Not a Flip, But a Flop for Neighbors

Morgan McGivern

    This old house will be renovated and modified, but not to the exact specifications that Chris Vila and Kristen Schonwald-Vila hoped.
    Mr. Vila, the son of Bob Vila, known as the host of the home improvement programs “This Old House” and “Bob Vila’s Home Again,” and his wife appeared before the East Hampton Village Zoning Board of Appeals on March 22 for a hearing on their application for variances to make significant changes to a house they purchased last year at 65 Mill Hill Lane. As of that day, the application had generated written objections to the board from six neighbors.
    The couple seeks variances for a second-story addition, the installation of a swimming pool and pool deck, relocation of air-conditioning units, and construction of a 322-square-foot detached garage. They also want to add a fourth bedroom to the three-bedroom house.
    The plans also show an office with a full bath, which could be used as a fifth bedroom, said Frank Newbold of the board, who was leading the meeting in the absence of Andrew Goldstein, its chairman. The proposed addition of a garage in front of the house, however, has prompted the greatest objection among neighbors and the board. An existing garage was taken over by living space in the renovation, which is already under way.
    The couple purchased the property intending to renovate and expand it, said Laurie Wiltshire of Land Planning Services, who represented the applicants before the board. They obtained a building permit in February for interior renovations and the swimming pool, now under construction.
    The couple seeks a 565-square-foot gross floor area variance, said Ms. Wiltshire, which is 23 percent more than the 2,422 square feet permitted, a figure she said is comparable to other variances granted in the neighborhood. “The rationale for the variances are very similar: Expand the residence to make the house more comfortable for a growing family,” she said.
    “It seems a lot of the neighbors aren’t very happy with this,” said Larry Hillel of the board.
    “None of the letters seemed to be coming directly from adjacent neighbors,” answered Bailey Heck, the architect overseeing the renovation.
    “Actually, one is, and she’s present today,” Mr. Newbold responded.
     Ms. Wiltshire suggested that neighbors’ objections stem from misinformation. “It is true that my clients are builders and build and sell homes for a living. This is not one of those homes. This is not a commercial enterprise. This truly is the house they plan to live in and raise their family in,” she said.
    “The short story is that we want to be a part of this neighborhood,” Ms. Schonwald-Vila told the board. “Mill Hill is one of the most beautiful streets we have ever seen. It’s one of the most beautiful streets we can afford to live on.”
    Mr. Vila acknowledged that “I definitely have flipped properties and things like that, but this is our house. We’re not going anywhere.” He said that he and his wife did not buy a house on a larger lot, as they wish to live in the village.
    Virginia Coleman of 69 Mill Hill Lane penned one of letters the board has received. “I came out for a weekend a couple of weeks ago and noticed that my fence was gone, and that there was a new fence in place,” she said. “Some of my shrubbery was gone.” She subsequently learned of Mr. Vila’s career and the planned garage, she said. Turning to Mr. Vila and Ms. Schonwald-Vila, she said, “I don’t think it’s a very attractive solution, and there was a perfectly adequate garage in that house.” Neighbors, she said, “are very concerned that the character and the nature of Mill Hill Lane will change if this continues. . . . I think we should pay attention to how we want to take care of our village.” Glaring at Mr. Vila and Ms. Schonwald-Vila, she said, “It would have been very nice if someone had reached out to me. All it would have taken is a letter in a mailbox and a 46-cent stamp.”
    The board sided with Ms. Coleman and the other neighbors that have publicly objected to the proposed renovations. “I don’t want to redesign the house, but I’m totally against the garage in the front yard,” said John L. McGuirk III.
    Mill Hill is among the village’s most attractive streets, Lysbeth Marigold agreed, and residents wish to keep it that way. “The house is already big on that street in comparison to other houses,” she said. “Not only do I not like the garage in the front, but I can’t see okaying any expansion in square footage, coverage, [gross floor area], etc.”
    “The sense of this board, and certainly of the six neighbors who took the time and effort to put their comments in writing, some of whom have lived on the street since 1965, they feel it would be a strong detriment to the neighborhood and change the character of the neighborhood,” said Mr. Newbold. The board will not approve the current application, he said, but would leave the hearing open if the applicants wished to submit a proposal requiring a lesser variance.
    “Could they give up the garage right now?” Ms. Wiltshire asked.
    “If you want to make a resubmission and make that part of it, we’ll leave the hearing open,” Mr. Newbold answered. The board agreed to hear a new proposal on Friday, April 12, should the applicants wish to make one.
    Mr. Hillel suggested that the couple discuss their plans with the neighbors so that they would feel more comfortable. “Not a bad idea,” said Mr. Newbold.