Size Matters

Michael Davis, a Sagaponack builder, is in favor of floor area ratio codes. Morgan McGivern

    Is bigger better? Not if you’re a local official trying to restrict house sizes on the East End. Despite an apparent small house movement taking hold in other parts of the country, builders and local officials say people here are still building to the maximum their property will allow.

    “You can understand why they’d want to max it out,” said Frank Newbold, the East Hampton Village Zoning Board of Appeals chairman. “There’s such expensive inventory here.”

    There is a constant struggle, Mr. Newbold said, between homeowners and their architects and those on the  review boards. Every municipality on the South Fork has zoning regulations and they are so numerous and so specific to each locale that it takes experts to keep them straight.

    Each governing body does its best to see that construction meets the formulas in their town or village ordinances, some of which are restrictions on the amount of a lot that can be covered (its building envelope), setbacks (distances from a structure to property lines), and pyramid laws (the height of a building in relation to property lines).

    Perhaps the village most concerned about downsizing houses is Sagaponack. Blame Ira Rennert. After the junk bond mogul built his 64,389-square-foot mini Versailles there, residents of the then-hamlet became alarmed. “That’s part of the reason they formed a village,” said Paul Brennan, the regional manager of Douglas Elliman, based in Bridgehampton.

    Once Sagaponack was incorporated, in 2005, one of its first orders of business was to put a floor area ratio (FAR) into its zoning code, which stipulates the square footage of a house in relation to the size of its lot. The intention was to curtail the invasion of McMansions into a bucolic area whose ZIP code was deemed to have the most expensive housing in the country, with a median sale price of $4,421,458 in 2009.

“The houses were getting bigger and bigger,” said Mr. Brennan, whose family once owned 100 acres of farmland in the former agrarian hamlet. “It was a sleepy little village that everyone loved because it was a sleepy little village.” With the regulations, the village and homeowners “reached a happy medium,” he said.

    “If you could build an 8,000-square-foot house in Bridgehampton, it would be 6,500 square feet in Sagaponack,” Mr. Brennan said. Bridgehampton is not incorporated as a village and building there is based on the Southampton Town zoning code.

    “The Sagaponack FAR was designed to limit mass and does so by restricting the size of a building under roof to the size of a specific lot that the building is going on,” Donald Louchheim, the village mayor, said. “At the time it was written, most zoning laws only dealt with size within a specific zoning district or else a simple maximum size for any lot.”

    There had been “a congregation of homes that didn’t have room to breathe; they were cheek by jowl with their neighbors,” said Jose Enrique Arandia, an agent with Corcoran in Bridgehampton. Because there seems to be a trend to smaller houses, “it appears that lot sizes are bigger,” he said.

    The Sagaponack Village Board actually copied FAR from the Village of North Haven, which instituted it in 2004.  “I think honestly it was generated from the Rennert thing,” said Albert Daniels, North Haven’s building inspector. “That got a lot of people to look, hold public hearings, kick it around, and try to come up with a solution that was fair to everyone.”

    The issue on North Haven, he said, was that there are a significant number of two-acre lots and under the previous code that allowed for gargantuan edifices. Sagaponack is zoned mostly for three and two-acre lots.

    “It’s working out fine,” in Mr. Daniels’s opinion. “It’s not hindering anyone from doing what they want.”    

    Tom Preiato, the East Hampton Town chief building inspector, said the town “used to just go by coverage on the lot,” allowing “20 percent roofed over.” Changes were made, he said, mostly due to half-acre zoning in areas like Amagansett, where houses were getting too big for their lots. Five years ago the town, like East Hampton Village, adopted a provision similar to FAR, G.F.A., or gross floor area. Both use formulas to arrive at maximum square footage.

    “Part of it in the [East Hampton] Village code dates back to 1925, but it really got formally codified almost exactly 10 years ago, in July 2003,” Mr. Newbold said. The maximum allowable gross area of a house is limited to 10 percent of the lot area plus 1,000 square feet or 20,000 square feet, whichever is less. So, the maximum size of a house in the village, no matter the size of the lot, is 20,000 square feet. If, for example, someone wants to build on a one-acre lot, which is roughly 40,000 square feet, the maximum size of the house would be 5,000 square feet, excluding any basement, attic, or spaces with ceilings lower than five feet.

    Just when you think you’re beginning to get a handle on the rules — hold on — they are probably being tweaked. In order to reduce a structure’s mass as seen from the street, the village this year amended its code to count rooms whose height exceeds 15 square feet twice.

    “In the village, where lots are so small, it keeps them in proportion,” Mr. Newbold said.

    All of these restrictions, according to Mr. Brennan, are “counterintuitive to the market,” but they are “also beneficial in the long run.” However, he said, “the spec builders all complain.”

    Michael Davis, a builder who lives and works in Sagaponack, is not one. “I would say, as a Sagaponack resident, it [FAR] was really needed. . . . People were tearing down and putting too much house on the lot.” However, he’s not particularly pleased with all the restrictions. Mentioning enclosed porches, Mr. Davis said, “They were always considered attractive,” but now that they are considered part of the square footage, homeowners have to “decide between a porch and a bedroom. It encourages them to build boxes.”

    Meanwhile, Mr. Arandia believes that homeowners are getting accustomed to downsizing. “Smaller houses are more comfortable. Rooms flow better, there’s less hall space, and they’re abandoning formal living rooms.”

    The irony may be that, because Mr. Rennert’s palace is on 63 acres, it undoubtedly complies with FAR regulations. And yet, in June, the billionaire filed for a zoning variance. It seems that his house, touted as bigger than the White House, needs more room — for a Pilates studio, spa bath, sauna and steam shower, and three bathrooms. Stay tuned.