Missed Opportunity To Correct Error

   The majority of the East Hampton Town Planning Board missed a golden opportunity recently to wipe the slate clean of a bad precedent. The question before the board, at a meeting last month, was whether to require a detailed site plan review of the Amagansett Reform Club, whose owner was seeking permission to build two sheds. The construction of two sheds might seem to be a piddling matter, not worthy of government meddling, but there was a lot more to it than that. Some brief history is in order.
    Several years ago, Randy Lerner, who also owns Amagansett Square and the shuttered Exile restaurant on that hamlet’s Main Street, bought the Mill Garth Inn on Windmill Lane. The inn was a modest, more or less seasonal affair that had been in existence before the area was zoned exclusively residential. Under law in East Hampton, pre-existing, nonconforming businesses are allowed to remain in place in residential zones as long as they are not expanded; any work on these sites that requires a building permit is supposed to be approved in advance by the planning board.
    That never happened. Beginning in 2007, the Mill Garth Inn was torn down and rebuilt — much larger and apparently in a slightly different location on the 1.8-acre property — without the planners getting involved. In 2009, it reopened as the Reform Club. Plenty of triggers for site plan review were ignored and, when alerted to this strange oversight, town officials, from then-Supervisor Bill McGintee on down, declined to say peep. Oddly, a town sidewalk that had once run across the property was relocated to the opposite side of the street — again, without public review or opportunity for comment. Neighbors, who could have fought the building permits for the project with an Article 78 lawsuit, had little interest in tangling with the billionaire next door.
    Board members last month were at long last given the opportunity to at least take an accounting of what currently exists and is now planned for the property. But, apparently anxious to put the whole episode behind them, they declined to do so. This was a mistake.
    Given all that had come before, the Reform Club’s seeking planning board approval for two simple sheds might seem solicitous in the extreme — but perhaps those involved gambled that if the board declined to order a full review, all the controversial changes that had come before would get a de facto stamp of approval. And that is exactly what happened.
    East Hampton Town has long had rigorous rules to control sprawl and protect the peace of quiet neighborhoods. These are sensible statutes, and they have helped us keep our town beautiful. The town has, at least in theory, sought to apply them fairly.
    Despite what some people (with either vested interests or extreme property-rights philosophies) have to say about it, pre-existing, nonconforming businesses in residential zones are not supposed to grow. When the government ignores its own laws, faith in that government is eroded. This is especially so when it isn’t readily apparent on what grounds the powers that be decide who is deserving of such favor and who isn’t.