Ronald Perelman asked the East Hampton Village Bard last Thursday to upzone the Creeks, his nearly 60-acre estate at East Hampton Village’s western edge.
The board listened intently as attorneys and a consultant representing the billionaire investor and philanthropist promised dramatic upgrades and standards, aimed, they said, at improving the ecological health of Georgica Pond. The estate’s broad lawns run down to the pond.
Given that in the past there has been construction and alteration of multiple structures on the property, all done without benefit of building permits, Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. and members of the board appeared less than enthusiastic about the proposal. The changes and additions were discovered only when a March 2012 fire brought Ken Collum, a volunteer firefighter who is now the village’s building inspector, to the scene. That incident, and what the mayor called “a dragging of the feet” in resolving the violations, which he called “very frustrating,” left the board unhappy. Some members scolded Mr. Perelman’s representatives and responded to the plan with skepticism.
“Some of these structures constructed without permits do not conform to zoning, so they wouldn’t be eligible for permits,” said Christopher Kelley, an attorney who was representing Mr. Perelman. “We’re here to try to come up with a creative solution to bring them into compliance, and provide the village and the applicant with some other benefits.”
The solution, he suggested, was to create a new residential district with lots of at least six acres. Such a district would result in low-density development, Mr. Kelley said, and allow his client to maintain multiple residences on what he called a family compound.
“The applicant is proposing a total future density never to exceed nine single-family residences on the Creeks property,” Mr. Kelley told the board. Based on the current zoning code, he said, that would mean a 31-percent decrease in maximum allowable density, and “a vast improvement of both existing and future environmental conditions on the property.”
Mr. Perelman, who has 8 children and 10 grandchildren, “intends for the foreseeable future to keep the property as a family compound,” Mr. Kelley said, stressing that there are no plans to build additional structures “at this time.” In addition to bringing the violating structures into compliance, however, he acknowledged that Mr. Perelman was concerned about “preserving his flexibility to build additional structures in the future as part of a family compound that he has maintained and beautified over time.”
Richard Warren of Inter-Science Research Associates, an environmental, land use, and development consultant, told the board that under current zoning, subdividing the property would yield 13 lots — “significant development potential” — while the proposed district would allow nine. For that matter, the village’s comprehensive plan, prepared in 2002, identified the neighborhood in which the Creeks is situated as having the largest potential redevelopment of any in the village. “The ability to create a family compound through establishing a rezoning and provision to . . . have more than one residence on a property might be warranted,” he said, as it would likely result in less development.
With few exceptions, residential lots can have one only principal structure.
Mr. Perelman has also proposed “some unique environmental controls,” Mr. Kelley said. These include replacing the property’s 17 septic systems, some of which may not have Suffolk County Health Department permits, with “state-of-the-art” de-nitrification systems recently approved by the county. That would be mandated in the newly created residential district, he said, and would significantly reduce nitrogen seepage into Georgica Pond. Nitrogen has been blamed for the harmful algal blooms that have afflicted the pond in recent years.
Mr. Perelman, Mr. Kelley said, would also install permeable reactive barriers to prevent unfiltered seepage of effluent and groundwater into the pond; fund remedial measures for the pond as recommended by Christopher Gobler of Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, who conducts research for the East Hampton Town Trustees and the Friends of Georgica Pond Foundation; create vegetative buffer zones along both the shoreline and along Montauk Highway; reduce or eliminate phragmites on the property, and preserve as many uncleared areas as possible through the establishment of scenic easements. The new district would require all buildings to have an organic landscape maintenance plan, and any future subdivision would trigger a mandatory 50-percent open space set-aside, Mr. Kelley said.
A letter from Kenneth Wessberg Sr., a former mayor of the village, to Alfonso Ossorio, the painter and sugar heir who owned the Creeks from 1951 until his death in 1990, demonstrates that “the village has recognized the uniqueness of the property,” Mr. Kelley said. In it, Mr. Wessberg, who died in 1992, thanks Mr. Ossorio for agreeing to a recent upzoning of the area that was “aimed at holding down development in the already overcrowded village in order to preserve, as much as possible, both the environment and the character of this lovely village.”
The board will need time to digest the proposal, Mayor Rickenbach said. “This may be the beginning of a dialogue,” he said. “But to be very frank with you . . . there’s a whole host of issues.”
While the proposal promises to mitigate environmental degradation, said Barbara Borsack, “if we’re dealing with someone who doesn’t care about the rules, even if we put all these new rules in place, why would we assume that they would be followed?”
“Because you’ve got us here, because we’re in Justice Court dealing with violations,” Mr. Kelley answered. He said his client would agree to annual inspections of the property and would consider any other suggestions for ensuring compliance.
“Things happen one of three ways: by omission, by commission, or by intent,” the mayor said. “That’s why I think there’re so much skepticism. . . . We want to see the right thing happen at the end of the day, but again, I think there’s so many obstacles that have to be spelled out and clearly defined.”