A Bluff or Not a Bluff, That Is the Question

Is it a bluff or is it not? The East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals will attempt to answer that question over the next few weeks.

The topological feature in dispute is in the northern portion of a rectangular lot at 80 Firestone Road in Montauk and runs from Fort Pond Bay inland, about halfway up the property. The Montauket hotel and restaurant is south of it; the bay is to its west, with one of the most beautiful sunset views on the East End.

The town’s Natural Resources Department and Planning Department both classify this natural feature as a bluff, and Ann Glennon, principal building inspector, determined in August that the interpretation was correct. Marc Rowan, the owner of the property, disagrees, and appealed her determination.

Mr. Rowan is proposing to tear down the four cottages on the property and replace them with three larger buildings, each placed so as to optimize the sunset views. If the zoning board decides that the natural feature is a bluff, Mr. Rowan will need variances. Bluffs are considered a protected natural feature, with stringent rules as to how near a structure can come to them. Two of the proposed three resort buildings on the narrow property would violate the code if the board decides that the feature in dispute is indeed a bluff.

Andy Hammer led Mr. Rowan’s appeal on Tuesday. John Whelan, chairman of the zoning board, who is a project manager for Stelle Lomont Rouhani Architects, the firm designing Mr. Rowan’s project, recused himself from the matter and with Cate Rogers, the vice chairwoman, absent, asked David Lys to run the hearing. Of the three other members, Mr. Lys has been on the board the longest.

“Facts are often lost in passionate posturing,” Mr. Hammer told the board. He called on Mark Byrnes of Applied Coastal Research and Engineering, a Massachusetts company, to address the board.

Mr. Byrnes argued that the bluff was not created by water and therefore is not a bluff. “It is just a hillside feature, remnant from the last ice age,” he said. “Features come, and features go.”

Brian Frank, the town’s chief environmentalist, advised the board members that the feature being debated fell under the town’s definition of a bluff and asked them to read the specific section of the code calling for the protection of bluffs. He told the board that he and Mr. Byrnes had walked the property together, and had discussed the matter at length. Afterward, Mr. Frank said, he adjusted the expanse of the bluff to a more conservative, smaller length. But still, he said, it is a bluff. He pointed out that the definition of “bluff” in the code clearly states that a bluff “may extend across all or part of a parcel.”

“This is not an inland feature. This is not a slope,” he insisted.

Mr. Byrnes returned to the podium. Bluffs, he said, “always have beaches. They always have water around them.”

The code defines a bluff as “a bank or cliff with a precipitous or steeply sloped face lying landward of a beach or body of water, and having a bluff line at least two feet higher than its base or toe . . . For the purposes of this chapter, a ‘bluff’ shall not be considered to encompass barrier sand dunes.”

The board has 62 days to make a decision. Because there will be only four members voting, there is the possibility of a 2-2 deadlock, which would result in the appeal’s being “rejected without prejudice,” according to the town attorney’s office.