De Niro Is Suing

Michelle Napoli | August 13, 1998

"You talkin' to me?" from the 1976 film "Taxi Driver" is one of Robert De Niro's most famous lines. He might have said the same to the East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals recently.

The award-winning actor has asked the State Supreme Court to reverse the board's decision to deny him the extensive additions he had hoped to build on his bluffside Old Montauk Highway house. The denial, he claims in court papers, "is arbitrary and capricious, constitutes an abuse of discretion, and is affected by errors of law."

Several neighbors voiced concerns over the project, which would have added 4,076 square feet of first and second-story living space, a 242-square-foot deck, a hot tub, a new parking area, a walkway, and retaining walls.

Bluff Impact

It required a natural resources permit, a 13-foot bluff crest setback variance, a 2,533-square-foot variance from lot coverage limitations, and a 1,668-square-foot variance from building coverage limits.

The Z.B.A. found the project would have a "great impact" on the Atlantic bluff there. A sizable addition could be designed with less impact on the bluff, a natural resource protected by the Town Code, said the board.

Mr. De Niro's architect, Frank Hollenbeck, acknowledged during a June 2 hearing that he had not considered alternative locations.

Planners Gave Go-Ahead

The actor's attorney, Richard M. Mathew of Bridgehampton, filed the Article 78 lawsuit with the Town Clerk's office on July 29. It charges that the Z.B.A. disregarded the opinion of the Town Planning Department, which stated in its environmental assessment that the project would have only a "small to moderate" impact on the bluff.

The suit says the Zoning Board "relied upon unsubstantiated testimony from the attorney for an objecting neighbor that there was a level area" on Mr. De Niro's property where an addition could be built with less disturbance to the bluff, adding that the "level area" is the current parking area, which "would need to be excavated" to build any improvements there.

The papers detail the history of Mr. De Niro's attempts to expand. When he first tried to convert a garage into an artist's studio for his father, the Z.B.A. denied the request, but said he could connect the garage to the house with an addition, the suit states.

Permit History

He took up the suggestion, and in October 1984 got a building permit for additions - smaller than what is now being sought - that were never built; the permit was renewed the next year but allowed to lapse in 1986. In 1987, he was issued a new building permit for a larger addition - though still smaller than what he now seeks - and that permit was renewed in 1988, '89, '90, '91, '93, and '94.

Again, construction never began. The '94 permit expired. In October 1996, the Building Department issued a stop work order, meaning no work could take place, saying the project did not conform with the town's then-current Zoning Code.

It didn't conform, the department determined, because it needed a bluff crest setback variance, which only the Zoning Board can grant.

The stop work order was improper, Mr. De Niro's suit argues. He has already spent $32,350 on building plans and designs and permits, according to the papers, giving him "vested rights in the building permits" issued earlier.

Stop Work Order

In addition, the lawsuit maintains that the bluff crest setback spelled out in the Town Code does not apply in this case, since the actual crest of the bluff is in fact on the other side of Old Montauk Highway - a fact that the Zoning Board agreed with.

Mr. De Niro claims that because of that, the stop work order should have been withdrawn and the building permit renewed.

This week Jay Schneiderman, the Zoning Board's chairman and Montauk representative, defended the board's denial of Mr. De Niro's request, saying the decision was "based on very sound reasoning."

The board believes the project would have a "large impact" on the bluff, he said, adding that the board does not have to agree with the Planning Department's opinion. "I don't think they'll get anywhere with it," Mr. Schneiderman said of the suit.

The Town Board last week hired Richard DePetris of the Aquebogue firm Scheinberg, Schneps, DePetris & DePetris to defend the suit.