Builders' 'Exuberance' Cited in Over-Building at Estate

Leonard Ackerman, representing Ronald Perelman, asked the East Hampton Village Zoning Board of Appeals to look favorably on his client's application to legalize several structures at the Creeks. Christopher Walsh

The first of what promises to be many meetings at which the Creeks, Ronald Perelman’s 58-acre estate at 291 Montauk Highway, will be considered occupied much of Friday’s meeting of the East Hampton Village Zoning Board of Appeals. 

In March of 2012, it was discovered that Mr. Perelman, the billionaire investor and philanthropist, had constructed and altered multiple structures at the Creeks without obtaining building permits. That discovery was made only when a fire took Ken Collum, a volunteer firefighter who is now the village’s building inspector, to the property. 

That incident, and what Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. more recently described as “a dragging of the feet” in failing to resolve the violations, annoyed members of the village board, who voted unanimously to decline Mr. Perelman’s proposal to change the property’s zoning. That proposal, delivered to the village board in March, would have brought two noncompliant residences and multiple accessory structures on the property into compliance through the creation of a new residential district with minimum lots of 240,000 square feet, allowing Mr. Perelman to maintain multiple residences on what one of his attorneys called a family compound. 

The zone-change proposal having failed, Mr. Perelman now seeks to legalize the previous enlargement of an accessory building housing a shul, a place of Jewish worship, to 1,275 square feet, where the maximum permitted for an accessory building is 250 square feet; legalization of the shul’s three rooms and two bathrooms, where only one room is permitted, and permission for the building to remain 15.1 feet in height, where the maximum permitted is 14 feet. A special permit may also be needed for the shul to be used for religious services and education. 

Mr. Perelman also seeks variances to legalize 160 square feet of additions to the main residence and for the earlier extension, expansion, and alteration of nonconforming accessory buildings containing cooking and living facilities. The additions are 100 feet from wetlands, where a 150-foot setback is required. 

Mr. Perelman proposes 28,407 square feet of combined floor area for the one-family dwellings, where 26,236 square feet is the legally pre-existing total. 

Variances would also be required to legalize the construction of a 5,802-square-foot barn containing cooking and living facilities, which Mr. Perelman proposes in exchange for converting a 4,217-square-foot carriage house, also containing cooking and living facilities, into an accessory building containing storage space, mechanical areas and generator, a workshop, garage, and bathroom.

What was described as a workout building that was enlarged from 575 to 795 square feet, and falls within the wetlands setback, also requires variances to be legal. According to the zoning board, the location of the structure’s septic system, if there is one, is unknown. 

Area and wetland setback variances are also required to legalize six pieces of art and sculptures installed within the rear-yard and wetland setbacks, the nearest situated directly on the rear-yard lot line and wetlands; the required rear-yard setback is 40 feet, the required wetlands setback 150 feet. 

Wetlands setback variances are also required to legalize a chicken coop and trellises, and for the clearing of vegetation and landscaping within 125 feet of wetlands. Finally, a maintenance tent that is 67 square feet larger than the maximum permitted requires a variance.

On Friday, Leonard Ackerman, an attorney representing Mr. Perelman, promised vast improvement to the environmental conditions at the Creeks, which fronts on the ecologically compromised Georgica Pond, including the replacement of septic systems with state-of-the-art denitrification systems recently approved by Suffolk County. Nitrogen seepage is blamed for the harmful algal blooms that have afflicted the pond in recent years. 

The application, Mr. Ackerman told the board, represents “the culmination of a tremendous amount of work.” Mr. Perelman, he said, is merely a “caretaker,” a “steward” of the property who, “with foresight and, frankly, artistic desire,” sought to maintain “a magical part of East Hampton.” 

The numerous code violations discovered by Mr. Collum in 2012 were a product of “exuberance” by since-departed staff, Mr. Ackerman said. Those unnamed staffers were guilty, he said, of “too much desire to please” their boss. “That wasn’t the owner’s doing, that was the omission by staff who are no longer part of the Creeks, in their exuberance to satisfy the owner.” 

Upgrades to the septic systems, connection to public water, installation of fire hydrants on Montauk Highway, a vegetative buffer between the property and the pond, and revegetation of cleared land are mitigation measures already in progress, Mr. Ackerman said. 

He emphasized the size of the property: At 58 acres, it is some five times larger than the next-largest village property, which is on West End Road, Mr. Ackerman said. That is remarkable, Frank Newbold, the board’s chairman, agreed, but “it’s still subject to the same code as the smallest. It is a very complicated application,” with “a huge amount of material to absorb. We’re going to go slowly.” 

And that is what they did, spending almost half of the nearly three-and-one-half-hour meeting considering the Creeks. Few conclusions were drawn on Friday, however, with Mr. Newbold declaring that the meeting was “a good introduction” to “a difficult project to get your arms around,” one with “a huge amount of details. We’ll all do our homework to try to absorb it.” 

One worry board members emphasized was setting a precedent. A “constant concern,” Mr. Newbold said, is that “buildings morph into cottages” with habitable space. Some board members were uncomfortable with the proposal to transfer living space from the carriage house to the barn. Transferring dwelling rights from one structure to another was “not a concept we’ve ever used before,” Mr. Newbold said.

“I don’t like the word ‘transfer,’ ” said Lys Marigold, the board’s vice chairwoman. “We’re opening a precedent.”

“It’s ‘converting,’ ” Mr. Ackerman said. He cited a 2015 determination in which the board granted variances allowing the relocation and reconstruction of a pre-existing second dwelling at another property, also on Montauk Highway. That case involved a derelict cottage on the property line, Mr. Newbold answered. “I’m not sure that’s a parallel.” 

East Hampton Town Trustee Jim Grimes spoke on behalf of the trustees, who manage Georgica Pond. The trustees wanted to underscore the importance of vegetative buffers between the property and the pond, he said, and wanted to be sure there would be enforcement of any conditions attached to variance relief. But, he said, “I think the village is on the right path.” Septic-system upgrades and establishment of “real and meaningful buffers,” would represent “an opportunity to improve the quality of the water in Georgica Pond,” he said.

The hearing was left open and will be revisited at the board’s next meeting, on Jan. 12. 

Two determinations on other matters were announced at the meeting. Mariska Hargitay and Peter Hermann, actors who met while appearing on the television series “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” were granted a variance to legalize and permit the relocation of an accessory building constructed without a building permit at their house on Cottage Avenue. The structure, a tree house, was relocated within the permitted accessory-building envelope, as were a swing set and sports court. The tree house was also lowered to a conforming height. The variance relief was granted on the condition that it is maintained without windows or insulation.

The board granted David Solomon variances to legalize construction of a tennis court at his property on Middle Lane, where there is no main house, and for the court to remain within required side and rear-yard setbacks. Mr. Solomon owns the adjacent property, and the tennis court was constructed before he owned it. Slate pavers were also allowed to remain within a side-yard setback. The relief was granted on the condition that, unless a dwelling has been constructed on the lot, the variances will terminate if and when the lot is no longer in Mr. Solomon’s ownership.