How Many Farm Workers at Issue

The owner of a nine-acre agricultural reserve at 625 Butter Lane in Bridgehampton who is seeking permission from the Southampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals to construct two buildings to house agricultural laborers and his neighbors are sparring about how many workers could live there.

Adam Shapiro, a co-founder of the investment firm East Rock Capital and the manager of the limited liability company that owns the parcel, intends to operate a tree farm on the property. At a Z.B.A. hearing last Thursday, he offered to reduce the number of workers who would live there from six to five.

At previous hearings, however, several neighbors objected to the buildings’ placement and said their construction would negatively impact the community. Michele Green, whose backyard abuts the reserve, said her daughters would no longer feel comfortable using the family pool if workers were living steps away. 

The agricultural reserve was created in 1996, and, at the time, the Southampton Town Planning Board designated a 200-foot-wide area for accessory structures on the western side of the property.

The town code, however, states that agricultural buildings have to “be no less than 200 feet from any side or rear lot line and 150 feet from any front lot line.” The building area now proposed makes it impossible to meet the required setbacks from neighbors’ residences, which prompted an application for variances to the Z.B.A.

  Before the application was submitted, the planning board reviewed it, ruling it was “generally supportive” of the reduced setbacks, but recommending that the Z.B.A. limit the number of people who could live there. It asked the Z.B.A. to decide how many laborers could live on the reserve, but Katie Garvin, the Z.B.A.’s attorney, questioned whether it had the expertise to arrive at an appropriate number. 

According to documents submitted with the application, the workers would include a farm manager, a tree keeper, a horticulturist, an apprentice and researcher, and a vegetable and fruit production crew.

“I’ve been somewhat surprised at the opposition to what is a traditional and customary use of agricultural property,” John Bennett, Mr. Shapiro’s attorney, said last Thursday. “People buy property next to agricultural land and think they’re buying open space, but they don’t realize that agriculture is permitted. If someone didn’t understand that. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t take that right away from my client.” 

Mr. Bennett said the proposed site plan, which includes a nearly 3,000-square-foot greenhouse, a 648-square-foot structure for storage, a parking area, a freestanding toilet facility, and an outdoor kitchen, represents the optimum locations for the buildings in order to maximize the land’s agricultural potential. A study commissioned by his client, he said, showed the proposed configuration of the buildings would keep most of the land out of the shadows and suitable for agriculture. He also said there would be no revisions to the plan.

Patrick Fife, a lawyer for Dr. Green, called the 1996 planning board decision flawed, and said the Z.B.A. should not confine the buildings to the designated area.

“The planning board doesn’t have the right to usurp the zoning board . . . and create nonconforming lots or setbacks,” he said. Given the size of the reserve, he said, there was plenty of room for the buildings to be in conforming locations. 

Ms. Garvin said the board’s focus should be on whether to grant variances and not on interpreting planning board decisions. Adam Grossman, the chairman, said, however, that the board would need more guidance to untangle the legal issues. “I’m confused, too,” he said. 

Mark Moskowitz, the owner of a 20-acre farm in Bridgehampton, had been asked by neighbors for his opinion on how many workers would be necessary. He told the board the nine-acre farm would not require more than two individuals. 

The hearing was closed, but the board will accept written comments until 3 p.m. on April 12. Brian DeSesa, the vice chairman, said a decision was likely to be announced at the Z.B.A. meeting on June 6.