Crowd Asks Overturn Of Rennert Permits

August 27, 1998

The crowd that took every seat, plopped down on the floor, lined the walls, and spilled into the hall made it clear this was not a run-of-the-mill Zoning Board of Appeals hearing to protest a neighbor's plan to build a pool or tennis court.

The hundreds of people who crammed into Southampton Town Hall last Thursday had come to demand that building permits for Ira Rennert's colossal estate in Saga ponack be overturned.

Mr. Rennert, of Manhattan, is a financier whose Renco holding company controls a number of mines and industries. His Blue Turtles Corporation has already begun the construction of Fair Field, as he calls it, on a 63-acre former farm field off Daniel's Lane.

Twenty-Nine Bedrooms

The main house, 50 percent larger than the Bridgehampton King Kullen, has been widely reported as 66,000 square feet, but William Jaeger, a Port Jefferson architect and engineer who testified for the Sagaponack Homeowners Association, which was formed earlier this year to fight the project, said it actually totals some 72,000 square feet.

Inside would be 29 bedrooms, many with sitting rooms, some 30 bathrooms, dining rooms, a sprawling kitchen, a film screening room, an art gallery, and an 8,800-square-foot wing with no designation.

Plans call for a 17,500-square-foot garage, a 10,000-square-foot playhouse with two bowling alleys, two tennis courts, two squash courts, a basketball court, game rooms, a 5,600-square-foot power plant, a 2,900-square-foot garden pavilion, a beach pavilion, and two 500-square-foot gatehouses.

"Yankee Stadium"

To illustrate the scale of the Rennert construction, Alan Stillman, who lives across Fairfield Pond Road from the site, displayed two blown-up panoramic photographs measuring perhaps 10 feet across, showing the vast expanse of topsoil already scraped clean by earth movers and bulldozers.

Mr. Stillman said he never expected to keep his view of the field forever.

"I thought there would be houses, and they would be like the other houses," he said. "I did not expect that I'd be living next door to Yankee Stadium."

"If you allow this to be built," he told the Zoning Board, "other people will come and build the same thing."

Overflow Crowd

Edward Rush, the Z.B.A.'s chairman, appeared surprised by the overflow crowd despite the publicity that has swirled around Mr. Rennert's controversial plans to build one of the biggest houses in America.

He said he feared the meeting, with several other hearings on the agenda, would last "until 3 or 4 in the morning."

After listening to over two hours of testimony, all from Fair Field's opponents, Mr. Rush asked that the hearing be adjourned until tonight at 7, promising that "everyone will be heard."

Despite requests for a more spacious venue - one man in the crowd called out, "Can we go to Rennert's house?" - Mr. Rush said the hearing would take place at Town Hall.

Emergency

Conditions in the stuffy meeting room proved too much for one elderly man. He left the hearing and was tended to by John White, co-chairman of the Sagaponack Citizens Advisory Committee and an emergency medical technician with the Bridgehampton Fire Department. Mr. White said the man showed symptoms of a heart attack, and called the Southampton ambulance.

In his opening volley, the lawyer for the Sagaponack Homeowners Association, John F. Shea of the Riverhead firm Twomey, Latham, Shea & Kelley, tried to convince the board

'I did not expect that I'd be living next door to Yankee Stadium.'

Alan Stillman

that Mr. Rennert's plans were more in keeping with a luxurious seaside resort than the single-family house described on the building permit.

"We're going to ask if this is designed and arranged like a single-family house, and if it's not, it can't be built in this zone," Mr. Shea said.

Building Permits

Describing the Rennert estate as commercial in nature, Mr. Shea said, "You couldn't get a permit to build a car wash, or even a small office building" in a residential zone. "You can't build that kind of structure even if you say you are going to live in it."

The lawyer said Mr. Rennert's neighbors would "welcome him" if he were to scale back his plans and build a "truly elegant, spacious home," but would not accept the "assault and invasion on their residential neighborhood by this commercial compound."

Mr. Rennert received building permits in April after the Southampton Town Architectural Review Board, the only board to review the project, approved most of it, except for the gatehouses, garage, and a hedge, after two hearings last winter.

