Debate National Register

Southampton Town officials are once again exploring the idea of putting the Bridgehampton business district on the National Register of Historic Places. The move would be a first for the unincorporated part of the town, which has shied away from federal and state recognition in the past. 

Supervisor Jay Schneiderman reached out to Zach Studenroth, a historic preservation consultant and the former town historian, about putting together a proposal to create a Bridgehampton Historic District along the main corridor and nominate it for the national register. Mr. Studenroth informally presented the idea to the Southampton Town Board during a work session last Thursday and has since been asked to rework it with an eye toward more local control.

The Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, build in 1842, was recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and other buildings are listed individually as well, including the Beebe Windmill and the Bridge­hampton Museum’s William Corwith House and Nathaniel Rogers House.

But the hamlet is not. 

In fact, no hamlet, other than incorporated villages like Sag Harbor Village and Southampton Village, are designated historic districts at all. Bridgehampton, settled in the mid-1650s, is among six areas east of the Shinnecock Canal designated by the town as hamlet heritage areas. Unlike historic districts, hamlet heritage areas do not place restrictions on properties that fall within it. Instead, the designation simply acknowledges that the area has significant historic value; there is nothing to prevent property owners from tearing down a historically significant building. 

Mr. Schneiderman said he thinks the town should take it a step further to add another layer of protection for the town. He said he has watched as a number of modern buildings have been built along the Bridgehampton corridor. 

While he understands property owners have hesitation about possible restrictions, “research shows that property values universally go up within historic districts. They don’t go down, they go up, and they go up because they are protected. There is a sense of confidence that the historic character, which draws so many people to our area, will stay there.” 

Owning a property in an area on the National Register of Historic Places helps maintain a sense of character, Mr. Studenroth told the board. “It doesn’t discourage development, but it tends to guide it. It gives the town the framework to guide that effort.” 

State and federal tax credits and abatements could be available to owners of income-producing properties within the historic district, he said. While individual property owners can seek National Register status on their own, it can be a heavy lift, he said. 

In the past, commercial development was centered around what is now Montauk Highway, Ocean Road, and the Sag Harbor Turnpike. The colonial Bridgehampton Commons, near the crossroad, is now the village green. Julie Greene, the town historian who sat in on the meeting, said there is certainly enough historical character left in Bridgehampton. “With the coming of the rail road in 1870, having that be the end of the line for 25 years, until 1895, a lot of what was there has been taken away, but what’s there certainly shows an evolution. . . .” 

The hamlet-center plan, adopted in 2004, noted that while not all the buildings in the area were of landmark value, their collective context was of importance. “These structures and overall character they create are deserving of special recognition. The hamlet is one of the few remaining Long Island South Shore summer resorts with its period architecture and historic past well represented — few of the others remain so intact. . .  displaying the historic linkage among South Shore hamlets,” the report said.

Councilwoman Christine Scalera said putting areas of the town on the National Register of Historic Places has been explored before and was controversial. “It was not widely supported to do something like this,” she said, adding that some thought it would interfere with local control. Hamlet Heritage Areas, while merely symbolic, paved the way for more local control.

“We probably should have revisited that and just to have given it more teeth and impact. If we feel we haven’t come as far as we liked to, provide an incentive base to be able to encourage people to want to do more,” the councilwoman said. She would prefer to start with the town creating its own historic district in Bridgehampton. 

“It’s going about it backwards,” Mr. Studenroth said, countering that argument. While it may seem counterintuitive, he said, the National Register has standards already set in place. “You start by defining and defending what is widely believed to be of historical significance or importance, and not just locally, not just because we know our local history so well, but there is kind of a larger context for creating this and recognizing this historical area,” he said. “It takes the discussion and the reluctance out of a local, ‘What’s in it for me?’ into a larger picture.” 

(Neighborhoodwide preservation designations in East Hampton Village — including the Heart of East Hampton district and the Ocean Road district, among others — have followed this course, first being recognized on the National Register of Historic Places, before being established by the Village of East Hampton as official historic districts in the 1970s and 1980s.)

Councilman John Bouvier said he did not understand the process well enough yet and wanted to see more. “There are several pathways to accomplish this,” he said, adding that he wants to understand all of them. Councilwoman Julie Lofstad said she would like to understand the pros and cons of each process, as well. 

Mr. Schneiderman said he and Mr. Studenroth would also go to the Bridgehampton Citizens Advisory Committee to discuss the idea. Ms. Scalera asked that he make it clear to the community that “we understand the value and importance of Bridge­hampton amongst others designated. It’s the how we get to a more robust participation” that the board is questioning. 

Mr. Schneiderman asked Mr. Studenroth to retool his proposal to start with the creation of a local district first. 

“I do think that doing nothing is not the right course of action,” he said. “How we get there, I’m not sure.” 

“Much of Bridgehampton’s identity lies in its historic buildings, open space, and farmland,” he said. “Land-use decisions must be mindful of the importance of farmland preservation, open vistas, and open space. Areas in the hamlet with architectural and historic value should be protected using the comprehensive plan strategy of designated heritage areas.”