More than three years after the Zoning Board of Appeals told the East Hampton Library it had to prepare a costly and time-consuming impact study for its proposed 6,802-square-foot expansion, the library’s attorney is arguing that state law exempts the library from the requirement.
Riverhead lawyer Bill Esseks said at an Appeals Board meeting on Friday that he had discovered a section of state law that, he argued, clearly exempted the library from the environmental review process established under the state Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA).
Because the East Hampton Library was chartered by the regents of the State University of New York, it is considered an educational institution, and under education state law, any expansion projects that cover less than 10,000 square feet are automatically considered “Type II” actions under SEQRA that are exempt from the review process.
Library officials nevertheless still need the Appeals Board to approve a special permit for the project, as required by the Village Code. On Friday, they submitted written answers to 35 questions that were posed by the board in February, when it deemed the current draft of the library’s impact statement deficient.
The library also submitted a new survey and floor plan, as well as a new, expanded parking and traffic study, which contends—as did the previous study—that the proposed expansion will have “minimal impact on the roadways surrounding the site.”
At Friday’s meeting, Mr. Esseks urged board members to rescind their 2004 resolution deeming the project a “Type I” action under SEQRA, which requires the submission of the EIS, and hinted at the possibility of a lawsuit if they refused to do so.
“I trust you understand that you get to make this decision, and the courts get to make the next decision on this issue,” said Mr. Esseks, who was given an opportunity to speak at the end of meeting, although the library project was not on the board’s agenda. “Does the village want to be known as the institution in the State of New York that says that the library, under the education law, is not an educational institution?”
His statements at Friday’s meeting followed an April 1 letter to the Appeals Board, in which he first brought the issue to the board’s attention and argued that—on the basis of state education law—the current review of the project by the Appeals Board “is unauthorized and is beyond the ZBA’s jurisdiction.”
New York State law mandates that “routine activities of educational institutions, including expansion of existing facilities by less than 10,000 square feet of gross floor area,” are considered a Type II action under SEQRA and therefore do not require an EIS.
According to the language of the law, institutions that are, in effect, extensions of the State University of New York, may include “all secondary and higher educational institutions, which are now or may hereafter be incorporated in this state, and such other libraries, museums, institutions, school, organizations, and agencies for education as may be admitted to or incorporated by the university.”
After reading the law aloud, Village Attorney Linda Riley said that “Mr. Esseks has an argument,” but “there is some interpretation that’s called for.”
She said that, if the board were going to keep its 2004 resolution in place, it would not have to take any action, but if it agreed with Mr. Esseks’ view, it would have to rescind the 2004 resolution and reclassify the project as a Type II Action.
The library’s board of directors is seeking a special permit to expand its children’s wing, with 3,545 square feet of gross floor area on the first floor, and 3,257 square feet in the basement, mostly for a 60-person lecture room. The room currently seats 45.
Library officials originally sought a 10,000-square-foot expansion but they cut back the proposal after Appeals Board members asked for a smaller project during an April 2004 public hearing.
Mr. Esseks said on Monday that he had noticed the clause in the state law about six weeks ago.
The library took more than three years to prepare its environmental impact study. On February 29, the Appeals Board formally deemed it deficient and asked for a more detailed look at parking and traffic, a further study of the potential option of an alternative children’s library in Springs, and other issues.
Responding to those concerns in their new report, library officials submitted new information on floor plans, occupancy ratings, parking, traffic, surface and groundwater impact, open space, and other elements of the project.
Library director Dennis Fabiszak said on Monday that part of the goal of responding to the requests of the Appeals Board, even when library officials do not believe that they should be required to complete the EIS, is to show “that we don’t have anything to hide.”
In the new traffic and parking study, the Babylon-based consulting company Greenman-Pedersen conducted four parking surveys, which they said validated previous conclusions about the sufficiency of parking at and around the building. They also compared data for traffic accidents from 1996 through 2007 at the intersection of Route 114 and Main Street, and said that the accident rate was slightly lower that the statewide average for a similar roadway.
At Friday’s meeting, Appeals Board members discussed Mr. Esseks’ claim with Village Attorney Linda Riley and made no decision about whether to reclassify the project. They agreed to make a determination at their May 9 meeting.
Board member Frank Newbold noted that three other buildings near the library—the Clinton Academy, the Town House, and Guild Hall—would be considered educational institutions under Mr. Esseks’ interpretation of the law, and would be exempt from the environmental review. Guild Hall, which was given a special permit for its current renovation project, was required by the Appeals Board to prepare an EIS.
“That would be my concern … We have four institutions that are affected and I think our goal is to make sure whatever happens in a historic district on Main Street” will be best for the community, he said.
Liz Marigold, another member on the board, said that it doesn’t seem logical that the authors of the law would intend for the term “educational institution” to apply to every museum and every library in the state.
“The library is chartered by the Regents,” Mr. Esseks responded. “That makes it automatically an educational institution. They don’t give it to cigar stores.”
The library’s planned expansion has been a topic of controversy in the village. In 2005, state legislators, apparently seeking to support the library, attempted to pass legislation that would have exempted the expansion from any village review. Village officials were not told about the legislation and were shocked when they did discover it was in the works in Albany. An angry Mayor Paul Rickenbach Jr. asked Governor George Pataki not to sign the legislation; he never did and it never became law.
Also, early this year, Andrew Goldstein, the chair of the Appeals Board, recused himself from voting on the application after he was criticized for making comments outside of board meetings that some argued clearly showed he was biased against the project.
Mr. Goldstein made some of the comments in a 2006 meeting of the Village Preservation Society of East Hampton, of which he is the vice-chair, which, following his suggestion, has called for a scaled-down project.
East Hampton attorney Jeffrey Bragman, who is representing the Preservation Society, sent a letter to the Appeals Board on April 23 in which he asserted that schools, not public libraries, are supposed to be exempt from the requirements for projects under 10,000 square feet.
In his letter, Mr. Bragman pointed out that when the amendment was added to the SEQRA regulations that made small-scale expansions of educational institutions “Type II Actions,” the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation reviewed the changes beforehand under SEQRA. In their review, Mr. Bragman said, the DEC used the words “school” and “educational institution” interchangeably, showing that “there is no doubt that the Type 2 exception was directed only at school, not library, expansions.”