In a letter to the editor this week, Scott Smith, who runs a cabinetmaking business here and is running for East Hampton Town Board on the Republican ticket, repeated a growing call for a partial pause on new building permits. The idea of a moratorium has resurfaced amid a boom in supersize home construction. Residents are increasingly appalled at what can be built under the town code and the current approach to zoning variances and many want changes. At the same time, less-desirable pieces of land are being snapped up by speculative builders, whose interest seems only to maximize the return on investment, community aesthetic standards be damned. Mr. Smith made a pitch for a two-month freeze, mostly to give the Town Building Department time to catch up and get better organized. However, for an effective curb on runaway development, more time would be needed.
Moratoriums have been tried before, with mixed results. Sag Harbor had one in place for commercial projects while a waterfront rezoning plan was worked out. What came out of the process disappointed a number of residents concerned with the speed and scale of changes to the village. Indeed, almost immediately after the Sag Harbor moratorium ended, a massive new project was made public. A court ruled last week that village officials had failed to follow environmental review law when it rejiggered its zoning regulations in a way that benefited the developer, who had dangled the promise of affordable housing to get favor from the village board.
East Hampton Town had a moratorium in place during part of 2016 and 2017 to buy time to look at Wainscott. Despite this, the owner of a centrally located commercial property remains within the law in asking for permission for a 50-lot commercial and industrial subdivision within the Georgica Pond watershed. Despite conservation activists’ view that the public purchase and restoration of the 70-acre site would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the developer appears to be well within his present rights to move forward with what would be for the surrounding communities a disastrous plan in terms of noise, water and air pollution, and traffic.
This is not to argue that moratoriums cannot be useful. Nearly 30 years ago, a temporary hold on ferry projects resulted in a set of regulations that have helped maintain a degree of calm at the Montauk docks, for example. The thing is, before a building pause is put in place, a clear vision of the outcome must also be in place.