Hill Street Blues

A model commissioned Ann Pyne shows her house and barn on Hill Street in Southampton on the right and the proposed Farrell house on the left.

In many ways this is a story of old Southampton versus new, of descendants of the original summer colonists versus arrivistes, of understatement versus over the top, of patrician discretion versus unbridled extravagance, of the old guard and its conservative “cottages” and new money and its gargantuan mansions that many feel are blighting the character of the South Fork.

The particulars of this age-old scenario were played out at an architectural review board hearing in Southampton Village last week. Adrenaline in the room was nearly palpable as a parade of well-heeled citizens streamed into Village Hall. At issue was Joe Farrell’s proposal to erect a 5,135-square-foot house on Hill Street. Mr. Farrell, a local builder who The New York Times recently reported “has more than 20 new homes under construction, or slated for construction, at a time,” was represented by his lawyer, John Bennett. The opponents were neighbors and others who object to what they described as the “massive” and “out of scale” proportions of the proposed building in the historic district and on a street some might consider the village’s heart and soul.

Above them on a raised dais four members of the board — one was missing — and their legal counsel hovered, ready to pass judgment. This was the fifth hearing on the matter, the fourth having ended with two members voting to approve the project. Only one member opposed it while another member, Christina Redding, abstained, saying that she wasn’t up to speed on the case, because she had been dealing with a family illness.

 Mr. Farrell’s lawyer’s position was that the size of the house is within legal bounds. He said it is “2,000 square feet less that the allowable gross floor area, and seven and a half to eight feet lower” than the limit. “The average ranch house is 1,600 square feet,” he said, by way of explaining that the property could accommodate another substantial structure and still be within the dictates of the law. “You can go up to 35 feet high.” Roof height for the planned house does not surpass 28 feet. “It’s not a piggish house,” he said. “I’m shocked that people object to this house.”

The house’s square footage does not include the two-story garage, however, the opposition feels that some of the garage should be counted, as some of it could be living space.

Opponents of the house were represented by Jeffrey Bragman, a lawyer hired by Ann Pyne, president of McMillen, the country’s oldest interior design firm, whose property is half an acre away. They were also armed with a lot of passion and an arsenal of 83 letters written by supporters of the cause. “I do very controversial cases,” said Mr. Bragman, “and this is more letters than I’ve ever seen.”

Sitting in the front row was Barbara Missett, who lives at 471 Hill Street, abutting Mr. Farrell’s project on the east, in a cottage built by Stanford White as a studio for William Merritt Chase, a celebrated American Impressionist. Ms. Missett, along with Ms. Pyne, was instrumental in soliciting the many dozens of letters in opposition to the house, which she called a “horizontal horror show.” referring to the fact that the width rather than the length would face the street.

In support of the opposition, Mr. Bragman asked the board to revisit a village code requiring that new structures in the historic district have “visual compatibility” with the old. To this end, he beseeched them to require Mr. Farrell to provide documents that would demonstrate the scale of the building compared to neighboring houses. There is no evidence in the record comparing the proposed house to buildings around it, he said. He went on to point out that, having done their own homework, the opponents discovered that Mr. Farrell’s house was “100 percent larger than the average house in the neighborhood and more than three times larger than the smallest.” 

A major bone of contention in the debate is that the house would occupy a flag lot. “It’s a football field away from Hill Street,” contended Mr. Bennett, voicing only a slight exaggeration. He said that the property is 250 feet from the road, while the length of a football field is 300 feet. “And it’s behind a large house.”

Mr. Bragman’s position was that, “by our measure there’s an 83-foot facade on Hill Street. It’s on a flag lot but the side of the house . . . is visible from the street.” It’s a question of “volume,” he said, questioning whether the building fit “with the existing pattern of architecture.”

Susan Stevenson, a resident of Toilsome Lane and one of the letter writers, took the board to task. “I don’t feel you’ve paid attention to the mandate you have.”

John Pyne, Ms. Pyne’s husband, complained that in a previous session Mr. Bennett had “denigrated” the opposition’s efforts by suggesting that the letters were written by members of the Southampton Association, an organization representative of the summer colony in the village and its environs. Mr. Pyne said that if he added up the “taxpayer years” of his letter writers the sum would be more than 2,400. On the other hand, he said that the organizer of letters in support of the house, Robert Pressman, former owner of Barneys, has lived in the village for less than two years. Mr. Pressman wrangled four letters.

When Dora Frost, an artist, spoke, she said that she had lived in Southampton since 1953, and that her forebears had done so for generations. She read a history of Hill Street, citing its “unspoiled” nature and its “cultural value” to the village. She spoke of settlers such as “Howells, Jessups, Jaggers, and Sayres,” and concluded that her intent was to inform the board “of the seriousness of this very historic road that has remained essentially unchanged in the last 200 years.”

The most dramatic moment of the nearly two-hour session occurred when Ms. Pyne unveiled models of her house and barn, Ms. Missett’s cottage, and the proposed house. Viewers were able to see the size of the Farrell house in relation to the others.

Other opponents had their say, but perhaps the mood of the evening was summed up by Jay Diesing, president of Southampton Association, who admitted that he had sent an email blast to his members to inform them of a “relevant issue.” He beseeched board members to drive to Pheasant Pond, a nearby development with large houses, “to get a mental picture of what you’ll be doing if you approve this house. . . . While the applicant gets richer our village gets poorer.” 

When it came time for the board members to have their say it was clear that they had been somewhat moved by all the passionate testimony. Brian Brady, an architect, was “struggling with the fact that it’s in an historic district” and suggested the board “walk the neighborhood.” Ms. Redding also admitted to “struggling” and expressed concern that the zoning code was not helpful in this situation, allowing as it does for the house to be even larger than proposed. The board’s chairman, Curtis Highsmith, bemoaned the fact that the A.R.B. is used as a “last stand.” Discussions about size, he said, should start at the planning board. “We’re here trying to make a fair decision to the community and the right of the applicant.” Hamilton Hoge asserted that he “would like to see a balloon test; it’s a no-brainer.” A balloon test is a visual exercise in how a proposed structure will impact the landscape.

The session concluded with the board members agreeing that they were not ready to take a vote until they could walk the neighborhood or see results of a balloon test, a boon to the opposition, which had offered in the past to finance the cost of the procedure.

“This is a clear case of bowing to political pressure,” Mr. Bennett said. His stance is that everything he has submitted is “factual and legal.” However, what the board must decide is not a mere matter of legality but is open to interpretation. The bottom line seems to be: Is the building in harmony with existing structures?

“I understand that people don’t like change,” said Mr. Bennett. But, he claims, “I’m not even coming close to pushing the envelope,” citing that he “took off the roof deck . . . a concession from the last hearing.” When asked why he thinks there’s so much rancor, he said, “They don’t like the fact that Joe Farrell is the builder.”

 Mr. Bragman said that his mission is “getting the board to find its backbone. . . . Boards are very weak and indecisive.” However, he felt the hearing “woke them up.” Mr. Bennett did not agree. The board “is trying to let people have their say; they’re being courteous to everybody.” And he believes the house will eventually be approved.