After 10 Years in Court, a Barn and Another Court

The Town of Southampton reached a settlement with Howard Lutnick over a barn and a basketball court that clear up longstanding issues in one of the first - and worst - conservation easements ever written in the town, officials said. Hamptons Pix

Howard Lutnick, the chairman and chief operating officer of Cantor Fitzgerald, may soon have a permit to build a one-and-a-half-story, 11,850-square-foot barn and a basketball court on his Bridgehampton estate, following a settlement with the Town of Southampton that ends a decade-old dispute. All he needs now is the approval of the Suffolk County Health Department.

Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman acknowledged at Monday night’s Bridgehampton Citizens Advisory Committee meeting that there was some feeling in the community that “the town had given away the store.” However, lawyers who handled the case said it was in the town’s best interest to put to bed some longstanding questions about what was permitted on the property thanks to one of the first conservation easements ever entered into by the town.

Mr. Lutnick, under the name 545 Halsey Lane Properties L.L.C., is the owner of 40.7 acres in an agricultural overlay district at that address. The property is one of the town’s earliest agricultural reserves, formed back in July 1980. It is unlike any other because it allowed for a single-family home and accessory uses without providing for planning board review. Mr. Schneiderman said last month that it may have been “the worst ag reserve ever written.”

Mr. Lutnick purchased the property in 2003, after a sizable house had gone up on its northern end. He asked to build an 11,250-square-foot two-story barn, which he said was for a small apple orchard at the southern end of the property, considered an agricultural use, and a basketball court closer to the house. The Southampton Town Planning Board and the Agricultural Advisory Committee said no to both.

Eventually, the agricultural committee tried to revise his plan with a 2,400-square-foot barn. The plan also called for the removal of an existing baseball diamond and jungle gym, as well as art sculptures, privet hedges, and landscaping equipment on the grounds.

Mr. Lutnick brought five separate lawsuits in federal and state courts, together seeking upward of $80 million. In some cases, they were filed not only against the appointed boards but also their individual members -— an unusual move in trying to hold the members personally liable, according to David Arntsen, a partner at Devitt Spellman Barrett, a Smithtown firm hired by the town.

One of the federal cases was dismissed, but the other sent certain matters back to the planning board for reconsideration. “That was a win for us, but it was one that was clearly temporary,” Mr. Arntsen said. Unless the board agreed to everything Mr. Lutnick wanted, the case would just be back in court, and Mr. Lutnick had already been appealing any dismissal.

Earlier Monday evening, Mary Wilson, the town’s community preservation manager, explained to the advisory committee that agricultural easements have evolved over time, with more recent ones becoming more restrictive. “It’s fair to say that the one in this case was un-evolved,” Mr. Arntsen said, adding it was very ambiguous and ripe for litigation. “It created a lot of uncertainty in our minds.”

In a settlement dated May 31, 2016, and signed by Mr. Schneiderman and Mr. Lutnick the following day, Mr. Lutnick is allowed to build a barn no larger than the 11,000-square-foot one he requested. The settlement also allows for sports structures such as the basketball court.

Mr. Arntsen said the point of the settlement was to “put certainty into the document.” The idea that the town had capitulated to Mr. Lutnick’s demands was incorrect, he insisted.

What constituted the building envelope and layout of the agricultural reserve; what were compatible recreational uses, and whether the planning board even had purview over Mr. Lutnick’s proposal (at the time the easement was created, the town board had the review status) were among the questions the easement failed to address.

In the fall of 2015, months before the settlement was signed and before Mr. Schneiderman took office, town board members, members of the planning board, Mr. Lutnick’s attorneys, and Mr. Lutnick himself, who flew in by helicopter for the day, met to discuss it, Mr. Arntsen said.

While a settlement was finally reached, litigation is still pending, said the lawyer. Until Mr. Lutnick receives a final permit, which awaits approval from the county, the court cases remain open.

A neighbor, Robert Rosenthal, spoke out about the settlement at an advisory committee meeting in March, questioning whether the barn was really for an orchard. He said he believed that Mr. Lutnick, a classic-car enthusiast, would be using it as a garage. Mr. Arntsen said an orchard was the use stipulated in the settlement.

After the permit for the barn is issued, Mr. Lutnick has agreed to a five-year moratorium during which he will not request building permits for non-agricultural or non-landscaping improvements outside the building envelope. After five years he can, as of right, build non-agricultural recreational improvements in an area described as the “recreational building envelope,” up to 5,000 square feet.