“Erroneous,” “arbitrary,” “capricious,” and “irrational.” These words were used more than once by State Supreme Court Justice Thomas F. Whelan to describe the East Hampton Village Zoning Board of Appeals 2010 denial of a special permit and two variances to the East Hampton Library for its proposed children’s wing.
In what Tom Twomey, the chairman of the library board and an attorney, called “a landmark decision for the state and for the country,” the court has granted the library permission to construct a 6,800-square-foot addition in the back of the building, with half of the proposed structure at the basement level.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for eight years,” Mr. Twomey said at a press conference at the library last Thursday afternoon.
The court’s May 17 decision also includes a determination that the East Hampton Library, and therefore all libraries in the state that are similarly chartered by the Board of Regents of the State University of New York, is indeed an educational institution — a point that the Z.B.A. had argued.
State law says that educational institutions planning additions of less than 10,000 square feet are exempt from environmental review. The library had claimed that since it is an educational institution, it met the qualifications for exemption and should never have had to prepare the detailed environmental impact statement that the zoning board required. Justice Whelan agreed.
In his decision, Justice Whelan wrote that “chartered libraries [. . .] are, indeed, educational uses and as such, serve the same inherently beneficial effects on the community as do schools.” He added that “religious and educational institutions are recognized as facilitating the same objectives as zoning ordinances, namely, fostering the public health, safety, morals, and general welfare in the community.”
The court also said that the proposed addition is in keeping with the “Main Street Village area” character. “While the petitioning library is situated within a residential district, the actual character of the neighborhood is a downtown ‘Main Street’ village area, wherein commercial, religious, historical, civic, and cultural uses predominate,” Justice Whelan wrote.
Reading from a statement, Mr. Twomey said last Thursday that “the court concluded that the Z.B.A. ignored its own witnesses who testified that the proposed addition on the back of the existing library would have minimal impact on the traffic and parking conditions in the vicinity, that 84 percent of the existing open space would be preserved, that half the addition was underground.”
Mr. Twomey said that more than half of the $4 million needed to go forth with the addition has already been raised, “but our hands were tied.” Now the library’s board plans on aggressive fund-raising to come up with the additional money necessary, and will not break ground, according to Mr. Twomey, until the money is in hand. The library board intends to pay for the addition exclusively through private contributions.
“We want to complete the fund-raising so we can create a library the community can be proud of for years to come,” he said. “There have been seven different additions in the last 100 years,” Mr. Twomey said. “And all have been funded by the residents themselves, not by tax dollars.”
“I’ve spent 16.8 percent of my life on this,” said Doreen Niggles, the president of the East Hampton Library. “Unfortunately, an entire generation of young children lost the benefits of these improved library services over the last eight years.” Focusing on the positives, she talked about the additional children’s books, the handicapped access, an improved meeting room with space for 15 additional seats, and a young adults’ homework room, which will be part of the new plan. There will also be additional computer space.
The next step will be to “fine-tune the site plan and the parking,” said Anthony Pasca, an attorney with Esseks, Hefter and Angel, representatives for the East Hampton Library. Despite the court’s decision, the village still has some say in the final look and layout of the library property, postexpansion.
The library will need approval from the village’s design review board, and it will have to appear again before the zoning board. The judge has given the zoning board 60 days to hold a hearing on the library application, and another 30 days after that to determine the “reasonable conditions” that it can impose on the library’s expansion project.
“I’ve been here for all of this,” said Alexandra Giambruno, the head of children’s services. “I agree with Doreen — I’m sad for the kids who missed out — but I am so excited this is going forward.” The new space will allow for an additional 5,000 children’s titles to be added, according to library officials.
“We found we had the smallest children’s collection on the East End,” said Mr. Pasca. “This will be enough to just to get it to the level of Southampton.”
“This is a coup for the village,” said Mr. Twomey, who thanked the residents and the library board for their years of support.
In a statement issued on Friday, Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. on behalf of the village board called the zoning board’s review of the library’s application “arduous and contentious.”
The process took seven years, during which the library spent close to a quarter million dollars preparing a draft environmental impact statement. The hearing on the expansion project dragged on for seven months.
The library sued the zoning board last August following its denial of approvals for the expansion project.
Although “There have been, in our opinion, a number of missteps on both sides,” the statement said, the village will not appeal the Supreme Court decision. “While we might take issue and argue with the specific conclusions in this case, we choose not to. We believe it is time to move on, put an end to costly legal fees, and begin the process of healing the community on this issue.”
The Village Preservation Society, a not-for-profit group that opposed the project from the start and hired its own experts to refute those hired by the library, said in a statement this week: “We are shocked and disappointed that the village has signaled that no appeal to this challenge to home rule will be pursued.”
“This is a great victory for the residents of East Hampton,” said Dennis Fabiszak, the library director, “and for all the libraries in New York State that will benefit by not having to go through such an irrational, costly, and time-consuming process as we had to in East Hampton.”