In May, at a preliminary review of 555 Montauk Highway, a massive project that would change the eastern face of Amagansett, the East Hampton Town Planning Board greeted the owner of the property and his design team with a heaping dose of skepticism. But the plan, now called 555 Montauk Highway II, has been revised, and at a second review, held on Sept. 11, the board, with a couple of exceptions, seemed more amenable.
The project would require the East Hampton Town Board to create a new zone for the land before it can move forward. According to a detailed memo prepared for the planning board prior to the Sept. 11 meeting by JoAnne Pahwul, the assistant town planning director, the owners have already asked the town board to create that new zone, which they call Senior Citizen Housing District. If the board takes up the matter, it would seek a recommendation from the planning board before holding a public hearing.
Ms. Pahwul sent the town board a memo dated Aug. 25, in which she wrote that the zoning change, if adopted, “would allow for a relatively significant increase in density that is contrary to a number of goals in the town’s Comprehensive Plan.”
Covering 23.5 acres, and consisting of three lots that straddle a Shell station north of the highway, two lots to the east of that station, and one to its west, the land has been farmed since the first half of the 19th century, according to the Institute for Long Island Archeology at Stony Brook University, which conducted an archeological survey for the applicants. Viewed from the highway, it appears much the same as in 1895, the survey indicates, when the Long Island Rail Road tracks, which run along the site’s back border, were extended through Amagansett to Montauk.
The applicants propose to merge the three lots into one, and then build a 79-unit condominium community for affluent older residents, down from the 89 units first proposed. Thirty-six units would be part of an apartment complex to the west, while the remaining 43 would be single-family, two-story houses.
Eight 647-square-foot apartments would be priced at $550,000, which the applicant called “affordable” during his presentation; the other 24 apartments would be much larger and would be priced much higher, as would all the houses.
Francis P. Jenkins III addressed the planning board on Sept. 11 for 10 minutes, saying that the town of East Hampton needs the project, which was designed by the architect Jaquelin T. Robertson, a partner in a Manhattan firm that specializes in the design of large-scale planned communities.
Mr. Jenkins stressed, several times during his presentation, that the westernmost property sits in an affordable housing district, in what almost seemed to be a veiled threat. “The planning department memo pointed out that we could build 36 affordable housing units on the western lot,” he said.
He was saying, in effect, that if his company, Putnam Bridge, were allowed to put up 36 units for affluent older residents, the average density would be about 1.5 persons per unit, whereas there would be about 4 people per average unit under affordable housing.
Mr. Jenkins repeated the figures over and over, until Ian Calder-Piedmonte, a planning board member, broke in, “I’m not so sure that we should be afraid of affordable housing.”
In a 2011 memo to the planning board concerning a proposed 36-unit affordable housing development by the site’s then-owner, Richard Principi, Ms. Pahwul pointed out that the project could not be built without complying with Suffolk County Health Department regulations regarding septic systems, and that such a project would require an on-site sewage treatment plant.
Mr. Calder-Piedmonte was the most skeptical of the board members, challenging Mr. Jenkins’s proposal point by point, with the subject of affordability coming up several times.
“Affordability is a huge issue in this town, as everybody knows,” Mr. Calder-Piedmonte said. “I don’t know that eight units is enough to tip it over the edge to say yes, this large project is appropriate because there are eight units of affordable housing.”
“I’m still a long way from recommending a zoning change for this application,” he concluded.
The term “affordable,” as used by Mr. Jenkins, actually means market rate, and is contrary to the town’s definition of affordable, which states that the initial offering price for a one-bedroom apartment can be no more than 250 percent of the average annual salary of a moderate-income family.
Diana Weir was the one board member who seemed strongly supportive of the revised plan. “I want to thank the applicants. They did pay close attention to what we said last time and I’m pleased. I applaud you for that. Especially the open vista in the center,” she said.
The original plan had no open vistas where one could look north from the Montauk Highway across the fields. However, taking a ruler to the “open vista” in the new plan on file with the planning board, it measures a bit less than five inches long, which translates, according to the plan’s scale, to under 200 feet, a very narrow corridor compared to the current 1,500-plus linear feet of view from the highway.
Robert Schaeffer told his fellow board members that he was in favor of the concept of a senior-zoned community, but he still seemed to have reservations about this particular proposal.
He questioned, for example, whether people who had paid hefty prices for their units along with monthly maintenance fees, would be happy that anyone at all could walk from the highway through their community to get to a proposed public playground to the north of the site, near the train tracks.
“We have reserved the upper playground for public use,” Mr. Jenkins told him.
“But if it’s private property, and I’m an owner, I’m going to say, who are these people using my property? It seems a little strange. It doesn’t seem realistic to me,” Mr. Schaeffer said.
“It’s a gorgeous plan,” said Nancy Keeshan, the board’s vice chairwoman. “But for there? it looks like a community within a community. Kind of like something that would be in Florida.”
Reed Jones, chairman, gave his assessment. “The uncomfortable fact here is, the applicant didn’t spend 10 million dollars to let this land sit there as open space.”
“We have three options,” he continued. “Ask the town to consider using C.P.F. funds to purchase the land. But that requires a willing seller. I’m sure you’re looking for a multiple of what you spent in order to sell it,” he said, addressing Mr. Jenkins.
“The second option is to work with the applicant and get something that is agreeable, or, three, we say no, or the town board says no, then you come back and change the whole concept and we lose some control over the whole thing.”
Ms. Weir pointed out that the whole debate is moot until the town board acts.
Mr. Schaeffer said it was pointless to go much further with the application “until we hear from the town board. The current town board has 31/2 months left. They could do nothing about it, or they could do something.”
Mr. Jenkins had told the planning board his design team spent “hundreds of hours” reconfiguring the application. Patrick Schutte observed that they might want to hold off spending any more until the town board weighs in.