Santa Left A Lump Of Coal

Billionaire’s wall must go, else division fails

    The East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals held its final work session before the Christmas break on Dec. 11, and, making like Santa Claus, filled several applicants’ stockings with variances, but left a lump of coal for one man, Ron Baron.
    In 2007, Mr. Baron, whose net worth is listed by Forbes magazine at $1.5 billion, purchased 40 acres of oceanfront land off Further Lane from Adelaide de Menil and Ted Carpenter, paying $103 million, said at the time to be a record price for an American property. The parcel covers three addresses, 260 and 278 Further Lane, both within the town’s jurisdiction, and 244 Further Lane, which is in the Village of East Hampton.
    In 2008, Mr. Baron built a double wall — parallel walls about four feet apart — that separates the properties from the dunes and ocean. Everything about the wall has been in dispute ever since.
    The main question for the Z.B.A. to determine was whether the wall was built on sensitive dunelands. If yes, then a natural resources permit should have been obtained first. If it was not, the board would then have to decide whether to grant it after the fact.
     This past April, the town’s head building inspector, Tom Preiato, determined that the wall had been built in an area of duneland and beach vegetation, in violation of the town code.
    Mr. Baron appealed that determination. At a Nov. 20 public hearing, his attorney, Brian Matthews, told the zoning board that Don Sharkey, who was chief building inspector at the time the wall was built, had assured the surveyor, David Weaver, that it did not need a building permit, as the walls were to be only four feet high. The assurance was verbal, not written, the board was told. Mr. Sharkey, who later denied saying it, died in July 2009.
    A memo from Larry Penny to Mr. Baron in May 2007, cautioning the new landowner about the sensitive nature of his property, played a prominent role in the Z.B.A.’s discussion. Mr. Penny was the director of the town’s Natural Resources Department at the time.
    “I believe that this letter did put the owner on notice that the land did contain” dunes and beach vegetation, said the board chairman, Alex Walter. “They knew that the property they were purchasing had these kind of characters and that it was something they had to be careful about.”
    Don Cirillo, a strong advocate of landowners’ rights, argued that the wall was not built on duneland, and that even if it was, the board should grant the needed permit. “I don’t think you should place a hard-and-fast determination over a homeowner,” he said. “Natural resource permits are not meant to be punitive.”
    The other board members did not see it that way.
    “He got a letter from Larry Penny,” Sharon McCobb said. Such a letter should have sent up red flags for Mr. Baron, she said.
    Lee White argued that judging from aerial photographs, it was clear the walls had been built over dunes.
    “The height of the walls should have automatically triggered the need for a building permit,” said Bryan Gosman.
    In the end, the board voted 4-1 to affirm Mr. Preiato’s April determination that the walls were built in violation of town code, and 4-1 to deny Mr. Baron’s request for an after-the-fact permit. Mr. Cirillo was the lone dissenter.
    The decision may have ramifications for Mr. Baron beyond the walls in question. In September, the town planning board issued a preliminary approval of a plan to merge the two parcels of land at 260 and 278 Further Lane and divide the resulting property into six lots, two of which would be set aside for potential farmland and a third, containing dunes, that would remain undeveloped. The other three, of about three acres each, would have broad ocean views. Under the terms of the subdivision agreement, Mr. Baron could build up to six residences across those three properties, the most likely scenario being a main house with a guest house on each.
    Reed Jones, the chairman of the planning board, visited the site during the hearing process. “The views are amazing,” he said on Tuesday.
    Each property could sell for $30 million or more, said J.R. Kuneth, a real estate salesman with Devlin McNiff Halstead Property.
    But now comes the lump of coal: Mr. Baron may be unable to gain final planning board approval for the subdivision while the walls at 278 Further Lane are in violation of the town code. That board’s preliminary okay concludes by mandating that all conditions listed in the agreement must be met within six months or the entire plan will be considered null and void.  The conditions include a section titled “Compliance with Town Code or other Requirements of Law.”
    East Hampton Town attorneys did not respond to repeated requests for comment, nor did Mr. Baron’s law firm, Eagan and Matthews of East Hampton.
    The zoning board did give out some goodies, in the form of variances, to several applicants. None of the applications had engendered opposition during their hearings.
    One of them was for a two-foot variance from the s pyramid law, which restricts the allowable height of a structure in relation to its neighboring properties. Pantelis Karoussos, the owner of a 7,500-square-foot property on Miller Lane East in East Hampton, had renovated his residence.
    “They decided to renovate their house to accommodate their growing family,” his attorney, Carl Irace, told the board. “The dining room was an alcove. They cut the alcove from the house.”
    Mr. Karoussos then moved the old alcove, setting it up as a freestanding shed, without realizing that he’d moved it a foot and a half closer to his neighbor’s property than town code allows, and that it was two feet taller than the code dictates.
    Mr. Irace emphasized the “reuse, recycle” aspect of the project, a point of view with which the entire board agreed. Both the requested variances were approved, allowing the alcove-turned-shed to stay where it is.
    End Note: Ms. McCobb’s term on the zoning board expires at the end of the year, and she will have to be reappointed by the town board if she is to continue. She has frequently acted as a voice of calm during some of the current term’s stormier sessions.