Upending Zoning In Two-for-One Appeal

Town law carefully sets out limits on what can and cannot be done on residential properties

    One of the sacrosanct principles of East Hampton Town zoning is that no one gets more than one house per property. That is unless one happens to have a large parcel of land and an even larger bank account.

    At an April 1 town zoning board hearing, representatives of Jeff T. Blau, who runs the multinational real estate firm Related Companies, sought to overturn the one-lot, one-house tradition on a Wainscott parcel he bought two years ago for $18.5 million. After voting to grant the request unanimously on Tuesday, the Z.B.A. runs the risk of dealing a major blow to the town’s zoning code.

    Town law carefully sets out limits on what can and cannot be done on residential properties, and with good reason. Banned uses include slaughterhouses and wrecking yards, and, material to this discussion, more than one single-family house per parcel. The one-house rule should apply fairly and evenly across the economic spectrum, and you can assume that even your run-of-the-mill millionaire would have been laughed out of Town Hall had he or she pursued a similar scheme.

    Mr. Blau’s successful request was simple at its core: He plans to build a second house on a parcel where only one is permitted. Rejection should also have been simple. However, during the Z.B.A. hearing, his lawyer offered a smokescreen of reasons why the board should give in, including that the plan would save a Topping family farmhouse already there. But because the original house is not visible from the adjacent Five Rod Highway, a narrow town trustee road, and because no promise to allow visitor access to it is being made, saving it as is serves only the most minimal public purpose.

    Mr. Blau will now build a new, far larger house there and several additional structures, including the renovated Topping house, but he did not want to subdivide the property for reasons that were not convincing. It appears that the reason his request reached the zoning board in the first place was a go-ahead some time ago from then-town attorney John Jilnicki, whose opinion was not put in writing - something that ought to be explained.

    Nor did Mr. Blau want to add his new, larger house on to the farmhouse, as would be his right. In return for being allowed to have two houses, Mr. Blau has offered easements, or perpetual protection, of portions of the property, but these fail to address the key question of an additional house on the site and imply the unblinking acceptance by the Z.B.A. of an improper quid pro quo.

    The town’s Planning Department, in its analysis of the application, did not appear to agree with Mr. Blau’s representatives that subdividing the land would be impossible. Indeed, the department dismissed this argument as moot, to use its word. It issued what can be read as a neutral opinion on the two-house question, and it urged the Z.B.A. to look closely at whether the request met the standards for granting variances. We believe they did not look closely enough.

    Mr. Blau cannot have reasonably claimed that being held to a single house on one lot would have been a genuine hardship. Any alleged difficulties from his situation should have been considered self-created and grounds for denial. New York State law requires that applications for variances must be rejected when they fail to meet these tests and a reasonable alternative - in this case, a legal, if difficult to obtain, subdivision - is available. East Hampton Town officials need to proceed extremely cautiously when it comes to granting such variances.

    Expect a wave now of similar requests from other wealthy property owners eager to build their own dream Hamptons compounds. Unfortunately, the zoning board heaped praise and its okay on an application that was improperly handed to it in the first place. We hope that in the future the members uphold tradition and reject more unjustified assaults on one of the town’s most basic zoning rules.