Lawsuits

The Sagaponack Homeowners Association has filed lawsuits in State Supreme Court against the A.R.B. decision and to overturn the Building Department's refusal to let it make copies of the Fair Field plans, which are copyrighted.

Mr. Rennert was represented by the attorneys Anthony Tohill of Riverhead and Martin Gilmartin of Southampton, and the planning consultant Richard Warren of Inter-Science in Southampton. They did not speak.

This week, however, Mr. Tohill said all building permits were obtained properly and described opponents' testimony as "flawed" and "full of inaccuracies." He promised "one of the shortest rebuttals in history" at tonight's meeting and said he would submit his own arguments in writing.

Parking For 200

Everything about the plan, from its masonry-and-steel construction to its plumbing, its restaurant-style kit chen with three 7-by-7-foot walk-in refrigerators, six sinks, and commercial ranges, and its oversized laundry room, pointed to a resort or hotel-type use, argued Mr. Jaeger, one of the Homeowners' Association's expert witnesses.

"The bedrooms are suite-type designs with sitting rooms, similar to those provided in hotels and conference centers," he said. The kitchen is big enough to "serve 50 people three meals a day every day of the year."

He pointed out that the screening room in the basement could hold 164 people, there was enough pavement to provide parking for 200 cars, and "a 25-by-30-foot laundry can do an awful lot of laundry."

The Rennert project will also include its own power plant with several furnaces and huge fuel and water tanks.

Its Own Power Plant

Mr. Jaeger estimated the compound would cost over $27 million to build, assuming a cost of $300 per square foot. "We feel this is a very low estimate of what this building will cost," he said.

Randall Parsons of LandMarks, an East Hampton environmental consulting firm, told the board he had had a difficult time grasping the scale of the project until he envisioned himself arriving at Fair Field on a vacation.

"This facility is ready to go as a resort use right away," he said. "It's well designed to be a premium, high-priced oceanfront resort."

Dwarfs Trupin

Fair Field, said Mr. Parsons, will dwarf the largest house in Southampton, the so-called Trupin Castle, a 28,000-square-foot faux-chateau in Southampton Village.

Its main dining room and an art gallery would be "bigger than my own house in East Hampton," said Mr. Parsons. He called the Rennert compound a slightly larger version of the Gurney's Inn resort in Montauk.

There have been not-so-quiet whispers that Mr. Rennert, a devout Orthodox Jew and friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, really wants to create a religious retreat. Some have suggested that the 8,800-square-foot wing will serve as a synagogue.

Wing And A Prayer?

While no one mentioned that use last Thursday, one neighbor, Joe Zicherman of Hedges Lane, questioned what Mr. Rennert had planned for the undesignated wing.

"For all I know, he could be building a nuclear reactor in there," he said.

Mr. Zicherman said he feared the Rennert compound, with a 17-acre irrigated English garden, would affect the water table.

"I don't think you can guarantee that I'll have water," he told the board. "If you can't guarantee that, you must overturn this."

He also complained that the A.R.B. and Building Department had made mistakes in approving a design that was not in harmony with its surroundings.

Seek Invalidation

Joe Dilworth, a Sag Pond Court resident, tried to hammer that point home. He presented the board with two scale models made by his wife, Clay Dilworth, an architectural designer. One was of a 4,000-square-foot house. It was dwarfed by a model of the Rennert mansion.

"The truth is not what you think you can get away with," said Sheila Bialek of Fairfield Pond Road. "We, the citizens of Sagaponack, are painfully aware of what Mr. Rennert has done to our town."

"The Rennert project defies logic, defies sanity, and defies honesty," she said. "Rennert's permit must be invalidated now."

"Believe It"

Bob DeLuca, president of the Group for the South Fork, also urged the board to revoke the building permit. "How hamstrung are we?" he asked, maintaining that the building inspector should have asked the Z.B.A. for an interpretation before approving the plans.

"Believe that you can do this," he told the board, "because you do have the power and you have the support of the people of this community."

"There are no vested rights here," added Mr. Shea, who said the board could order Mr. Rennert to restore the land to its original condition.

Tinka Topping, who has lived on Daniel's Lane for more than 35 years, said the road was "the ideal of Sagaponack, a beautiful, soft, long lane" and argued it was not too late to save what is left.

"The number of people standing here has to matter to you," she implored the board.