A Little House on a Watery Lot?

    A small piece of property in Springs spawned a stormy public hearing at the Oct. 23 meeting of the East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals, raising the question of a landowner’s right to develop versus the greater good of the community.
    The house proposed is very small, only 801 square feet, just 201 square feet above the minimum allowable in the town code. The 12,629-square- foot parcel sits on the south side of Sand Lot Road, in a triangle formed by School Street, Sand Lot, and Springs-Fireplace Road. On the north side of Sand Lot Road is a large swath of wetlands, capped by Pussy’s Pond, which itself is a headwater for Accabonac Harbor.
    Seven of the eight lots in the triangle have been developed.
    “I have been on that street thousands of times,” said Sharon McCobb, a board member and Springs resident, in her introductory comments. Before every public hearing, one board member visits the property in question. “I didn’t know this was a lot. It looks like a pocket garden. It is completely cleared, as you can see, with some nice pine trees on it,” she said as she showed photographs of the site.
    Laurie Wiltshire of Land Planning Services made the presentation on behalf of the applicant, listed as John Minutillo. “The applicants are proposing a modest house and the smallest septic system that can be built,” she told the board.
    She explained the owner’s problem in a nutshell: “Wetland variances are needed because there is no conforming envelope on the property.” In other words, wherever the house is built, it would be in violation of town setback requirements.
    “There is a wetlands to the east across Sand Lot Road,” she said. “Both the [town] Planning Department and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation consider this wetland to be significant and worthy of protection.” For that reason, she explained, the proposed house would stand as far from Pussy’s Pond as possible.
    The applicants, who have owned the lot since 1986, also own one of the surrounding houses, which they use for summer vacations, but their family has grown and they need more space, Ms. Wiltshire told the board. She said that neighboring houses were larger than what was being proposed.
    When she finished her presentation it was the public’s turn, and a stream of opponents marched up to the podium.
    Kristin Hein identified herself as a resident of an adjacent lot. “This triangle of land contains a network of springs, hence the name ‘Springs,’ that ultimately feed Pussy’s Pond and Accabonac Harbor,” she said. “Based on the location, we believe the lot is a perfect candidate for acquisition.”
    “That is not in the purview of this board. That is in the purview of the town board,” Alex Walter, the Z.B.A. chairman, responded.
    Philip Cozzi, Ms. Hein’s husband, told the board that when the area floods, which, he said, is often, the water runs over the property in question. In the flooding of 2010, he said, there were six inches of water there for four months.      “He has the right to ask for the variances. Whether it is granted is the question here,” he said.
    “Are you saying that the applicant should not be allowed to build anything?” asked Don Cirillo, a board member.
    “Yes, that is correct,” Mr. Cozzi replied.
    “As shown on the map it is right on our property line,” said another neighbor, Ron Focarino. “It sounds to me like an awfully long way to go to do something that is obviously wrong.”
    Debra Foster identified herself as a Springs resident and a former town and Planning Board member. “I’d like to know the depth of groundwater,” she said. “This is a nursery. It is very vulnerable. This is where you get that mix of freshwater and salt water. The Tidal Wetlands Act may come in, which includes the federal government and New York State, because it is within 300 feet of a designated estuary tidal wetland.”
    She proposed a compromise, suggesting that the size of the house be reduced to the minimum allowable 600 square feet.
    Margaret Hardy of the Accabonac Protection Committee spoke next. “While it is unpleasant to argue against an owner’s right to develop, this is a severely nonconforming lot. We recommend denial of this appeal,” she told the board.
    Two more neighbors spoke, each parents of young children, each expressing concern that their children might come in contact with contaminants while playing in their backyards if the proposed house was built.
    Joel Halsey of the Planning Department told the board that a question had arisen, as he examined the proposal, about the size of the septic rings, and whether they would be far enough above ground water. The problem may have simply been a technical one, he said — the rings were described in the plan as three feet high when in fact they may have been two feet — but further research would be needed.
    Mr. Halsey said that the Planning Department did not oppose the application.
    A question of ownership then came up. The original owner of the two properties has died, leaving them to his wife. Did she still own them, or was the second held solely by the dead man’s daughter? Ms. Wiltshire was not sure of the answer.
    The hearing was adjourned, with the record kept open for two weeks to answer both the septic tank and ownership questions. The matter may well be brought up at the board’s next meeting on Tuesday, in what promises to be a lively work session.