Too Close, Too Big, Not Far Enough

Scrutinize dock and pool on Lake Montauk; debate house move on Gardiner’s Bay

    Two waterfront properties on Lake Montauk and one on Gardiner’s Bay were front and center at the East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals meetings on Tuesday and Jan. 8, with the size of a pre-existing dock being questioned, the placement of a pool puzzled over, and the proposed location house on Gerard Drive under discussion.
    The dock in question is in the water at Lake Montauk adjoining a nearly one-acre property at 289 East Lake Drive owned by Peter Bennett and Jean Nevins. The couple are proposing to tear down an existing house with related structures and paving and replace it with a 4,679-square-foot house with 538 square feet of balconies, plus another 4,300 square feet of decking, a 674-square-foot swimming pool, a new septic system, and an expanded dock.
    The variances needed for the project were extreme, the board’s chairman, Alex Walter, said, calling the application “busy.” One of the setback variances requested would leave no separation from wetlands at all where 100 feet are required, and the variance requested for the septic system would place it 51 feet from wetlands where 200 feet are required.
    The expanded dock would be 80 feet long and requires a natural resources permit because it is on Lake Montauk, which New York State has designated as a significant fish and wildlife habitat, and which is part of the Peconic Estuary critical environmental area.
    While allowing that the proposal seemed, on the surface, to be asking for extreme variances, Mr. Walter also said, “I understand why this is such a busy application, as far as the upland portion” of the site. The property, he said, is severely constrained in terms of its proximity to wetlands.
    He also told the board it would be wise to bifurcate the proposal, and consider the upland part of the parcel separately from the dock, which is just what the board did.
    “There is no conforming envelope on the property,” Andy Hammer, of Biondo and Hammer told the board on Jan. 8.
    The Town Planning Department agreed with Mr. Hammer’s assessment when it came to the upland portion of the property, and, in fact, went further. “The proposed project will bring the lot coverage down 8,206 square feet, so that the property conforms to the total allowable lot coverage,” wrote Joel Halsey, a former planner for the town, in a memo to the board in September of last year.
    Brian Frank, the town’s chief environmentalist, called the property as it is an “environmental disaster.” It has two paved driveways, one to the house, the other running all the way down to Lake Montauk. Mr. Frank pointed out on Jan. 8 that runoff water from storms accumulates on the driveways and runs right into the wetlands.
    The proposed new house would be much smaller, with the paved driveway o the house replaced by a permeable one made with stones, and the second paved drive removed altogether. Also included is a major revegetation plan, bringing in native species where non-native invasives now grow.
    The board heartily embraced these proposals during Tuesday’s deliberations.
    But when it got to the proposed expanded dock, the application hit choppy waters.
    According to Mr. Halsey’s assessment, which was confirmed by Mr. Frank, the original certificate of occupancy was for a 38-foot dock. A dock that size would be allowed to remain on the site, despite the fact that it normally would not be permitted in Lake Montauk, because its existence predates town regulations prohibiting it. However, nothing larger would be permitted, unless the board grants a variance.
    Mr. Hammer argued that the exact size of the pre-existing dock was uncertain, a point the board seemed dubious about.
    Mr. Frank explained that Lake Montauk was not originally open to tidal flow. It was, in fact, the largest freshwater lake on Long Island, before Carl Fisher blasted an opening on its north side to the Long Island Sound in 1927, as part of his ill-fated “Miami North” development plan for Montauk.
    Mr. Frank told the board that the lake is very shallow, and that extending a dock into the lake would not get it into navigable waters.
    Don Cirillo, who is a strong proponent on the board of landowners’ rights, pointed out that the dock, with its planned extension, would still be on private land.
    “Is this a boat dock or a swim dock?” Mr. Walter had asked the applicants on Jan. 8.
    “It is a boat dock,” Mr. Hammer responded.
    However, later that night, Ms. Nevin told the board that the couple are kayakers, and that Mr. Bennett liked to walk out onto the end of the dock when the house was filled with summer guests. “Peter takes a chair, the crossword puzzle, and gets away from the crowd,” she said.
