Panoramic Could Lose Permits

Officials were vague on town rules; property owner felt scrutiny was plenty (Published Jan. 28, 2010)
The Panoramic View Resort and Residences in Montauk underwent extensive renovations to the interior and exterior of at least two of the buildings on the property.

(01/28/2010)    About two years ago, Tom Talmage, the East Hampton Town engineer and Sylvia Overby, the town planning board chairwoman at the time, jumped into a car and drove to the Panoramic View Resort and Residences in Montauk to check out a tip that construction there was going far beyond what had been approved by other town officials.

    Ms. Overby said this month that what she saw that day did not match what she had read in the town’s files, which described simple renovations on part of the oceanfront property.

    It was “really apparent looking at aerials” that some massive changes had taken place on the property, she said. Those changes, she went on to say, “never came up through the correct channels.”

    Planning board approval is mandatory any time a building permit is required on properties zoned for residential use that are instead used commercially. The Panoramic View, on Old Montauk Highway, was built in the 1950s as a motel on residential land. Motels are banned in residential zones unless they predate zoning, as this one did. A  building permit is required whenever substantial changes are made to any building.

    For complicated projects such as that at the Panoramic View, the planning steps can drag on and on. When additional environmental review is ordered, the process can extend to five years or more and involve tens of thousands of dollars in legal costs, surveys, and consultants’ fees.

    However, in approximately five months during 2006 and early 2007, the owners of the Panoramic View received approvals from the East Hampton Town Architectural Review Board and building permits to renovate more than 36,000 square feet of its complex.

    According to East Hampton Town Building Department records, the Panoramic View received 10 building permits for a gradual renovation but was never ordered to seek review or approvals from the planning board, which would have been required under the town code.

    Dan Adams, the East Hampton Town attorney, said on Jan. 11 that any permits issued incorrectly by the Building Department at any time could be revoked. “If something has to be corrected, I have no compunction about correcting it,” he said. At the time of the interview, he had not had a chance to review the Panoramic’s file. Mr. Adams was hired at the beginning of this year.

    In 1984 several motel units at the Panoramic were sold to private individuals as cooperatives without deeds to the underlying land. A portion of the 10-acre property is still being used as a motel, according to Adam Manson, the chief executive officer of Distinctive Ventures, the majority owner of the property.

    The 2006 and 2007 building permits were issued for alterations to the Salt Sea building and the Hill Top building, two of the five larger structures on the property, which also contains four cottages.

    Hill Top was to have its three stories and 17,025 square feet altered. The building permit noted a decrease in rooms from 30 to 10. Hill Top was completed, and a certificate of occupancy was issued by Don Sharkey, the former chief building inspector, in 2008.

    Initially, Salt Sea was to be over 21,000 square feet, but by juggling the floor area of each of the four levels to increase some areas and decrease others, the Salt Sea building was pared down to about 19,000 square feet.

    The number of rooms went down from 38 to 10. The Panoramic View’s Web site depicts an additional unit near the Salt Sea building but marketed as part of the building, bringing the total number of rooms to 11. A certificate of occupancy was issued for Salt Sea in 2009.

    There is no building permit on record for the unattached room at Salt Sea, although separate building permits were issued simultaneously for the renovation of the four cottages. All four permits were rescinded at the Panoramic View’s request shortly after they were issued.

    According to town records, the East Hampton Town Architectural Review Board reviewed additions and alterations to Salt Sea and Hill Top. However, as set out in the town code, review by that board for this kind of application is mandated only when planning board review is also required.

    No one interviewed for this story could explain why the architectural review board became involved with the Panoramic View’s building permit applications. Several attempts by a reporter to listen to or obtain copies of tapes of the meetings at which the project was discussed were thus far denied by the board’s secretary. Such recordings are considered publicly accessible records by the state Freedom of Information Law.

    Ms. Overby said that her walking tour of the property with Mr. Talmage showed decks being enclosed to add to the square footage of the units. Increases in the square footage of units have triggered site plan review by the planning board at other properties, including the Surf Club at Montauk, a motel and condominium.

    In addition to the construction at the property, Ms. Overby said, there was “definitely regrading going on.” On Sept. 21, 2006, the same day the architectural review board granted its approval of the Panoramic project, the East Hampton Town Board passed a law requiring planning board approval for any changes in grade or changes to parking lot surfaces. Approval was never obtained, according to town records.

