Reform Club Redo Was Without Review

Originally published Aug. 6, 2009
The Reform Club in Amagansett, where luxury suites go for up to $1,750 a night, appears to have opened for business earlier this year without required review by the East Hampton Town Planning Board. Morgan McGivern

The Reform Club in Amagansett, where luxury suites go for up to $1,750 a night, appears to have opened for business earlier this year without required review by the East Hampton Town Planning Board. East Hampton Town records indicates that there may have been changes that took place without required town planning review.

Recent renovation at the former Mill Garth began after it was purchased in 2006, apparently by Randy Lerner, the owner of the Cleveland Browns football team. Now reopened as the Reform Club, its suites of up to 1,003 square feet rent for up to $1,750 a night.

One of a handful of billionaires living on the South Fork, Mr. Lerner, who has a house on Town Lane in Amagansett, is also the owner of Aston Villa, a soccer team in the United Kingdom, of Amagansett Square, a low key mini mall, Mezzaluna Amg., a restaurant, and the Amagansett Applied Arts building on Indian Wells Highway.

While many of the changes made at the Mill Garth were aesthetic, some major renovations documented in records at the East Hampton Town building inspector’s office would typically have required review and site plan approval from the East Hampton Town Planning Board.

In most cases, the Building Department staff decides which permit applications are routed to the planning board. According to Tiffany Scarlato, the deputy town attorney and attorney for the planning board, Don Sharkey, the late chief building inspector, handled the Mill Garth permits personally. Mr. Sharkey was found dead at home in Amagansett on July 6 of an unknown cause. A medical examiner’s report is said to be pending.

Ms. Scarlato said she knew nothing about the property, had not seen its certificates of occupancy, and had never had a conversation with Mr. Sharkey regarding it.

Marguerite Wolffsohn, the town planning director, said in a telephone interview that neither her department nor the planning board had been asked to weigh in on any aspect of the project. Mr. Sharkey alone made the determination that the work did not require site plan review, she said.

Sylvia Overby, an Amagansett resident who is the chairwoman of the East Hampton Town Planning Board, had not responded to phone calls seeking comment by press time.

Mr. Lerner is not listed in county or state records as the owner of the property. The owner of record is 23 Windmill Lane L.L.C., which can be linked to him. A deed recording the transfer of the Mill Garth was filed in the Suffolk County clerk’s office on Nov. 28, 2006, showing that 23 Windmill Lane L.L.C. paid Deborah Alegre $4 million for the 1.8-acre parcel and its buildings.

Since the 2006 sale, the buyer’s mailing address, according to New York State records, is the same post office box in Amagansett used by the management of Amagansett Square.

While it is commonly thought that Mr. Lerner owns Amagansett Square, an East Hampton Chamber of Commerce e-mail contact for the property is an individual at brooklynnholdings. com, an Internet address registered to the Cleveland Browns in Berea, Ohio. Its Web site was under development and did not display any meaningful content. Mr. Lerner was ranked as 377 among Forbes magazine’s 400 richest Americans of 2009.

Mr. Lerner is also a director of Reform Acquisitions Limited, a United Kingdom corporation which now owns the Aston Villa Football Club, which plays in the English Premiere League. He is the chairman of the club, for which Reform Acquisitions paid 62.6 million pounds the same year 23 Windmill bought the Mill Garth. He gave the complex the Reform Club name as renovations proceeded.

Phone calls to the Amagansett resort this week seeking comment were referred by a receptionist to Mr. Lerner’s personal assistant. They were not immediately returned.

Took in Boarders
“Amagansett, a Pictorial History” by Carleton Kelsey, a late local historian, reports that the owner of the property, Abraham Parsons, took in boarders from the time the original two-and-a-half-story main structure was built, in 1880. A picture shows what was then called Windmill Cottage after a 1901 addition.

East Hampton Town Building Department records show a building permit issued for the first time in 1956 for modifications to a garage. Although the property was placed in a single-family residential district when the town adopted zoning in 1957, it was legalized as a pre-existing, nonconforming use.

The first certificate of occupancy was issued in 1966 for the main building, as well as for three cottages, two sheds, and a windmill replica. It specified that the main building contained eight apartments. The cottages were listed as single-family residences, and one of the sheds was to be used for a laundry.

Over the years, the Building Department issued permits for several additions, with the next certificate of occupancy in 1982. This documents the eight apartments, along with three existing one-story cottages, two sheds, and the windmill replica.

Recent changes began in 2007, according to the department, which issued three permits to relocate the cottages, add basements and covered porches to each, and, in one case, add an additional floor. One of the pre-existing sheds was renovated at that time for use as a reception area, with an added foundation and covered porch.

The main building, however, was demolished after a permit was approved by Mr. Sharkey. The East Hampton Town Code allows pre-existing, nonconforming uses to continue, provided they are neither expanded nor demolished. Once a nonconforming structure is demolished, anything that replaces it must comply with current zoning.

Since the property is in a residential zone, any construction or moving of buildings also requires site plan review, according to the code. Apparently, the driveway was relocated, which also should have triggered site plan review because the complex is a commercial operation in a residential zone. While building permits were obtained, the project was not referred to the planners, according to town officials.

