Now that the 2023 local election is done but for a final count, East Hampton Town officials must refocus on the pressing issue of out-of-control development. Builders seem driven by an investment mind-set, one that dismisses any sense of continuity and community scale in favor of more bedrooms, more square footage, and more amenities. An increasingly loud cross-section of East Hampton residents is demanding new limits. But where to begin is a key question. One of the, to us, more obvious targets would be to increase protection of land with important environmental features. The town already has a designation in place in the form of its natural resources special permit designation; doing more to prevent their degradation seems a no-brainer.
As with a number of town regulations, the part of the code that deals with natural resources is highly subjective and open to contrasting interpretation. The East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals has the authority to issue natural resources permits, but the criteria that guide its decisions might be made a lot stronger. For example, the permit standards say that natural features and ecosystems may not be “diminished in size, polluted, degraded, lost, or placed in peril” — despite this tough-sounding language, the zoning board continues to hand out permits that do just that.
For supposedly minor projects, the zoning board can and does pass the permit process over to the Planning Department. This is not without risk. At the moment, a generally preservationist mind-set dominates East Hampton Town government, but it is not always this way. Consider that the last Republican town board majority declined the opportunity to preserve the former East Deck Motel property at Ditch Plain; now at least two inappropriate and hulking spec houses occupy the site. If a pro-development town board began to get its own people onto the Z.B.A. and key staff positions, the wishy-washy natural resources standards could lead to even greater misuse.
Not to venture too deep into the regulatory weeds, but consider that the rules concerning how far back from property lines a house can be are the same whether a piece of land is already developed or is rare, pristine dunes. Maximum house size is similarly not tied to the environmental value of a parcel. The town protects neighbors from the noise associated with pools or tennis courts by doubling the distance they must be set back, but has little meaningful protection for many natural habitats. One way to attack the issue of overbuilding on waterfront sites might be to require doubled setbacks when natural resources special permits apply. Another might be to limit the number of square feet that can be covered. At the moment, a house can be up to 20,000 square feet; a less-generous figure might be appropriate in some areas. Wetland and dune-crest setbacks, which have long been on the books here, have proven not to be enough to thwart overbuilding by a long shot.
Good practice at a community scale is to cluster residential and commercial density into certain central locations. But under current rules, giant houses can be placed just about anywhere in East Hampton, even on sensitive environmental sites. As the town revisits its zoning laws with an eye toward further limits, crafting better ways to preserve and protect the natural world should be at the top of the to-do list.