What appeared to be an innocuous request from representatives of an Amagansett business to add several sheds to its property divided the East Hampton Town Planning Board at its meeting on April 13.
The board had been asked to approve the construction of a pair of 83-square-foot sheds at the Reform Club, a high-end inn on roughly two acres on Windmill Lane, owned by Randy Lerner (proprietor of the Cleveland Browns football team). The planning board met to determine whether they would require surveys, building plans, and a public hearing on the matter.
Under more common circumstances, applications like the one Mr. Lerner’s company has requested do not require planning board approval. However, in this case, the board was required to review it because the hostelry is located in a residential zone where businesses are not permitted. The commercial use on the property predates the town’s zoning code and also requires approval from the town’s architectural review board, which met to discuss the issue last Thursday night.
Some planning board members questioned the property’s history, saying that the buildings had been refurbished several years ago without board approval. But it was not clear in the ensuing discussion whether town code did, in fact, require that earlier review and approval process.
The expansion of a pre-existing, nonconforming use is not permitted according to the town code. But — as the East Hampton Planning Department’s review of the current application noted — the former chief building inspector had determined that the remodeling of the building did not constitute an expansion.
However, Peter Van Scoyoc, a board member, said those earlier modifications had indeed been illegal, because the Building Department had never issued an official determination for the Reform Club property, and had only issued a building permit for the modifications and then a certificate of occupancy once the work was complete.
Kathryn Santiago, the planning board’s attorney, took the position that the addition of an accessory structure did not appear to constitute an expansion of a pre-existing, nonconforming use. She said that previous determinations issued by the Building Department, on several other properties, appeared to clear the way for the Reform Club’s sheds. She said none of those other determinations in similar cases she had reviewed had been disputed.
Those determinations, said Mr. Van Scoyoc, “ran contrary to every other application prior to them.” Drawing the outside determinations into the fray, Mr. Van Scoyoc said, subverts the town code.
“It’s misleading to have it in the code if it’s not going to be enforced,” he said of the restrictions on the expansions of pre-existing, nonconforming uses.
Mr. Van Scoyoc expressed reservations about the former chief building inspector’s determination and that of Ms. Santiago. “There is no basis in the code for a determination that accessory structures are exempt from expansion,” he said.
Although he noted that the Reform Club site is “absolutely beautiful,” he said, “it’s pretty clear in reading the code” that nothing that predates zoning laws on the books is to be enlarged. Mr. Van Scoyoc brought to light what he called a “disconnect between . . . some applications we receive and some we don’t.”
Others at the meeting disagreed with Mr. Van Scoyoc.
Patrick Schutte said the board is required to tread lightly. “It’s not our role to determine what comes before us,” he warned the rest of the board.
As for the absence of the remodeling plans on the planning board agenda before construction began several years ago on the property, Mr. Schutte said, “However that happened, it happened.”
For his part, Eric Schantz, a planner with the Town Planning Department, said he too believes the board may not have the authority to look into permits issued by the Building Department.
“The validity of that [building permit or certificate of occupancy] is not up to the planning board or the town attorney’s office,” he said.
Eileen Catalano, another board member, said the project, although only for two sheds, is “contrary to everything we do on this board.” She called the previous remodeling on the site without planning board approval “a mystery to everyone.”
As of now, said Ms. Catalano, the board had not seen a survey or building plans for the existing structures on the property, so no one is in a position to determine whether there will be an expansion of use.
“We have nothing,” Ms. Catalano said. She asked Ms. Santiago to provide the board with that information.
Ms. Santiago pointed out that the Building Department had seen all the documentation, and that she is not in a position to request the material from the applicant.
“Again, two sheds,” said Nancy Keeshan, a board member who voted to waive the request for plans, surveys, and a public hearing.
At the end of their discussion, Reed Jones and Robert Schaeffer, the board’s chairman and vice-chairman respectively, agreed with Mr. Schutte and Ms. Keeshan, and the majority voted to allow the Reform Club to move ahead with plans to build the sheds without providing any additional information.
“What happened in the past is not germane to this application,” said Mr. Schaeffer.
Mr. Van Scoyoc was unwavering. “Given the background . . . and I don’t think the code is being followed . . . I think there are too many unanswered questions,” he said, to waive site plan requirements.