    The board requested a copy of the original certificate of occupancy from the town’s Building Department on Jan. 8, to settle the question of the original size of the dock, but had not received it as of Tuesday, and so, tabled the entire matter until the certificate is received.
    In a separate matter discussed Tuesday and on Jan. 8, the board considered Mark Goldberg’s plan for two nearly half-acre properties on East Lake Drive. One of Mr. Goldberg’s lots, at 269 East Lake Drive, runs from the road to Lake Montauk. The other, a vacant lot, adjoins it to the north and is also on the lake.
    Mr. Goldberg wants to build a 4,628-square-foot house with a deck on the undeveloped property and needs a natural resources special permit to do so because of the house’s proximity to the tidal wetland line and the bluff crest, something the board seemed willing to grant. It was the already developed property that sparked a somewhat heated debate.
    On that property, he wants to tear down the 2,100-square-foot house and replace it with a new 3,884-square-foot house. The existing pool, which is close to the lake, would be replaced with a new, larger pool. The house and deck caused little controversy in terms of their distance from wetlands, but the pool was another matter.
    “I believe that they had options to pull the pool back and locate it in a different location. My opinion is, they need to pull the pool back,” Bryan Gosman, a board member from Montauk who is familiar with the terrain, said during Tuesday’s deliberations.
    Mr. Cirillo told the board that he believed that the pool was placed where it was so it would be accessible to both properties. “I don’t like to tweak an application. I don’t have a problem with where the pool is,” he said.
    Lee White and Sharon McCobb, other board members, both agreed that the pool could be placed in another location where it would be more in line with the town code. Mr. White added that the applicant’s assertion that the new pool’s location should be allowed because it was farther away from Lake Montauk than the old pool, and therefore, an improvement, was not a valid argument and that the new request must stand or fall on its own merits.
    “I’d say this is substantial, compared to where it could be located,” Mr. Walter said.
    “When a person makes a request to do what they want to do, we should have a good reason to say no,” Mr. Cirillo said.
    The other board members felt there was a good reason, and voted 4-1 to deny the variances for the pool, then unanimously approved the variances for the new house.
    The application for Gerard Drive in Springs led to an unusual moment for the board, with Mr. Cirillo and Mr. Frank finding themselves allies on Jan. 8.
    The two have frequently been at loggerheads over the relevance of the town’s code versus a property owner’s right to develop.
    In this case, Barbara Kruger, who has owned her 881-square-foot house for many years, wants to save it from potential flooding from Gardiner’s Bay, which is right across the road, and adhere to the Federal Emergency Management minimum first-floor height regulations, her representative, Mary Whelan, told the board. She plans to move the house 20 feet landward, away from the causeway but closer to the wetlands, and raise it up 41/2 feet. The house, which would be as close as 70 feet from wetlands, would need a variance for that reason and several others because of its height.
    As opposed to building some form of shore hardening, which would be against town code, a “retreat is one of the options that this board, and I’ll speak for myself, looks kindly towards,” Mr. Walter said.
    Mr. Cirillo asked Ms. Whelan whether Ms. Kruger had considered moving the house even closer to the wetlands. Ms. Whelan responded that she and her client had tried to adhere, as much as possible, to town code with the proposed move.
    Mr. Frank said the Planning Department would encourage the move Mr. Cirillo suggested, in this specific case, due to the expense of such a move on the homeowner, who would, in all likelihood, get just one bite at the apple.
    Mr. Cirillo seemed surprised by Mr. Frank’s comments, saying, “I wasn’t necessarily advocating . . . I wouldn’t want to micromanage.”
    Mr. Walter said the board could keep the hearing open for two weeks, which would allow Ms. Whelan and Ms. Kruger to explore whether a request for the additional footage should be added to the application.
    Ms. McCobb, whose term on the board was up at the end of last year, is continuing as a board member for now. The town board tabled a decision on an appointment to the zoning board earlier this month.