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Time to Get Tougher on Zoning

Wed, 09/14/2022 - 13:13


It may be too early yet to declare a groundswell, but in recent months we have begun to get signals that some residents want big changes in land-use rules. From the Wainscott “Pit” to Georgica Pond, to Ditch Plain and the Amagansett lanes, oversize development has resulted in a growing sense that town and village zoning laws are not up to the task of maintaining the region’s character. There have been calls for political change, expressing the hope that less construction-friendly candidates step forward. A look, too, is needed at the several appointed boards, some of which have shown a tendency to shrink when confronted by aggressive property owners or their representatives.

In one example, the East Hampton Town Planning Board somewhat inexplicably backed off its demand that a Montauk hotel that sought a permit to add a restaurant limited whom it served to overnight guests. Given what has taken place in similar situations, the planning board members who capitulated when the hotel refused to agree must have known what would be the likely result, which made their saying “yes” in the end confounding. A more strict town code governing the addition of restaurants and other amenities might have made the difference.

Also recently, a New York Times article about a new residential development at Ditch Plain left some people wondering anew how a monster house looming over a beloved beach and surf spot could have been allowed. A long series of missed opportunities that began when the then-town board refused to buy the old East Deck motel property — its asking price was far above the town’s own appraisals — explain how it got to this point but do not offer a path forward. Quoted in The Times, Jeremy Samuelson, the town planning director, observed, “If we as a community are not satisfied with what current code allows . . . then we should work together to come up with amendments to the code that align with our shared values.” Mr. Samuelson, who was the head of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk for five years, was exactly right in throwing down the gauntlet in this regard.

It is not that East Hampton Town has not sought to do this in the past, however. We think of the many recommendations in its comprehensive plan, as well as an earlier inventory of scenic views that asked the public to rank photographs of local landscapes in order of preference. But the comprehensive plan was last updated in 2005 and the scenery survey in 2010. A lot has happened since then, including an official census population surge of about a third. Remote work has allowed more people to remain here year round, especially since Covid-19. There is also a wave of large-scale, expensive projects being prepared, including a residential complex on Newtown Lane and Railroad Avenue in East Hampton Village and a massive commercial redevelopment in Sag Harbor. The pressure is clearly on, and local laws seem unable to contain the rapid and often unwanted changes. Changing laws now appears necessary — and overdue.

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