Wainscott Wonder

    Once again, a landowner is trying to expand a commercial use of a residential property, and once again, it appears that some East Hampton Town officials are eager to help him do it.
    In this most recent example, the applicant wants to move a business structure closer to Montauk Highway at the intersection of Sayre’s Path in Wainscott, rebuild it, and add a stand-alone house at its rear. Michael Davis, who is well-known for developing houses, mostly in Sagaponack and Wainscott, has undertaken the project, calling it Wainscott Wombles.
    At a recent East Hampton Town Planning Board meeting, Mr. Davis’s representatives said the existing building, once a diner and most recently a high-fashion retail space, would be moved and converted into a two-story office building. The gravel parking lot would be replaced and beautified, and the redevelopment would echo the attractive residences Mr. Davis builds, bringing a welcome upgrade to the entrance to Wainscott, they said.    
    The problem facing the town is that what Mr. Davis is proposing is prohibited under East Hampton law. The law bans the expansion of uses that do not conform to zoning, that is, for example, a restaurant in a residential zone. The rule is meant to discourage commercial sprawl and protect the interests of residential neighbors.
    At the meeting, Mr. Davis’s lawyer argued in a way that would make George Orwell proud: Because a business exists on the property its commercial use trumps the underlying zoning of it as residential.
    Mr. Davis should have been directed to the zoning board of appeals to seek variances from the law to allow the expansion as well as the house, a banned second use. Instead, based on a determination by the East Hampton Town Building Department that two uses — the business and a house — would be okay on the lot, he was able to go directly to the planning board. We have to wonder how Tom Prieato, the town’s top building inspector, was prevailed upon to make this flawed and controversial call.
    At least one neighbor, a lawyer, has vowed to sue if the project goes ahead as proposed; his would appear to be a strong case. It remains to be seen how the application fares with the planning board, whose members heard about it officially for the first time on Dec. 7. The legal issues appear to be clear-cut, but in the current environment, in which officials have looked the other way on other questionable projects, anything could happen.