A basement being built below an ancillary building at the Montauk Beach House, the former Ronjo motel, will lead to a public hearing before the East Hampton Town Planning Board, the board decided on April 18.
At first, the board was uncertain as to whether the new basement would require a public hearing or would be considered so minor as to be exempt from one.
JoAnne Pahwul, the town’s assistant planning director, laid out the possible triggers for a minor site plan review, which does not require a hearing. If, for example, “the proposed structure is not inhabitable and covers no more than 500 square feet in area,” a hearing is not necessary. It was this point that got the board’s attention. The basement, according to Ms. Pahwul, is 947 square feet, and at first blush, this would seem to automatically exclude the project from minor site plan review.
The question then became: What is the exact meaning of the word “cover”?
“There’s two ways this can be taken,” said Kathryn Santiago, a town attorney. “The first is the conventional way where ‘covers’ means ‘covers no more than 500 square feet.’ However, the word ‘cover’ is not defined in the code anywhere. The next closest term is ‘coverage,’ which would be total lot coverage.” Because the building above the basement, which is to house office and living space, was already on the property, its lot coverage has already been taken into account.
The owners of the Beach House, Larry Siedlick and Chris Jones, were in the audience flanking their attorney, Richard Hammer. Mr. Hammer said that they are not averse to a hearing, but stressed that timing is essential with the season just weeks away.
Mr. Jones, who is also an owner of Solé East and Solé East Beach in Montauk, the former Shepherd’s Neck Inn and Shepherd’s Beach Motel, has developed a reputation for renovating and reviving moribund resorts in Montauk and elsewhere.
The excavation of the basement prompted the town senior building inspector to issue a stop-work order last month for that portion of the project. Since then, a permit was issued allowing all buildings to be “rebuilt to previous dimensions,” and giving the owners temporary approval to construct the footings and foundation walls for the basement “with the understanding that the completion of this structure without site plan approval shall vest no rights in its continued existence as a ‘basement’ structure.” Work has resumed.
“As a Montauk neighbor I am just thrilled that these applicants are upgrading this resort,” said Nancy Keeshan, a board member whose family-owned business is just yards from the Montauk Beach House. But, she cautioned, “The law is very specific. The crux of the problem is the law reads that it should cover no more than 500 square feet.”
She suggested that the applicants consider making the basement just 500 square feet so the board “can deem it a minor site plan and move forward.”
However Ian Calder-Piedmonte, another board member, said “I hope you don’t change your plan based on whether there is a public hearing. I don’t think you should sacrifice the basement for what amounts to one extra hearing here.”
“There is absolutely no problem with proceeding to a public hearing,” Mr. Jones said, “other than the fact that my wife will probably moan at me because we’re probably going to be in the newspapers for even longer.”
Mr. Hammer also addressed drainage on the site, a topic Ms. Pahwul had briefly touched on, telling the board that the project would increase the amount of permeable ground into which water can drain by over 4,000 square feet, “a huge number that will improve drainage in and of itself,” he said. Most of the low-lying downtown Montauk is covered with either asphalt or buildings, increasing the probability of flooding, he said.
In the end, the board agreed that a public hearing should be held with the sole focus on the basement. The hearing, to be officially scheduled at the board’s May 9 meeting, will most likely be on June 6.