East Hampton Town Wants to Protect Landmarks

Property owners could get a zoning bonus, but at least two want to opt out
The 18th-century Baker house on Cross Highway in East Hampton is one of 13 historic houses that East Hampton Town has proposed for special landmark designation. East Hampton Town

A new historic preservation program that would give landmark status to and impose restrictions on a handful of houses throughout East Hampton Town was the subject of discussion during public hearings at Town Hall last Thursday night. The houses under consideration are seen as well-preserved examples of their time periods. 

The proposed special historic landmark program is modeled after an existing one in East Hampton Village. In return for agreeing to comply with standards designed to protect the historical integrity of the houses and their settings, similar to those imposed on all properties in the town’s historic districts, individual homeowners would be allowed to build a second residence on their property, provided both structures do not exceed the maximum square footage allowed under zoning.

The houses that the town wants to designate as special historic landmarks include several on Old Stone Highway in Springs, among them the mid-19th-century Nathan Miller house, the Jonathan Darrow Miller house, circa 1815, and the David Miller house from the late 18th century. Others are in Amagansett, in East Hampton on Three Mile Harbor Road and Cedar Street, and in Wainscott. All of them are on properties of a size where, under current zoning, a much larger house could be built, said Robert Hefner, a historical consultant to the town.

The houses under consideration are on average, said Mr. Hefner, only about a quarter of the size of the ones that could legally replace them. “You can’t build an addition to a historic house three times larger than the historic house and have it retain its integrity,” he said, calling the proposed program “the only practical avenue to their preservation.”

The former Zadoc Bennett house on Three Mile Harbor Road is an example, Mr. Hefner said. It is 1,500 square feet, which is just 13 percent of the 11,600-square-foot residence that could be built in compliance with the zoning code on the 2.3-acre parcel. If unprotected, “it would without question be torn down” to make way for a larger house, he said. If given landmark status, he explained, it would “remain on the property as a guest house, with its own larger house on the property.”

The town board has a list of 13 houses proposed for special landmark designation, down from an original 15. According to Supervisor Larry Cantwell, two homeowners “decided they didn’t want to participate,” and their houses were taken off the list. David and Julie Talmage, owners of the circa 1845 Sineus Edwards house on Fireplace Road in Springs, and Shane Grant and Bianca Barnao, who own the 1892 Nathan Sanford house on Wainscott Main Street, were allowed to opt out.

Mr. Cantwell noted, however, that “the town has authority under zoning, under historic designation laws, to create historic districts and do things that are in the interest of the community as a whole.” Notices have been sent, he said, to the remaining homeowners, inviting them to Town Hall to discuss the proposed program, which, he said, has been “very successful” in the village. 

Only one of the homeowners was on hand at last week’s hearing. John Nealon, the owner of the circa-1697 Thomas Strong house in Wainscott, said that he had understood the program to be voluntary; that property owners would have the option whether to have their house landmarked or not. To have the new designation imposed by the town, he said, “sounds like this is a mandatory taking of property rights.” 

“I think it’s a substantial taking of my property rights,” he said. “I would be adamantly opposed and would seek to retain legal representation. This is not enriching the owners, it’s restricting them substantially.”

Mr. Nealon said he was “very happy in my 2,000-square-foot, 320-year-old house. I have no desire to build a 15,000-square-foot house to go with it, nor could I afford to.”

In his opinion, he said, the zoning change, while limiting what can happen on his property, is “only offering some advantage that’s meaningless to me.” The proposed law is “very well intentioned,” he said, “but as I currently understand it, I can’t support it if it’s mandatory.”

Town Councilwoman Sylvia Overby commented that Mr. Nealon had been “very careful” to preserve his site appropriately. But, she said, enacting historic landmark protections on selected properties is “for in perpetuity.  This is about the character of the community, and maintaining that character.”

“Part of what’s important here is the setting�” she said. “That’s what we’re trying to do here, make sure that the setting remains, so that you can understand the history of East Hampton as it occurred.” 

The village’s program has been successful in achieving that goal, Ms. Overby said. “We’re really trying to save the history and character of our town, and I think this is helpful in doing that.”

Mr. Nealon acknowledged that, according to what real estate brokers have told him, should he sell his house, “pretty much 100 percent, a buyer would tear down the house and build something new.” 

Two other speakers, both residents of Springs, objected to the proposed program on the grounds that it would dismantle zoning laws or unfairly provide special privileges to some. 

“Will these guesthouses be able to be rented as historic bed and breakfasts on the property?” Martin Drew asked. “You guys are unjustly enriching certain property owners in our community to have the ability to have a second home and potentially a second income,” he told the board. “It just seems unfair to the rest of us.”

Not many properties will likely be included in the special landmark program, Mr. Cantwell said. “Un­fortunately, in this community there aren’t that many 1700, 1800, homes left that are intact.”

David Buda called the program “wrongheaded. You do violence to the modern zoning principle of one primary residential structure per tax map lot,” he said, adding that the town board has been “steadfast in trying to remove development, not add development,” yet the proposed landmark designation would add an additional house on the lots involved.

The program as proposed “grants special zoning rights to a select group of historic-property owners�” to the exclusion of homeowners in existing historic districts, he said.

“Accessory structures should not be dwellings,” Mr. Buda contended. But, he said, “I fully support the ideal of preserving good examples of historic architecture and those homes that played a significant part in the farming history and fishing history of the town.”

“How would you do that?” Mr. Cantwell asked him. “The risk is that these homes are going to be torn down and they’re going to be destroyed, and they will never exist again.”

“Nonsense,” Mr. Buda retorted. Historic houses can be protected, he said, “by other means that are not destructive of zoning standards . . . many are owned by responsible owners,” who, he said, would continue to preserve them.

“You are in essence in one fell swoop granting 13 or 15 zoning variances without benefit of a single report from your Planning Department,” he told the board. He questioned Mr. Hefner’s calculations regarding what could legally be built on some of the targeted properties.

“I don’t want to call it a quid pro quo,” said Mr. Cantwell, “but there are two things going on here. One is that property owners are accepting, if you will, that their structure is a historic structure and that there are a set of guidelines that are established for improvements and changes to that particular structure on that property.” To make changes, the homeowner would have to apply to the architectural review board and refer to a set of guidelines. 

“That’s what property owners are obligated to do,” the supervisor said. “In return for that, if you will, those properties gain a benefit, which is that they can build two homes on one parcel that currently can only have one residence.”