Ms. Scarlato said in an interview this week that while the East Hampton Town Code states that planning board review would be required, Mr. Sharkey had his own interpretation of the code on many matters. She said that even changing a sign on a commercial property would be subject to site plan review.

At one time, the East Hampton Town Board considered tightening the process by which initial determinations are made about what kind of review projects require. The matter has apparently been dropped, according to town officials.

The East Hampton Town Code defines motels, transient motels, resorts, and apartments. All new uses of this kind are prohibited in residential zones. However, if the Reform Club was deemed a private club rather than a commercial use, it could be allowed by special permit as an inn, which is not defined in the code.

In addition, the code now makes a distinction between apartments and units. An apartment is defined as a long-term rental, with kitchen and laundry facilities, while a unit, or motel unit, is defined as a space that does not have laundry or cooking facilities and is rented on a daily or weekly basis.

A more recent, 2008, certificate of occupancy, signed by Mr. Sharkey, finalized the recent changes. The main structure is said to contain units, rather than apartments. At the time of the 2006 sale, Suffolk Tax Service, a private company, showed the property as having a classification of “apartments other than a condominium or co-op.”

According to the May 18, 1967, edition of The East Hampton Star, “The Mill-Garth on Windmill Lane reopened on May 1, and has had guests right along. This inn has no dining room, but each unit has its own kitchen.”

Ms. Scarlato said she was not familiar with the pre-existing use of the property and would not comment on whether this change in language of the certificate of occupancy would constitute a change in use and require planning board involvement.

The club’s Web site does not indicate if any of the units have their own kitchen areas. If the use at the Reform Club has changed in accordance with the change indicated in the certificate of occupancy, planning board review would apparently would have been required.

In place of the former eight-apartment Mill Garth building, Mr. Lerner constructed a two-story, 4,779-square-foot, seven-unit one, with a 3,524-square-foot basement. While there have been no formal requests for a restaurant at the Reform Club, Building Department records indicate that the department and the East Hampton Town fire marshal exchanged memos regarding one. Restaurants are permitted on the same grounds as an inn or motel, but since the Reform Club is in a residential district, a restaurant apparently would be prohibited or considered an expansion of a nonconforming use.

The Reform Club Web site notes that the three cottages on the property range in size from 1,218 square feet to 1,666 square feet. However, the certificate of occupancy issued in June has slightly different dimensions for three cottages. It states that they range from 1,100 square feet to 1,622 square feet, including covered porches of about 400 square feet each.

Nightly rates at the Reform Club are listed on the Web site as beginning at $750 a night for a single suite and topping out at $2,100 for cottage.

The conversion of one of the sheds to a reception area also is reflected in the latest certificate of occupancy. This type of change requires a building permit, and ordinarily would trigger site plan review by the planning board, Ms. Scarlato explained. This did not happen.

In each case, the buildings were moved to “conforming locations,” according to Building Department records. This may mean that they were moved away from property lines, where any alterations would have required additional review by the East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals.

It is said around East Hampton Town Hall that Mr. Sharkey and Mr. Lerner’s relationship extended beyond the Building Department front desk. In 2006, Mr. Sharkey, moonlighting as a private consultant, represented R.A.I. Inc., the owner of record of a house on West End Road in East Hampton Village lived in by Mr. Lerner’s mother.

Mr. Sharkey had written to the East Hampton Village building inspector asking whether the pergola, which had lighting and a music system, could be considered a decorative fence or arbor. The latter are not defined in the village code and would not be required to meet property setbacks or other village zoning laws. The village zoning board ruled it was a structure and would need variances, but the pergola remained. The matter is pending in East Hampton Town Zoning Court.

Restaurant Questions
A similar issue has cropped up in recent months with Mezzaluna Amg., formerly Gordon’s Restaurant, in Amagansett, which has been renovated without review by the planning board. While Jack Luber of Hand Lane in Amagansett has been described as the owner of both Mezzaluna Amg. and the restaurant’s Upper East Side location, as well as the Reform Club on various Web sites, the owner of record is 23 Main Street L.L.C, which has a mailing address in Berea, Ohio. Listings show this address to be that of the Cleveland Browns.

A restaurant is permitted in the zone where it is located, but Building Department records indicate that the kitchen, which had been on the ground floor, has been moved to the basement. All certificates of occupancy issued for the property, beginning with the first one on record, in 1968, indicate that the restaurant is only on the first floor.

While this change would not require site plan review, the space once occupied by the kitchen now contains tables. According to the East Hampton Town Code, any increase in occupancy limits of a structure in a commercial zone requires site plan review. Adding tables would be expected to set off a domino effect that might require additional parking.

Ms. Wolffsohn, the Planning Department head, said that, as with the Reform Club, Mr. Sharkey had decided that changes at the restaurant did not require site plan review by the planning board. There are additional requirements regarding any outdoor seating that may be planned.

Building Department records do not indicate how many seats are permitted at Mezzaluna Amg. The town fire marshal’s office did not immediately respond to several requests regarding the restaurant’s capacity.

In 2008, the East Hampton Town Board passed a resolution allowing Mezzaluna Amg. to improve its septic system, which is on town property in the parking lot behind the restaurant. Mezzaluna Amg. also received approval for a change to the building’s facade by the East Hampton Town Architectural Review Board.