- An East Hampton citizens group sprang up virtually overnight intent on influencing the town's proposed legislation restricting the size of a house that can be built on a half-acre to a maximum of 3,620 square feet.
The group, which met for first time Wednesday evening, dubbed themselves the East Hampton Citizens For Fairness in Zoning, known as FIZ for short. They have hit the ground running after coming together as a result of a highly controversial five-and-half-hour public hearing held on the proposed law now before the town board. FIZ believes the law constitutes unfair zoning and will penalize working families seeking to expand the size of their homes, adversely affecting owners of small lots and houses already built on properties less than a half-acre in size.
According to FIZ, the proposed law will reduce a property owner's building rights by over 50 percent. In addition, by affecting a reduction in allowed house size, the new law, if adopted, will ultimately result in increased property tax percentages across the township as the reduction in square footage tallied will be lower, sending the tax rate higher to meet operational costs.
Driving home this point, FIZ placed a full page advertisement in a local weekly newspaper alerting citizens to the need for further study and public input before the law, as proposed, is adopted. FIZ hopes to see modifications made in the draft law now under review, and has begun to circulate a petition to garner grassroots support in opposition to the controversial measure. FIZ is also reaching out to like-minded citizens, inviting them to join their ranks and appear before the town board at it's work session tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. at Town Hall.
FIZ held its first meeting to strategize and mobilize Wednesday evening at the Springs Fire Department on Fort Pond Boulevard where a core group of 20 members listened to a presentation put forth by East Hampton resident Robert Schwagerl, an interior designer and space planner who has been actively engaged in the design business for over 30 years.
Local businessman Peter Mendelman, of Springs, notes the adverse effects the
measure would have on working families.
Schwagerl, whose family has lived in East Hampton for over 60 years, would like to expand the size of his home. "I know the area, and I love the area too," Schwagerl asserted, displaying drawings created in a matter of hours following initial discussions with town planners and lawmakers which depicted the size of a house, in terms of design and square footage, that would and wouldn't be allowed under the new regulation.
"The issue here is not the square
footage of a house, "Schwagerl said, "but the design. The problem here is that the Town has not thought this through, they just mimicked a law the Village of East Hampton enacted with a few modifications."
While restricting the size of a house that can be built on a small lot seems like a good planning tool on the face of the issue, FIZ members, including interior space planner Schwagerl, maintain the overall design and placement of the house on the lot, determining functionality as well as aesthetics, can better be achieved by creative design rather than by arbitrary and restrictive square foot limitations.
"There's a lot of room for creativity here," Peter Mendelman, a founder of FIZ, commented. "Robert Schwagerl is one of the most creative people I know. All homes should be considered on a case by case basis. A square footage requirement that does not take other factors of design into account will not do it."
Mendelman, and his brother Mark, appeared at the recent public hearing addressing their opposition to the law, claiming the proposed law is too restrictive. Mendelman has hopes of adding onto his own house, which is located in the Springs section of East Hampton. Citing the diverse needs of the local working population. Mendelman was joined in his commentary by Jeanette Schwagerl, who noted the plight of the local homeowner "who would not be able to add a fourth bedroom to their house because of an arbitrary limit."
"This law does not favor the locals. Don't be an artist or a writer who wants to build a studio," Dominick Stanzione
said, "because you won't get it."
Interior designer and space planner, Robert Schwagerl, discusses
square footage requirements in relation to overall building design.
Long Island Builders Institute (LIBI) member and local builder Bill Fowkes was also in attendance to help protest the proposed law, and shed some light on building regulations, strategizing with fellow FIZ members.
"First of all," Fowkes said, "LIBI is strongly opposed to this law. There are a lot of better ways to preserve the look of the area and to build houses on half-acre lots. This is not the best way to go. If you have any insight into small town politics," Fowkes continued, "you understand if there is enough of an outcry, the Town will slow things down. "We have to put in some face time," Fowkes advised the group.
"We have to talk to the board and to the members of the advisory board formed to help draft this law. They need to take a closer look at this before they do anything," Fowkes added.
Schwagerl also expressed his indignation at the method the town board has used in drafting the new law without gathering, in their estimation, sufficient public participation. "The town has been very secretive about this," Schwagerl contended. "The town formed an advisory committee to help draft this law. But, town board members do not go to the advisory board meetings, and the public is not allowed to attend these meetings. So there you are, who advises who?"
Schwagerl was also critical of the town's timing on this issue. "They launched this during the Christmas holidays when everyone is away, then they hold a public hearing on a Friday morning at the start of a holiday weekend. We cannot afford to assume the press is doing their job on this either," Schawgerl said. "What is wrong with a few reporters going over to the town hall and doing their jobs?"
Shedding light on a point of contention the new legislation claims to safeguard, John Talmage said, "I would like to know what architectural era we are protecting here. I am in the unique position of having given away a lot of development rights to preserve this area. Now I can't even build the kind of house my brother built on a neighboring lot literally within a stone's throw of the Village. What are we protecting with this law - the 1,400 square foot 1950s and 1960s ranch that is not really indigenous to the area to begin with?"
The Talmage family is among the first settlers of East Hampton which was established in the 1640s. "We all want to preserve the area, " Talmage continued, "but this kind of broad brush is not the way to go about it. It is the design of the house, rather than just the square footage, that we have to be concerned with."
FIZ members engrossed in strategy at their first meeting.
"There is sufficient ambiguity here to beat this thing," Fowkes concluded, referring to the law to restrict square footage without taking into account the overall design of a house that can be built to maximize lot coverage without becoming a "McMansion. "We have to know what to tweak, we can do this."
"Everyone wants to preserve the area," Dominick Stanzione concurred. "We all want to maintain our property values. Some of us would like to expand our homes. No one wants to see their property devalued. This law will not accomplish that unless it is modified a great deal. The town board needs to take more time to think about this and all its ramifications. There is nothing wrong with a reduction in the size of a home that can be built if it doesn't adversely affect its value. That's where the rubber meets the road," Stanzione concluded.
Fowkes echoed the sentiments expressed by many FIZ members who expressed concern for preserving the character of the local community as well as preserving the area's architectural heritage. "There is a sense of community feeling here that doesn't exist everywhere," Fowles suggested.
Notably affronted by the proposed legislation, the FIZ members discussed a growing trend in the township which seemed to be marginalizing the working class. "There is one endangered species in this town," Fowkes quipped, "and it is not the piping plover -- it is the working people. This law will adversely affect the move-up market. Local people will not be able to add on to their houses, and they won't be able to afford to buy a bigger house. So, they will sell and move to North Carolina! And there goes another volunteer fireman," Fowkes concluded as everyone looked around the Springs Fire Department where the meeting was being held.