Too Large? Who Says?

Divide emerges over plan to limit house sizes

“The view is that the town allows for larger houses than perhaps we should,” East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell told the Amagansett Citizens Advisory Committee Monday night toward the end of a meeting that, if never quite heated, was occasionally simmering.

In response to the flood of big houses being built here on modest lots that almost disappear beneath them, and following the recent examples of Sag Harbor and East Hampton Villages, the town board has been discussing new rules that would limit a house’s size relative to the size of its lot. The supervisor, who is the board’s liaison to the advisory committee, had come to the meeting armed with a stack of spreadsheets, enough for all 20 or so in attendance, showing the numbers under current consideration.

Opponents were vocal in their disapproval of the code change. Kieran Brew, a real estate agent who lives in an older house on a half-acre lot, took strong exception to it. Mr. Brew, a past president of the committee, had signaled his displeasure the day before the meeting in an email to Mr. Cantwell, calling the initiative “unreasonable, unfair, arbitrary and completely unnecessary.”

“Like many families in East Hampton, our house is our retirement savings, and any reduction of the potential use of our property reduces the value of our assets by a substantial amount,” he wrote. Mr. Cantwell emailed back stressing that East Hampton Village’s code is “much more restrictive” than the town’s. “Have the prices of homes and real estate values in the village gone down since their law was adopted a number of years ago?” asked the supervisor, who was the village administrator when its law was passed.

Under the current town formula, which says a house can cover up to 12 percent of its lot plus 1,600 square feet, a 20,000-square-foot parcel such as Mr. Brew’s can accommodate a house with a gross floor area of up to 4,000 square feet. The change now being considered would limit the size of a new house on his lot to 3,000 square feet, substantially reducing the lot’s appeal to buyers, he said at the meeting. “It’s frightening to think that you’re doing an end run around my retirement,” he told Mr. Cantwell.

“Many people fear overdevelopment and the impact on the character of neighborhoods,” the supervisor responded. “The golden goose will be slayed.” He added that the new size limit “is potentially 20 to 30 percent less development in the town.”

At a town board meeting last week, Mr. Cantwell had said that the size of houses “relates to a number of issues — population, water quality, character of neighborhoods,” all of which came into play as the meeting continued.    

“Many of us feel that both aesthetically and economically, our own Amagansett is heading for disaster, because these mammoth houses are turning Amagansett into Great Neck,” said Jeanne Frankl. “Then there is the burden on our water and our entire infrastructure in bringing in more people — and, the argument of people with houses on small lots suffering most.”

“I question the data,” said Tom Field. “If we have so much development, how come the school has so few kids? It’s not a water issue, these people are not costing the community, they’re not bringing in kids, not driving taxes up.” On the contrary, he said, the big new houses are typically empty for much of the year.

 The idea that the town was holding up the two incorporated villages as models in proposing new limits on house size bothered Michael Diesenhaus, who protested that “East Hampton Village is completely different from the rest of East Hampton. The village is a unique market, not a good indicator of what will happen” elsewhere, he said. “This negatively affects the small homeowner more.”

 The town does not, at least not now, include basement space when computing gross floor area, but that too may change, depending on how “livable basement space” is defined. Mr. Cantwell spoke, for example, of new houses with basements that extend beyond the floors of the house itself. “Houses have been built with tunnels connecting to the garage,” he said.

“Will basement space be counted as gross floor area if you turn it into livable space?” asked Tina Piette.

“What does ‘livable space’ mean?” Mr. Field interrupted. “I teach C.P.R.; I have 14 mannequins; I built a den to hold them. The building inspector said it’s a bedroom, it needs a smoke alarm. . . .”

“I don’t know the answer,” the supervisor said. “I’m not a building inspector. . . . The problem is the belief on the part of some people that we allow too large a house on too small a lot.”

“ ‘Some people,’ yes,” Ms. Piette said pointedly.

“So,” said Mr. Field, “because ‘some people’ think a house is too big, we should . . .” “Devalue it,” Ms. Piette finished.

The town board plans to continue its discussion of house-size limits at a work session on Tuesday, at which, Mr. Cantwell said, it will analyze such aspects as basements, livable or otherwise, gross floor area, and more.

He will report back to the advisory committee at its next meeting, on Sept. 12 at the American Legion Hall. The committee had been seeking a new meeting place, and the Legion has offered its building for the purpose.