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Nicest Guys in the Room Doesn’t Matter

Thu, 10/19/2023 - 10:10


One of the core principles behind the local zoning process is that approvals “run with the land,” as town officials have put it for decades. The concept is that permission for construction and/or function remains even after a property owner sells, dies, or moves on. This has not prevented applicants from describing their grandmother’s sciatica, to cite an actual example, as justification for seeking a swimming pool in protected duneland but then turning around and flipping the property once the permits were acquired.

When reviewing requests to bend the rules, the zoning board of appeals and planning board are at a crossroads pitting verbal assurances against long-term effects. This is evident in one current, mildly controversial effort by the new owners of the Springs General Store to offer on-premises alcohol consumption. The applicants have told the East Hampton Planning Board members that they are local to the area and good people with no intention of turning the general store into the town’s next day-drinking hotspot. That all may be so, but should be irrelevant to the planning board as it considers their application.

Despite other owners’ offers of restrictive language in whatever permits they ultimately receive, repeated experience has demonstrated that these do not necessarily hold. We can think of several restaurants whose owner agreed not to have outdoor wait service then either were able to get that overturned or simply ignored it outright. The ever-sprawling Duryea’s complex in Montauk is one glaring example. Town personnel retire or move on, agreements are quickly forgotten, and yet the consequences of unwanted commercial growth go on. Another example is a lovely, old historic house preserved with public money to which the public is supposed to have access once a year — does anyone in Town Hall remember this now that the site has changed hands? If they do, no one we know of has spoken up about it.

Part of the fault lies with the East Hampton Town Board, which has always been willing to try something new, but is far less enthusiastic about actual enforcement. Covenants, restrictions, even their own laws can be quickly forgotten. Another example, one that we from time to time cite, has to do with temporary roadside business signs, which may be up to a certain size but no larger. Dimensional requirements like these take nothing more than a measuring tape and basic math to check, but it seems like town officials just about never do so.

The point is that, while the Springs General Store owners are the nicest guys in the room, there can be no for-certain assurances that a subsequent operator might not have other ideas. Untamed growth is public enemy number one in East Hampton Town — controlling it comes down to decisions about individual properties and not the individuals who own them at any one point in time.

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