A rash of luxury homebuilding on the South Fork has prompted East Hampton Town to appoint a new committee to look into revamping the rules that govern how houses are built and where. We have been here before, yet there seems reason to expect meaningful results. In part that is because of who the committee includes — a town councilwoman, the town’s conservation-minded planning director, and a community activist who has made efforts to call out gaps in the zoning code, as well as how it has been applied by town officials. Unlike the sprawling update almost a decade ago of the town’s comprehensive plan, the narrower focus in this instance is promising.
Speculative residential construction appears to be the main driver behind the trend to maximize return on investment by building the biggest house with the most amenities possible. Entire streetscapes have changed, as smaller homes are torn down and replaced by larger ones that diminish the cherished sense of space and light. These new monster houses loom over their neighbors. The cost is high, too, in terms of community character. No one really likes the look of the bloated showy houses, except perhaps, the people who pay ridiculous millions for them. Unfortunately, that is enough to fuel an industry intent on chewing up the places so many residents — old-timers and newcomers alike — love so dearly.
There are several ways that the town committee could go in trying to rein in supersizing — one part of the zoning code that they must address is the so-called pyramid law. The pyramid law is an outdated calculation that determines how tall houses can be in relation to their property lines; think of it as a diagonal line extending upward from the ground on all sides of a building lot, hence the comparison to a pyramid. One can see the line in real life, for example, in the Amagansett lanes, where rooflines point directly at the edges of properties of many of the newer houses. That is because they were designed to bump up against the invisible pyramid line in order to get the maximum buildable interior space possible — more square feet under a roof produces a higher selling price for the developers and a greater commission for real estate brokers.
By attacking the pyramid law in a focused way, the town committee might be able to quickly reduce one prominent, undesirable aspect of the current building wave. They could, for example, shift the calculation’s starting point inward toward the middle of a property, instead of from its edges. On lots up to an acre, houses can be sited as close as 15 feet from the side and rear property lines. On older narrow lots, the effect is visually imposing. Shifting the starting marks even a few feet closer together would have an impact — another would be tying the setback lines to a property’s width instead of its square footage, as now is the case.
There are plenty of other outdated aspects of the town zoning code that need revising. Tackling the pyramid law is just one example of how the committee could act fast, pushing the town board toward small changes with big results.