If someone took the time to make a list of the businesses East Hampton Town residents complain about all the time, one thing would become clear: The bulk of the trouble spots are in locations with residential zoning.
Those who follow local government, or who live near one of these places, can point fingers if they like. Our intention is not to name names; rather, it is to point out that it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, and this may surprise some people, the town’s own laws were written to gradually make development consistent with good planning.
Tension between commerce and homeowners is not new. When the East Hampton Town zoning code first was adopted, in the early 1960s, so-called pre-existing, nonconforming uses, such as restaurants, bars, delis, and repair shops, were supposed to fade away over time. More intensive-purposed properties would be centered where the appropriate infrastructure, such as parking lots, road drainage, street lighting, and public transportation, was provided. The basic idea was that there were appropriate places for houses and appropriate places for things that were not houses. No great mystery there.
What is new, although it reaches back from the present administration to prior administrations, is a sense in Town Hall that pre-existing, nonconforming businesses should not only be grandfathered, that is, allowed to remain as they are, but should be encouraged to grow and become permanent. This violates both the East Hampton Town Code and widely accepted notions of livable communities. The net effect of the easy-does-it approach is suburban sprawl, with low-key, helter-skelter businesses getting even more entrenched and the major roads between the South Fork’s villages and hamlets increasingly commercialized. There are ways to combine commercial and residental development, sure, so-called smart growth concepts, but that is not what we are talking about here. Unmanaged, it might better be termed dumb growth.
The record shows that the Town Building Department has been far too willing to certify pre-existing, nonconforming uses in residential zones on the scantiest of excuses and absent of any documentation. If the department were to faithfully follow the town code, it would demand better evidence that such uses had the right to remain. Moreover, the department has repeatedly failed to refer requests for building permits to the planning board for site plan review, as required in many cases.
This stands in stark contrast to one of the overarching goals of East Hampton’s 2005 comprehensive plan update, to maintain and restore the town’s rural and semirural character. Another objective listed in the plan is to protect neighborhoods from incompatible development. The plan was the product of more than four years’ work by elected officials and scores of dedicated citizens who attended meeting after meeting.
Taming certain commercial outliers is part of what would make East Hampton a better place to live. We wonder what it will take to shift the balance back.