Delays Shut Public Out of Process

A double standard at work

The chief executive officer of the Starbucks corporation and the East Hampton Village Zoning Board of Appeals together have a world-class stall job under way, though the Z.B.A. appears to be inching toward putting a stop to it. This display of backbone, however cartilaginous, is overdue — though we will believe it when we see it.

Howard Schultz, with his wife, Sherri, had formally asked the zoning board back in April for permission to retain a garage that mysteriously became a good-size guesthouse on their Gracie Lane property. The village zoning chairman, citing a family responsibility involving one of the Schultzes’ lawyers, presented a request last week for a delay of two more months before the board’s deliberations might begin. Conveniently, this would push the eventual moment of reckoning past Labor Day, when, one can assume, the Schultzes would no longer regularly frequent their East Hampton spread or need to house their visitors, extended family, staff, or whomever, in the much debated structure.

The thing about this particular request is that the Schultzes are not seeking to build something new. On the contrary, they have been asking to keep unchanged a garage that had been improperly expanded. Though legally entitled to a garage of only 650 square feet with a single apartment for a caretaker, the building now has 1,000 square feet of floor area, with four bedrooms and three and a half bathrooms. According to their lawyers, when the Schultzes bought the property they were assured by the brokers that everything was legal. Nevertheless, when they applied to the Z.B.A. for permission to expand their house two years ago, they agreed to return the garage to its original size. They did not do so.

Every day that the zoning board has given over to the lawyers’ maneuvering and artful delays is one in which the couple continues to have the use of the wrongly altered structure. By failing to call a halt to the dodge last week when the matter was, at least on paper, to reach conclusion, the board essentially agreed to a fifth extension of time.

The principal lawyer for the couple, Leonard Ackerman of East Hampton, is supposed to appear at the next meeting, on Friday, July 25, or otherwise make the case for adjourning deliberations until the middle of September. Another postponement is hard to swallow, however, given that at various times the Schultzes have been represented by a coterie of attorneys, including a moonlighting Fred W. Thiele Jr., who just happens to also be a state assemblyman.

By contrast, extensions of time on matters before the East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals are extremely rare. At Town Hall, applicants and their attorneys make their cases in hearings, the gavel comes down, and decisions are forthcoming in 60 days or less, as state law requires. Once in a while, the record might be kept open for one side or the other to respond to a late document, but only long enough for that purpose rather than for indefinite months on end as in the village in this and many other matters. It is a fair model, one that requires all involved to be well prepared, and it offers swift solutions, benefiting both applicants and the community.

Concerns about the absence of timely and efficient review are not idle or without importance. By allowing matters to drag on, the village zoning board is effectively cutting the public out of the process. Few residents have the means or stamina to attend every continuation of such protracted hearings. Interest becomes diluted; attention wanes. This drastically reduces the potential role of neighbors and other parties and makes government an insiders’ game that only the pros can win.

What is infuriating about this is that it all comes down to money. If a middle-class homeowner or even a run-of-the-mill millionaire promised to reduce the size of a clearly illegal structure but neglected to do so, one would expect no leniency. There is a double standard at work here.

Credit Mr. and Ms. Schultz’s hubris with finally forcing the issue and bringing the zoning board to the point where some of its members appear to be moving toward what they should have said months ago: No.