Fight Brews Over 555 Zone Changes

Amgansett Group Against 79-Unit Senior Housing Idea

They came out on a cold November evening to challenge the enemy, but the enemy stayed home.

An hour or so into Monday night’s standing-room-only meeting of the Amagansett Citizens Advisory Committee, following a spirited discussion of the future of the hamlet’s centrally located Balasses House building (reported elsewhere in this issue), it was time for the main event: a discussion with the Connecticut developers whose proposed luxury senior citizen community at 555 Montauk Highway would permanently remake Amagansett’s eastern face.

Additional coverage:
Opponents Confront Board on
Timing and Motives

That the East Hampton Town Board’s Republican majority might vote on Dec. 19, following two last-meeting-of-the-year public hearings, to create the new high-density zoning district that 555 requires, and then rezone the project to that classification, is considered a very real possibility. The hearings, which were requested by the developers, are expected to be contentious, and Monday’s audience was clearly hoping for a trial run.

It was not to be. After Kieran Brew, the committee’s chairman, turned to the second item on the night’s agenda — 555 — there was a pause. People looked around for Francis P. Jenkins III of Putnam Bridge, the developer, who had addressed the group in April when the complex was first proposed. No one came forward.

“They were planning to come tonight and they’re not here,” Mr. Brew said.

A ripple of disbelief ran through the room. “That sends a message,” somebody shouted.

Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, who lives in Amagansett and is the town board liaison to the committee, began to describe the proposed new complex, for the benefit of a number of people who seemed unfamiliar with it. Its proposed 79 units include 63 stand-alone houses priced at about $1.5 million and up, and 16 apartments, eight of which, at $550,000, would be “affordable,” at least according to the developers. A big community swimming pool is planned, but each house, said Ms. Overby, could have its own pool as well. (Here there were audible gasps in the audience.)

Would it be a gated community, someone wanted to know. No, she said. Would it be like Peconic Landing, the upscale assisted-living community on the North Fork? Again no. “This is for active seniors” 55 and over, said the councilwoman. “You cannot progress through the aging process,” as at Peconic Landing.

“If the units don’t sell, what happens?” asked Rona Klopman. “They can be rented,” Ms. Overby answered, adding that sales could be made either as condos or co-ops.

That led to a discussion of real estate taxes, currently $40,000 a year on the 23.5-acre undeveloped property, formerly the Principi family farm. Mr. Jenkins had told the committee in April that once 555 was in place the annual taxes would rise to almost $2 million, but it now appears that the number could be far below that. Ms. Overby said that Jeanne Nielsen, a town assessor, had told her the complex would probably pay more like $70,000 to $116,000 a year.

“Taxes on [condos or co-ops] are generally less than on single-family residences on freestanding lots,” the councilwoman explained. “As a condo, it’s assessed differently. One [certificate of occupancy] for the entire site.”

“With 70 people, just like the rest of Amagansett,” cracked Mr. Brew, a real estate broker who has seen his share of summer share houses, drawing laughter that relieved the gathering gloom.

“I think the Planning Department will call for a cost analysis,” Ms. Overby said of the numbers. “You put 70 houses there and get $70,000 to $116,000, you have to wonder what’s the impact. Is it worth it? Will the taxes cover the cost of town services?”

Under current zoning, with a 70 percent agricultural reserve, the 555 property could support 32 to 36 affordable housing units and six or seven houses, as well as “limited business” uses — art galleries, antiques shops, and the like — bordering Montauk Highway to the west, between a gas station and an empty building once rumored to become a 7-Eleven. Citing those figures, Michael Cinque asked the audience to “look at the whole picture.”

“They can put in seven or eight Farrell houses right now and a hedgerow across the highway,” he said, suggesting that the 555 complex would be far preferable.

Like others in the room, Sue Avedon, who lives in East Hampton, was angry that no one from Putnam Bridge had shown up to speak. “It inconvenienced much of the community who were planning to get answers straight from the horse’s mouth,” she said. “This is not just about Amagansett. This [new senior housing district] can move to other parts of town.”

J.B. DosSantos, who heads the East Hampton-Sag Harbor counterpart of the Amagansett advisory committee, agreed. “To those of us who worked to get the comprehensive plan adopted, this is a slap in the face,” he said. “We need to look at the precedent.”

In August, JoAnne Pahwul, the town’s assistant planning director, had written to the town board that the zoning change, if adopted, “would allow for a relatively significant increase in density that is contrary to a number of goals in the town’s comprehensive plan.”

Britton Bistrian, a consultant to the developers, rose to account for their absence. She had not intended to speak, she said, but had changed her mind. “They didn’t know the hearing would be as soon as it is,” she explained, and “the hearing seemed like the more appropriate place to have the discussion.”

Ms. Bistrian took exception to the tax numbers offered by Ms. Overby. “I would challenge the tax implications,” she said, stressing that no children would live at the complex, “so, no impact on the schools.” She lauded 555’s proposed energy-saving septic system, earlier said by Mr. Cinque to be a “killer system,” as “net-zero wastewater.”

Speaking of the overall project, Ms. Bistrian said, “There’s a big difference between ‘do we want it’ and ‘do we need it.’ ”

“Don’t say we don’t need senior housing because of the Fire Department,” Carl Hamilton told the room, noting that the average age of Amagansett Fire Department volunteers is 58. “We need everyone we can get.” His remark followed a sharp exchange between Ms. Bistrian and Ms. Overby, who had commented that “we need affordable housing for young people.”

As the hour neared 9 p.m. and a few people began leaving, Jeanne Frankl suggested that the advisory committee ask the town board to postpone the Dec. 19 hearing. “It’s the wrong forum and the wrong time,” she said. “It’s keeping the community and the board from working together under the comprehensive plan.”

“They’re going to say no,” said Mr. Brew.

“But it makes a record,” said Ms. Avedon. “There may be a lawsuit.”

“We meet next month . . . ,” Mr. Brew began.

“Next month is too late,” someone said.

Ms. Frankl pressed on. “We’ve barely scratched the surface tonight. This isn’t a realistic time frame in which to do all this work.”

She moved that the committee write the board to ask for time “to consider a different option that will meet the needs of the comprehensive plan.” With only committee members voting, the motion was passed 9 to 4, and it was decided that Ms. Frankl and Mr. Brew would write the letter together.