed that the National Flood Insurance Program is a cooperative one between FEMA and local communities, based on the idea that a community will self-regulate construction in flood zones. If FEMA found that a town were not in compliance, she wrote, residents could, among other things, lose their flood insurance.
Richard Whalen of LandMarks, an Amagansett land planning service, called the FEMA variance “a tiny variance on a tiny property,” and said that granting it would in no way jeopardize the town’s relationship with FEMA. Ms. Pahwul has been dealing with a family emergency over the past couple of weeks and has been unavailable for comment on the matter.
Mr. Whalen told the board during the Feb. 19 hearing that he was aware that requesting a variance from FEMA regulations was unusual. Lisa D’Andrea, a town environmentalist, went a step further, saying she knew of no such request, ever.
There are two cottages involved in the application. For the larger one, called the Sharkey, Mr. Neff needs a variance of 29 feet to allow a 480-square-foot deck, which has already been built, to remain 121 feet from the beach; 150 feet is the standard. He also needs a natural resources special permit for the deck.
The other cottage, the Crowley, needs a variance to expand a 122-square-foot structure to 289 square feet. That, too, has been done already, a point not lost on Alex Walter, the board’s chairman, who remarked that the applications “appear to be after the fact.”
One requested variance for the Crowley would allow it to be within 13.5 feet of the neighboring property, where the standard is 15 feet. One flood-related variance would permit the first floor to be elevated only 4.1 feet off the flood zone (sea level) where 12 feet is required by town code, and the other would allow a basement in a flood zone, where basements are normally prohibited.
Mr. Whalen said yesterday that the basement in question was a basement in name only, created by the town code’s differentiating between a basement and a crawl space, and that opening one side of the so-called basement to the elements at grade level would solve the problem.
Over and above the insurance concerns, however, the number and configuration of the cottages, and the question of whether all of them pre-date the adoption of the zoning code, is under study following the arrival of documents sent a few days before the hearing to the Z.B.A., the town’s head building inspector, Tom Preiato, and this newspaper. The documents were signed by a “John Reynolds” of 23 Fort Pond Road, which is the address of Roughriders, a nearby condominium complex. No such person lives there and there was no telephone number given.
The documents appear to cast doubt on the number of cottages on the Neff property that pre-exist the code, as well as the impact of a zoning board determination dated July 27, 1983, in which Mr. Neff’s father, Paul G. Neff, appears to have conditionally agreed to clear the three-acre parcel of all structures in return for a frontage variance for the property. It is not clear whether the planning board ever took up the matter, as the zoning board suggested at the time.
In the 1983 decision, the property is described as containing five cottages, two trailers, and three sheds.
Mr. Whalen said yesterday that the variance requested in 1983 would have allowed the elder Mr. Neff to build without road frontage. At the time, what is now Fort Pond Road was not a public roadway. It is now, which would eliminate the need for the variance, he said. He added that the property was in a dilapidated state when the Neffs acquired it and would have been a natural target for removal by the town. Since then, he said, it has been vastly improved. The Sharkey cottage, the largest on the property, rents for close to $50,000 for the season.
In addition to the 1983 determination, the documents sent to the Z.B.A. included a grant of scenic easement (which is missing a key page) and a planning board memo dated Sept. 29, 1997, which notes that the conditions of the 1983 variances were never met. That memo mentions “several small cottages” without giving an exact number. There is also a 1983 map, which, Mr. Whalen pointed out, while hard to read, indicates seven cottages on the parcel. In February of 2012, Mr. Preiato said in a letter that there were, in fact, seven cottages, plus one habitable trailer.
A certificate of occupancy from 2009 describes six cottages, one trailer with a kitchen, and one shed. The cottages, all or some, were once part of the old Montauk fishing village, much of which was destroyed in the Hurricane of 1938.
The planning board has 48 more days to render its decision on Mr. Neff’s application.