School's Out On 114

Josh Lawrence | April 2, 1998

"I'll see you in court!" promised Deena Zenger at the end of a long evening in East Hampton Town Hall. On March 25, the Town Planning Board, by a split vote, denied her permission to build a preschool and day-care facility on Route 114 in East Hampton.

Ms. Zenger, whose application has been before the Planning Board for more than a year, asked to be heard after the decision was announced, and took the opportunity to lash into the board and the planning process.

The denial was the board's first rejection of a subdivision, site plan, or special-permit application in at least three and a half years, said the Planning Board's secretary, Christine Hawkins, who has been covering the board for that long.

Vote Splits 4-3

On the other hand, no application has raised as much controversy as the Country School's since the board reviewed Amagansett Square in 1991 and 1992.

"My husband and I have spent $40,000 on this application," Ms. Zenger told the board after the decision. "Now I am dead. We'll probably have to sell our house to pay for this lot . . . I hope you can go home tonight and think about what you did."

The seven-member board voted 4 to 3 to deny the application, ruling that the 4,260-square-foot school and its day-care, preschool, and summer-camp programs were incompatible with the residential neighborhood where they were proposed.

Compatibility

A school is allowable in a residential zone by special permit. To gain a special permit, however, a project must meet a strict list of standards to insure it will not be detrimental to the neighborhood.

Although the board reached a consensus last week that any potential environmental impacts could be mitigated with a "conditional negative declaration," a majority voted that the special-permit standards could not be met.

"I don't think the proposed use for this site is compatible with the property," said Iris Osborn, a board member. "There isn't anything even quasi-commercial on that side of Route 114. The visibility is okay, but the overall scale, with the size of the building and the parking, is incompatible with the neighborhood."

Sheila Downs, the board's vice chairwoman, and James Mangano, a board member, agreed with that assessment. In fact, Mr. Mangano argued that the school actually constituted two commercial uses on one property.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of borderline calls here," he said. "If this was a different piece of property, I might feel differently."

With three members ruling that the application failed the special permit test and three others - Henry Clifford, Gary Swanander, and Roberta Gosman Donovan - saying Ms. Zenger had met the standards, the decision ultimately came down to one member, Brad Loewen.

Tie-Breaking Vote

Mr. Loewen, however, said he was dissatisfied with several of the environmental issues and couldn't vote to approve without having the questions answered. Potential groundwater impacts and traffic safety, he said, still concerned him.

"There are some rather important questions that have to be answered," he said. "I don't think they can be answered without [a draft environmental impact statement]."

Specifically, Mr. Loewen said the data about potential water usage and depth-to-groundwater contradicted itself in the file. He also said the State Department of Transportation had nothing in the file indicating it was considering safety improvements, including reducing the speed limit on Route 114 - something that had been stated during the review.

"We haven't got a guess as to what they're going to do," said Mr. Loewen.

Disappointed Chairman

The members who supported Ms. Zenger's application said they felt she and her planning consultant, LandMarks, had addressed any potential incompatibilities with the neighborhood.

"I'm not going to pretend this is an easy call," said Mr. Clifford, the board's chairman. "There are a lot of close calls here, and a lot of questions. We're all struggling, there's no question about it, but with all those [modifications to the plan], I think this does meet the standards."

Mr. Clifford said yesterday, a week after the decision, that he was "very disappointed" with it. "I believe the board followed all legal and planning procedures properly. Nothing was done wrong. However, I am entitled to my personal opinion, and I can say I think it was the worst decision the board has made."

Residents' Objections

"We've been going over this for a year now," said Mr. Swanander, who serves on the board of the East Hampton Day Care Center and who stressed the need for more day care options throughout the Country School review. "If you read "A" through "M" [of the Town Code's special permit standards], I think the applicant has answered everything."

The Country School had been proposed on a five-acre lot on the east side of Route 114, several hundred feet south of Swamp Road.

Neighbors argued vehemently against the school, saying it would destroy the character of the residential neighborhood, both aesthetically and in terms of noise, traffic, and potential groundwater impacts.

Blames The Neighbors

Residents of the area spoke out against the plan in a lengthy public hearing Feb. 4.

The neighbors have been involved in the review from the outset. Several weeks after the application was proposed, flyers were posted around the Swamp Road area warning of a blow to peace and property values and urging opposition to the plan.

Ms. Zenger last week blamed the neighbors for having "snowballed" the application. "This has been blown so far out of proportion," she told the Planning Board. "Noise? Most of these kids are so little, they don't even talk!"

"As it looks now," she continued, "I'll have to see you in court. I have lost all faith in the town."