With growing calls to rein in the rampant development and redevelopment characterized by outsized houses and abundant lot coverage in East Hampton Town, Councilwoman Cate Rogers announced the formation of a zoning code amendment work group on Tuesday.
“In the past few years, we have experienced a development boom that is currently authorized by the town code but unprecedented in mass, size, and scale,” she said during the board’s meeting on Tuesday. The work group will begin with an assessment of residential zoning, she said, and, “where needed, reducing house size, clearing, total lot coverage, how we classify natural grade and below-grade development, and other sections” of the code pertaining to zoning.
The announcement follows an insistent campaign by an Amagansett resident, Jaine Mehring, to encourage the town board to take action to “restore rational restraint and inspire more modulated proportions” in development. The founder of Build.In.Kind/East Hampton, she led a public discussion of the topic on March 31, and last month issued an open letter to the town board in the form of a petition.
Underscoring the urgency of the work group’s mission, Tuesday’s announcement was closely followed by Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc’s noting of the number of building permits issued in the first four months of 2023: 140 in January, 140 in February, 190 in March, and 137 in April.
Ms. Rogers read from the town’s comprehensive plan, adopted in 2005. “The Nature Conservancy has designated the area as one of the ‘Last Great Places’ in the Western Hemisphere. . . . Development has not obliterated the natural and scenic characteristics once covering all Long Island. . . . Future development should be harmonious with the existing character of the community.”
“As your elected officials,” Ms. Rogers said, “we must ensure that the vision statement and all principles of the comprehensive plan continue to be the basis for all zoning and planning legislation and, therefore, continues to effectively manage development today. Where it does not, we must amend the code.” While change is inevitable, the board’s responsibility, she said, “is to manage the change to keep the goals of the comprehensive plan and of the community.”
Ms. Rogers said she has met with staff of the Building, Planning, Natural Resources, and Ordinance Enforcement Departments and heard of their challenges in upholding the town code.
The work group comprises Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez; Joe Palermo, the chief building inspector; Jeremy Samuelson, director of the Planning Department; Kevin Cooper, director of Ordinance Enforcement; Denise Savarese of the zoning board of appeals and its longtime legislative secretary; John Whelan, a former chairman of the Z.B.A. and member of the Suffolk County Planning Commission, and Ms. Mehring, who is a member of the town’s Energy and Sustainability Committee, the Litter Action Committee, and the Amagansett Citizens Advisory Committee.
Ms. Rogers served on the zoning board for nine years, seven of them as vice chairwoman. That experience, she said, “will help me guide this group to present a zoning code that will strengthen and protect the goals of the comprehensive plan and will guide future development to be consistent with our history as we plan a sustainable future for our beloved East Hampton.”
Ms. Mehring was among residents calling for a moratorium on large residential construction, but Ms. Rogers said that “our goals can be better accomplished without a moratorium and all the issues that come” with one. “We are aware of the unintended consequences of moratoriums, which disproportionally impact the working-class community members.”
Mr. Van Scoyoc called the current development trends and resulting changes to the town’s character “very disturbing for longtime residents like myself,” and referred to a realization “that the code is in fact way too liberal” with respect to land disturbance and destruction. The modern era, he lamented, seems to be marked by “conspicuous consumption to the Nth degree,” whereas the focus in the past was community and natural surroundings rather than the built environment and, “in some cases, wanton use of resources” for houses that may be uninhabited for much of the year.
Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, who is in her 12th and final year on the board and served on the town planning board for seven years before that, said that the comprehensive plan’s vision statement remains relevant and was “so well worded and so instructive” that she’d asked that it be “stapled to every single building permit that we put out there.” What is happening now, she said, “is just disrespect for this vision statement, for our comprehensive plan” as well as for the community.
The group will hold an organizational meeting on Monday. “We will organize and draw out where we need to focus our attention,” Ms. Rogers said, adding that she plans to collect data including trends in the size of new houses, variance requests coming to the zoning board, and violations processed in Justice Court.
Mr. Van Scoyoc said that he had suggested that the Building Department compile statistics on the average square footage on building permits and document the trend relative to property size. “Having a solid idea as to those numbers will be informative,” he said.