The Westhampton Beach Village trustees last week unanimously adopted amendments to the village’s coastal erosion law that they say are designed to protect the dunes, despite protests from two members of the public who said the changes will curtail the rights of property owners on Dune Road.
Drafted by attorney Richard Haefeli, the amendments are intended to clarify the village’s coastal erosion management law, an ordinance mandated by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in 1988. The changes stem, in part, from a ruling last year in New York State Supreme Court that determined that the village unfairly rejected an application filed by a village resident who was looking to complete $300,000 worth of renovations to her Dune Road home.
Village officials stressed that the amendments, approved during last Thursday night’s Village Board meeting, only clarify the preexisting law, and that the changes are intended to protect the dunes. Specifically, the amendments more precisely define permitted construction activities, such as restoration of homes on properties that overlook the Atlantic Ocean, and clarify the cumulative limit on the amount of restoration work that can be completed on a structure under the village’s coastal erosion law.
The law affects only the village’s coastal erosion hazard area, a region that is delineated by an invisible line that runs 25 feet north from the base of the dunes on the landward side of properties, according to Westhampton Beach building inspector Paul Houlihan.
Michael Nobiletti, who worked as a consultant on the lawsuit that spurred the changes and a former administrator of the coastal erosion law for Quogue Village, and local attorney Jim Hulme, who worked for the woman who filed the lawsuit, spoke out against the amendments during last week’s meeting. Both stated that the amendments take away the rights of property owners without offering any more protection to the dunes.
In a separate interview, Mr. Houlihan explained that the dunes are the village’s most important natural resource and that, during hurricanes and other strong storms, they are the village’s first line of defense to protect private property from large waves. He cited the breach in what is now the Village of West Hampton Dunes in the early 1990s as an example of why the dunes are important.
The amendments to the law define the term “modification” as it relates to the village code. They also more precisely define how much restoration, which is defined as the construction, reconstruction, alteration or modification of a structure, can occur on properties that fall within the coastal erosion zone.
Mr. Haefeli explained that the revised code states that any restoration work to a house that falls in the zone cannot exceed 50 percent of the home’s initial replacement cost. For example, if the amount of work completed on a house in 1996 totaled 25 percent of its restoration value, then, in 2008, the homeowner could complete additional work as long as it does not exceed another 25 percent of the value of the home in 2008 dollars.
Mr. Houlihan explained that homeowners who completed $25,000 worth of renovations to a home assessed at $100,000 a decade ago would still be able to complete up to $100,000 worth of additional renovations today if the same home is now valued at $400,000, or 25 percent of its assessed value.
The village will also look into the number of building permits issued to individual homeowners after 1988, when the coastal erosion management law was first mandated by the state, to determine the value of how much restoration work could be completed today.
If homeowners want to do work on a house in excess of 50 percent of its replacement cost, they’ll either have to make sure the additions and new construction are completed north of the coastal erosion hazard line, or obtain a variance from the Westhampton Beach Zoning Board of Appeals, Mr. Haefeli said.
“This is the way the code has always been enforced,” Mr. Houlihan said. “Now we’re just spelling it out in the code.”
The changes were prompted by a lawsuit filed by Georgia Malone, whose home is located within the village’s coastal erosion area, after she failed to secure the required building permits to make $300,000 worth of renovations. According to the lawsuit, filed in 2006, Ms. Malone says she was not granted a variance from the village’s zoning board because the previous homeowner, Peter Colucci, had already completed restoration work that exceeded 50 percent of the home’s value.
As a result, she would not be allowed to make additional renovations to her home. The lawsuit also states that the village erred when it classified Ms. Malone’s proposed work as a restoration project.
The lawsuit also charges that the previous version of the village code contained no language that specifically places a cumulative monetary cap on the amount of construction that can be completed to homes in the coastal erosion area. The suit notes that Ms. Malone’s proposed work would not result in an increase of erosion along the dunes.
In a ruling handed down in May 2007, State Supreme Court Justice Paul Baisley stated that the village’s rejection of Ms. Malone’s application was “arbitrary” and “capricious,” and remitted Ms. Malone’s application back to the Zoning Board of Appeals. Mr. Haefeli said he did appeal the judge’s decision but, because the suit is currently being settled, the appeal may be withdrawn.
Ms. Malone has yet to complete any of the proposed improvements to her house, according to Mr. Hulme. She could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Haefeli insisted this week that Judge Baisley failed to properly interpret the village code, and that his misreading prompted the code changes that were adopted last Thursday night. “He didn’t interpret the code right,” Mr. Haefeli said. “It was inaccurate but because he felt that the code said something differently, we changed [the law] so it’s clear what it said.”
Mr. Nobiletti said he told the zoning board 18 months ago that the work proposed by his client, Ms. Malone, should be classified as general maintenance and would not disturb or damage nearby dunes. For those reasons, he said that the coastal erosion management law should not be applied to his client’s application.
“The coastal erosion code or law should not be used as a zoning tool,” Mr. Nobiletti said at the meeting. “The way it’s written, it’s being more restrictive, and there’s a strong implication that can be construed by the zoning board that normal maintenance and repair and other work on a residence will be regulated under the coastal code.”
Mr. Hulme said he thinks the law should balance the protection of the dunes with the rights of property owners, and that the law disregards the second item. He went on to add that the amendments could decrease property values along Dune Road.
“These amendments are of no benefit to the dunes, but are of great damage to people,” Mr. Hulme said.
Mr. Haefeli countered that violent storms, such as the devastating Hurricane of 1938, would have more of an affect on property values along Dune Road. For that reason, he said the village’s priority has been to protect the dunes.
“The village has been at the forefront in adopting laws to protect the beach,” Mr. Haefeli said. “The amendments increase the property values in the village because we’re better protected against a hurricane.”