Several residents and their representatives spoke both for and against East Hampton Village’s plan to designate two dozen houses and a windmill as timber-frame landmarks at a village board meeting on Friday.
The proposal aims to “promote preservation” of the structures, all built between 1700 and 1850, by offering owners a “zoning bonus” in hopes that they will leave the original structures largely intact.
Eleven of the houses were built before American independence, said Robert Hefner, the village’s director of historic services. The oldest, the Phoebe Huntting House, is about 300 years old, and the youngest, the Nathan Barnes House on Pantigo Road, was built around 1845, he said. “These buildings tell stories about farming life, about the whaling industry. They tell stories even about the Revolutionary War. These buildings bring facts, dates, and historic persons to life,” he said.
The buildings’ present owners have been good stewards, said Mr. Hefner. “This program will ensure that this tradition of stewardship will be honored by future generations. While maintaining the important features of their historic buildings, owners will still be able to improve, modernize, and expand their properties to meet changing needs, just as owners in historic districts have been able to do for the past 25 years.”
The village board held hearings Friday on three related pieces of legislation — one designating the buildings as landmarks, another permitting owners to transfer some of the floor area allowed in a primary residence to an accessory dwelling, or guesthouse, and a third providing guidelines for how the village’s design review is to evaluate applications for accessory dwellings on the 25 landmark properties.
If enacted, the law will permit up to 35 percent of the allowable gross floor area for a property, up to a maximum of 3,000 square feet, to be transferred from the main residence to an accessory dwelling on the same property. Given the small size of most of the houses in question, the law’s intent is to allow their preservation without preventing their owners from increasing habitable living space in the way that others can.
The draft legislation points out that owners of the timber-frame landmark buildings “do not benefit from the neighborhood-wide preservation provided by an historic district.” The “zoning bonus” is an effort to make the historic guidelines that will accompany such properties “more advantageous and workable.”
C. Sherrill Dayton, who owns the Josiah Dayton House at 35 Toilsome Lane, commended the village for its foresight in establishing the program. “The old Dayton house has served my family well. I grew up there, now my 13th-generation grandsons get to spend time in a homestead. I want them to be able to continue to enjoy East Hampton for many years to come. However, unless there is a program such as the one being proposed, houses like mine will become a thing of the past,” he said.
Most of the houses in question are no longer owned by local families, said Mr. Dayton. “East Hampton is rapidly changing, and I’m sorry to say not for the better. Some of our most beautiful and historic houses are being demolished and replaced by the so-called bigger and better mega-mansions. We are quickly losing the historic character of our village, as well as the local families and the younger generation that can’t afford to live here. Yes, one would need to follow the village guidelines in protecting the integrity and the landmark when any improvements are made to the external structure. But having the opportunity to build an accessory cottage or apartment on the property is a win-win situation in my eyes. . . . It’s a way of preserving the past for the future generations, and gives our visitors a reason to keep coming to our wonderful village.”
The houses in question, said Mary Busch of Mill Hill Lane, “are a special part of our history and should be preserved. We would not be trying to freeze East Hampton Village in time by doing this. Rather, we would be working with homeowners to provide them with a mechanism to enhance the use of their property, and at the same time saving a valuable piece of our history.”
Richard Barons, director of the East Hampton Historical Society, read from a letter he presented to Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. The society “supports any proposal that can save this unique sum of our 18th and 19th-century roots. It’s vitally important to continue the landmark of East Hampton’s old homes, commercial shops, and buildings of early industry. Without landmark designations such as this current proposal, the heart and soul of this beautiful village could erode away,” he wrote.
But Anthony Pasca, an attorney with Esseks, Hefter, and Angel, argued against the proposal on behalf of his client, who owns one of the designated structures, the Edward Mulford House at 34 Hither Lane. The owner acquired the lot in 1985, built a foundation, and then relocated the house, which was then situated on Pantigo Road, said Mr. Pasca. His client has respected the historic integrity of the house and has no plans for further development on the lot, said Mr. Pasca, who nonetheless urged the board to modify the proposal to be an “opt-in” program, rather than one imposed by the village.
Individual landmarking is extraordinary and an imposition, Mr. Pasca said. “If you landmark this property, you instantly take away a level of rights that the next-door neighbor enjoys. That’s what separates this from historic-district designation, where everybody’s in the same boat.”
Mr. Pasca suggested that the board designate the properties as eligible for landmarking, subject to their owners filing a petition or form of acceptance with the building inspector if and when they want to make modifications. “At that point, the landmarking would be locked in. It would be a voluntary acceptance of the program, and the rights going forward would vest at that point,” he said, adding that such a program could be a model for other municipalities. He also suggested granting owners greater flexibility by changing the 35-percent or 3,000 square feet transferability component to 40 percent and 4,000 square feet.
Mayor Rickenbach responded that this was simply a public hearing, and that the village was not attempting to promulgate future legislation. “I think it’s a very interesting concept that you use, ‘by invitation.’ There’s always a way to seek a goal, and that may be something that we consider,” he said.
Alice Cooley, of the law firm Eagan and Matthews, also voiced opposition to the proposal on behalf of the owners of the Miller House at 29 Jones Road. They object to the designation, she said, “as it is a great burden to place on a property owner without the benefit of being in a historic district.” Next door, she noted, is a new, “maxed-out” house. Her clients, she added, “do not see how there can be any public benefit from designating a private home which cannot be viewed from the road at all. For families that are planning their estates, I think it would be really helpful to have some time to discuss this plan with their families and decide if they do want to be a part of the program.”
Eric Gibson, a village resident who does not own one of the houses in question, said that the proposal accomplishes preservation of the value represented by the timber-frame structures “in the great American way, through compromise. It seems to me an elegant solution, and a light-handed one. There are only some two-dozen properties so designated.”
Finally, Kathleen Cunningham, executive director of the Village Preservation Society of East Hampton, said that the group supported the broad goals of the plan, but requests that the hearing remain open to entertain the alternatives that had been raised.
“I see that there are some legitimate thoughts that have been raised here today,” Mayor Rickenbach said, announcing that the hearing would remain open until the board’s Dec. 3 work session. “The board would encourage any additional commentary, either supportive or critical, and we will take that into consideration.”
Also on Friday, the board adopted code amendments changing the method for calculating the alternate setbacks for oddly shaped lots, increasing the available daily parking passes at Main Beach and Two Mile Hollow Beach for non-permit holders to 40 each on weekends and holidays, and increasing the number of available nonresident beach parking permits to 3,000 for 2013.