    “I brought these issues back to Town Hall,” Ms. Overby said, where she was told by Mr. Sharkey that the surface of the parking lots was not being changed and that “if they were grading, the land would be restored to its original state.”

    “Anything I discussed with Sylvia  was either resolved or overruled by the chief building inspector,” Mr. Talmage said in a Jan. 15 interview.

    Mr. Talmage added that while he had some initial concerns with the project, since it is on a steep slope where stormwater could drain into the ocean, the chief building inspector had jurisdiction, and, as the town engineer, he could not weigh in unless the planning board reviewed it. Since there was no planning board review, his investigation of the property ended there, he said.

Size of Units
    In constructing the new, larger units, the owners of the Panoramic may have violated another town code regulation. All permits and certificates of occupancy issued for the property note that the use on the site is a motel. However, the town code caps the size of units in motels at 450 square feet.

    Some units in the renovated Panoramic buildings measure in at up to 4,000 square feet. This distinction, along with the fact that cooperatives are specifically excluded from the definition of a motel, pushes the Panoramic into the realm of a resort, which is only permitted in a resort zone and even then only with a special permit issued by the planning board.

    No such permit was sought or issued.

    “Was it controversial? Yes,” Tom Preiato, the senior chief building inspector and head of the Building Department, said in an interview in his office on Jan. 19.

    Mr. Preiato would not comment on any of the issues raised by town records, but agreed that there may be some unanswered questions. He assured that, “while I’m in charge of this department, all applications will be viewed consistently for code compliance and proper approvals.”

    “All applications will still have to go through the normal channels,” he said.

    A town code requirement that the chief building inspector must alert neighbors when a request for changes to nonconforming commercial uses on residential property is filed was not fulfilled.

    “This was deemed the correct channel at the time,” Mr. Preiato said of the Building Department. He added that all initial building permit applications originate in his department, and that all commercial projects are routed to the fire marshal for review.

    Mr. Preiato said on Tuesday that the plans for another building, the Valley View, are still under review, although permits have not been issued. He said this phase of the project would not involve removing walls and would be strictly monitored by his office.

    Although the building plans indicate an increase in the number of units in the Valley View building, Mr. Preiato said he told the owners of the motel “in no uncertain terms” that they could not increase the number of units. He did not refer the project to the planning board. “No walls will be brought down,” he said.

Several Explanations
    Mr. Manson said from his office in Great Neck on Jan. 6 that the Panoramic View had been subject to an unusual amount of scrutiny throughout the remodeling process. “If we weren’t the Panoramic . . . no one would have noticed,” he said.

     The planning board was not meant to review projects such as the one at the Panoramic View, he said. “The planning board is for new projects as well as construction projects. All we did is renovate,” he said, and bring the buildings “up to code.”

    At the time the permits for Salt Sea and Hill Top were issued, Mr. Sharkey said that site plan approval was not required because the ownership structure had not changed. The French family, who built the Panoramic View over 50 years ago, sold a controlling interest in 93 Old Montauk Owners, the company that owns the property, to Distinctive Ventures in 2006.

    The family retains shares in the company. However, the town code does not make a distinction regarding the ownership of property and how it affects land use. Approvals are issued to the underlying land and the buildings on it, not the owners of the property.

    Mr. Sharkey also said at the time that since the number of units in the buildings would be decreasing, the project would make them better conform to the town code. Mr. Preiato said this week, however, that the motel could not become more conforming since the use itself is not permitted on residential property.

    Chris DiSunno, the only ranking member of the architectural review board left since the outset of the Panoramic application, said on Jan. 13 that planning board approval was not required since the application that came to his board was for “a change of exterior materials. No expansion, no change of use. . . ,” he said.

    “The nature of planning is that of use and community,” Mr. DiSunno went on to say. He said that while planning board approval for changes to properties is sometimes required, it’s “not always the case.”

    “It depends on the extent of what you’re doing,” he said. “They were all aesthetic changes” at the Panoramic View, he said.

    A problem with the system could be to blame for all the confusion, according to Mr. DiSunno. The last Town Hall administration changed longtime policies that used to name the Building Department the clearinghouse for all projects. Ever since then, new applications can be submitted directly to the agency they require approval from, sometimes keeping other reviewing agencies out of the loop for long periods of time.