Clamping Down at Lazy Point

Homeowners taking liberties on leased land

    Lazy Point is the homey community of cottages on Napeague overlooking Gardiner’s Bay that for a few hundred years has lived up to its languorous name — a place that time passed by. That is, until now, in the opinion of the East Hampton Town Trustees, who have owned and managed the land there since the 17th century.
    Members of the nine-member panel established in 1686 to govern the English settlers have begun to sense ambition creeping among the houses at the same time that Gardiner’s Bay rises toward them.
    As a result, unauthorized seawalls have begun to sprout, as have decks, fences, as well as second stories. Stephanie Forsberg, Nat Miller, and Stephen Lester, trustees who make up the Lazy Point committee, are urging the board to take steps to tighten its oversight.
    According to trustee records, sachems of three separate Indian factions sold Lazy Point to English settlers on April 29, 1648. Today, the relationship between the 50 Lazy Point residents and the land is unique, especially in the Hamptons, home to some of the most expensive real estate in the country. Residents own their houses but not the land under them. They pay taxes on their houses, but lease the land from the trustees.
    In January, when the trustees passed their annual resolutions, the lease rate was raised from $1,000 per year to $1,500. The increase — a pittance when compared to rentals anywhere else in the Hamptons, trustees and lessees agree — will be used to tidy up Lazy Point.
    The trustees admit they have been consumed of late by other important matters, such as dealing with serious erosion on the ocean beaches they own and manage on behalf of the East Hampton public, as well as defending those same beaches from encroachment by beachfront property owners. In the meantime, Lazy Point has gotten the lead out, and that’s a problem, as the trustees see it.
    “What’s been happening the last couple of years, one homeowner wanted to relocate a house, another wanted to raise her house,” Diane McNally, the trustees’ presiding officer, said, referring to Eileen Raffo, a resident.
    Lowering and repainting an objectionable fence is one thing, but regulating the community’s affairs can involve potential confrontations with the East Hampton Town Board and the State Department of Environmental Conservation.
    For instance, Ms. Raffo was recently brought on the carpet for first building a seawall without trustee permission, and then — after the trustees discovered the wall — raising it higher. She told the trustees she’d been given permission to do so by the D.E.C., whose authority the trustees do not recognize.
    During their meeting of April 23, 2012, trustees informed Ms. Raffo she had compiled the most number of violations in Lazy Point history and was in danger of having her lease revoked. She has since removed the offending structures.
    Some Lazy Point residents, especially those living on Shore Road closest to Gardiner’s Bay, may be looking to raise their houses off the ground, but how high, if at all?
    Earlier hurricanes caused the Federal Emergency Management Agency to write new guidelines related to structures built in flood zones. Should a homeowner want to expand a dwelling by 50 percent, or increase its value by the same amount, it would have to be raised 12 feet above mean high tide. Megastorm Sandy reinforced the desire to escape skyward, but one person’s escape is another’s blocked view. High-rise cottages would also change the personality of the place.
    Keeping Lazy Point lazy has the potential of putting the trustees in conflict with both federal standards and the town’s zoning board of appeals should the town board adopt the federal standard. “They may feel obligated to follow the guidelines. The trustees have leeway. We’re the owners of the land, but they may feel differently,” Ms. McNally said.
    The possibility that trustees will have to defend what they see as the special authority given them by colonial patent to be both owners and legislators of what’s done on public property — proprietary powers that supercede town and state law — is an ever-present concern.
    In the meantime, trustees say they will focus on convincing residents they mean business when it comes to obtaining permits for any alteration of structure or erosion control.
    “One homeowner had the yard filled with landscaping material. They said they were going to plant it, but it became clear they were using the lot for storage. There’s storage of old boats and trap stakes on unleased lots. Decking is going on, driveways are being regraded. Use becomes abuse. The rules and regulations are clear. You need a permit if you’re doing anything different. Residents have to realize they are on public property,” Ms. McNally said.