555 Is Not Dead Yet

Zoning change hearings will resume in 2014
There was a packed house at East Hampton Town Hall last Thursday, when residents showed up for the final town board meeting of the year to speak their minds at hearings on requested zone changes for East Hampton and Amagansett farmland. Morgan McGivern

       Decisions affecting the future of the 24 acres in Amagansett where Putnam Bridge, a Connecticut developer, had proposed building 79 houses and apartments to be marketed to people aged 55 and up, have been punted to the incoming East Hampton Town Board. Hearings last Thursday on zoning changes requested by the developer will be continued in February.

       The controversial project, which engendered several organized groups of opponents, cannot go forward as proposed without a change in its current zoning. The developer had asked the town board to establish a new zoning district for senior housing, and to rezone the property, known as 555 for its address on Montauk Highway, into that district.

     The hearings drew a crowd to Town Hall, including a number of people carrying signs opposing the project, despite assurances last week from a local consultant to the developers that the rezoning application had been withdrawn and the hearing on it canceled.

       In fact, neither of Putnam Bridge’s two proposals, to create the new zoning district and to put 555 into it, has been rescinded. Instead, the developers asked that the town board hold open the hearings on both matters until the new year, and reconvene them after three new board members, including incoming Supervisor Larry Cantwell, take office.

       In a Dec. 18 press release issued by WordHampton, an East Hampton public relations firm representing Putnam Bridge, and in a letter from Richard Whalen, the Connecticut company’s Amagansett attorney, the developers said the delay would allow a “full vetting of the issues and concerns” and an opportunity for them to “present and explain our proposals to the community and the new board members at a duly noticed hearing before the new board.” The letter was delivered by hand to Supervisor Bill Wilkinson on the day of the hearings.

       A number of people who had intended to speak had gone home by the time the hearings began at a late hour, following protracted hearings on other matters. A handful of speakers, most of them opposed to the development, went to the podium.

       “This zoning district isn’t even really for seniors,” said Paul Fiondella of East Hampton. Before enacting a zoning district for senior housing, he said, town officials should take steps to ascertain “the housing needs of seniors” here.

       Jeanne Frankl of Amagansett agreed, calling the process, driven by the developers’ requests, “backward.”

       “There has never been a determination by the public,” she said, to have a “conversation” about the issue of housing for senior citizens. “What happened here was a design was crafted by a developer for a particular place.”

       “This feels like spot zoning for economic gain,” said Susan Bratton, an Amagansett resident.

       “What benefit will this development bring to us?” asked Averill Geus of East Hampton. “Why should we be doing all this for them?”

       “Amagansett is virtually unanimous . . . equally important is that the whole town is virtually unanimous,” said Ms. Frankl. She said most people oppose both the senior housing district proposal as drafted, and its application to the 555 property.

       Katherine Casey, director of the East Hampton Housing Authority, noted that housing for senior citizens could be created on the parcel without the zone change. The proposed new district, she said, “really is designed to increase the profit margin, pure and simple.”

       “This really is designed to increase the density, to increase the yield, to increase the profit,” she said. “It’s not really about seniors.”

       “Conspicuously absent” from the conversation, said Ms. Casey, have been local residents already involved in and knowledgeable about affordable housing for older people. She mentioned Gerry Mooney and Kathy Byrnes of the Windmill affordable senior housing developments as examples.

       Changing 555’s current zoning, which would eliminate an existing affordable housing district there, would result in “a net loss of 26 affordable units,” Ms. Casey told the board.

       Debra Foster of Springs, a former town councilwoman, submitted a petition bearing 1,200 signatures of people opposed to the proposed new zone and its application to the Amagansett site. Many more, she said, had signed a similar petition online.

       So many opponents had been expected to attend the hearings last week that organizers of a group called Stop 555 had asked town officials to provide a venue larger than the meeting room at Town Hall. After news outlets called to inquire about that request, Britton Bistrian, an Amagansett land planner and a consultant to Putnam Bridge, e-mailed Ms. Frankl, an organizer of the opposition, saying that “the rezoning petition for the property . . . was withdrawn last week and therefore will not have a public hearing.” That information, also sent to a Stop 555 representative, proved incorrect; the zone change application has not been withdrawn.

       Ms. Bistrian said Monday that Putnam Bridge had decided on Dec. 11 to suspend its effort to have its Amagansett acreage rezoned, so that the senior citizen housing zone concept could go forward initially before next year’s town board.

       “Our intent was to not hold the hearing last Thursday night,” she said. “There was too much of a heightened hysteria about that meeting. In response to the hysteria, let’s say, about the public hearing, Putnam Bridge wanted to turn down the volume.”

       “I wasn’t intentionally trying to confuse people,” Ms. Bistrian said of her e-mails.

       A call from Putnam Bridge’s attorney, Mr. Whalen, to Reed Jones, chairman  of the town planning board, which had the proposed new zoning district and the requested zone change on its Dec. 11 agenda, was intended to “withdraw 555 from discussion,” Ms. Bistrian said. The planning board nonetheless discussed both issues, and, said Diana Weir, a board member, voted unanimously to advise the town board against both.

     Ms. Foster said last Thursday that the various assertions being made about the zone change request and the hearings had been “confusing.” Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc wondered if more people might have appeared at Town Hall to speak if the misinformation had not been circulated.

       Mr. Van Scoyoc argued against Mr. Wilkinson’s suggestion to hold both hearings open until Feb. 6, calling it “unnecessary.”

       “This application I don’t even think rose to a level where we should even have scheduled a public hearing,” he said.

       Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, who, with Mr. Van Scoyoc, will continue on the board next year along with new members Mr. Cantwell, Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, and Fred Overton, agreed.

       They were outvoted by the board’s three outgoing Republicans.

       The Suffolk County Planning Commission had come down strongly against both Putnam Bridge proposals, and the town board could only have overridden that action by a 4-1 vote.