Thomas Burke and Rebekah Baker’s request for a zoning change that would allow the historic Jeremiah Baker house on Amagansett’s Main Street to contain one of a limited number of commercial uses has prompted a debate about adhering to the town’s comprehensive plan and a conversation about whether making a zoning change to a single property is illegal “spot zoning.”
Almost all of the speakers at a hearing before the East Hampton Town Board last Thursday night opposed the change, citing a fear that it would be a step down a slippery slope of creeping commercialization that could undermine the Main Street historic district. The change Mr. Burke and Ms. Baker asked for would restore limited-business zoning to the residential lot, located just west of Miankoma Lane.
“The destruction just doesn’t come all at once, it’s done bit by bit,” Helen Kuzmier said.
“To tinker with the Amagansett Historic District by spot zoning is a very bad and dangerous idea,” said Richard Barons, the director of the East Hampton Historical Society.
Jonathan Tarbet, an attorney for Paul Masi, an adjoining property owner, said that his client had purchased his residential lot after determining, through due diligence, the zoning of surrounding properties, and that the zone change would decrease his property value.
Mr. Masi, whose flag lot, along with three others, shares a driveway with the Baker House, has three young children and said that the potential traffic and parking places that would come with commercial use of the site makes him fear for their safety. “It has devastated us,” he said of the prospect. “My wife and I are completely distraught over this issue.”
Numerous speakers referred to the community decisions, legally adopted by previous town boards, that are included in documents such as the town comprehensive plan and historic district guidelines, and questioned how the board could vary from the adopted plans.
“I frankly don’t understand why this hearing is being held tonight, since the subject is spot zoning . . . which is illegal,” Betty Mazur said.
“The request here is very unfair. It is for spot zoning to benefit one owner, to the detriment of another owner,” Jeanne Frankl said. “In a civil society, people who buy property should expect to follow the rules, not buy in the hope of avoiding them later.”
Andy Hammer, an attorney for the property owners, suggested that the removal of the site’s limited-business zoning, pursuant to the last comprehensive plan, could itself be considered spot zoning, as the property was singled out and a clear, overarching purpose for the change is lacking. “Nobody, but nobody, has been able to point to a study that says limited-business overlay should end right there,” he said.
Laura Molinari, who served as the town attorney when the 2005 comprehensive plan was adopted, told the board that the plan was the result of “four and a half years of effort, two administrations, several consultants, and 17 subcommittees,” as well as efforts by the town board and community organizations. It included the results of “numerous studies, reports, and plans,” she said, and “eight hours of public hearings, with extensive public comment” were considered.
Although, she said, a comprehensive plan is not to be a static document but a “blueprint for the future, any changes made contrary to the plan ought to be accompanied by detailed analysis.”
The plan, she said, “is referred to and relied upon by many individuals.” To act on the zone change, she said, “would be an unlawful act of spot zoning.”
In full disclosure, Ms. Molinari told the board she is married to Mr. Tarbet, and is a friend of the Masi family.
Mr. Tarbet told the board he was disappointed in the advice that it had received from its attorneys, because, he said, an isolated zoning change cannot legally be considered with no discussion of a larger public purpose. “When it’s patently obvious that they’re not in accordance with town law [ideas] should not be voted on,” he said. Court cases over zoning changes, he said, are determined based on whether a decision was in accordance with a comprehensive plan. “And if not, it’s spot zoning,” he said.
The location of the Baker House, with a church and the Amagansett School as its immediate neighbors to the east, “limits [its] desirability for strictly residential use,” Mr. Hammer said. The concept of limited-business zones, he said, was “to recognize that there are business-compatible uses” in such mixed residential areas. “These low-impact uses are the types of uses we should be looking to expand upon in our town.”
“Adaptive reuse” of historic structures, he said, “is a good step toward encouraging their conservation and upkeep.”
“I want to work from my house to provide a living for myself and my family, and pay the mortgage,” Mr. Burke said. The idea, he said, “is consistent with smart growth, because it’s in the center of town.”
He said a buffer of 100 feet or more could be placed around the three-quarter-acre property, and a layout designed that would eliminate a negative effect on the neighbors.
The town board has not yet discussed the comments from the hearing.