Southampton Town restricts development of substandard lots

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The Southampton Town Board has adopted a law that limits development of lots measuring between 8,000 and 10,000 square feet—less than a quarter of an acre—and prohibits development entirely on properties smaller than 8,000 square feet.

The new law, enacted on April 22, is designed to place restrictions on new development in Hampton Bays. It specifically targets 55 vacant and substandard parcels that fall within the area known as the town’s Special Old Filed Map Overlay District. The district runs south of Montauk Highway, from the Shinnecock Canal in Hampton Bays west to Eastport. Nearly 80 percent of the 55 parcels measure less than 8,000 square feet, according to the resolution.

The targeted parcels predate the adoption of the town’s zoning laws in 1957—they were filed with the Suffolk County Clerk prior to May 13, 1931—and cannot be legally built upon without a variance issued by the Town Zoning Board of Appeals.

A similar district, dubbed the Old Filed Map District, runs north of Montauk Highway in the hamlets of Flanders and Northampton. A requirement is already on the books that parcels must measure at least 10,000 square feet to accommodate new construction.

Before a minimum building requirement was created under the new 
law, the ZBA had been granting variances allowing construction on substandard lots, many of them located 
in Hampton Bays, and it was adversely affecting the environment and the quality of life in the community, according to Southampton Town Councilman Chris Nuzzi, who sponsored the resolution.

The lots in question predate town zoning and were utilized to harvest wood or served as pasture land. They date as far back as the Colonial era, according to Southampton Town Planning Board Chairman Dennis Finnerty. When fossil fuels rendered lumber less valuable, most of the lots were abandoned. At one point, these parcels were considered so useless that deeds to them were given away as incentives to buy newspaper subscriptions.

In May 2007, the Town Board passed a moratorium on these substandard lots, allowing time for the completion of an environmental impact study. The intent of the study was to mitigate the adverse effects on public health, safety and community character arising from the development of the properties. That moratorium expires on May 22.

The subsequent law was intended to establish the same set of building requirements in both of the town districts that feature the undersized lots. The issue has been that, in many instances, property owners have been able to secure variances from the ZBA that allow them to construct homes on the lots, turning the worthless lots into valuable building lots—a pattern that has upset some homeowners, especially those who live next to the small lots.

Heather Dune Macadam, a professor at Stony Brook Southampton whose once woodsy enclave in Hampton Bays now features several homes on tiny lots, said she was thrilled with the new law. Ms. Macadam, who lives on Shell Road, said homes have been jammed onto lots as small as 4,000 square feet.

“I can spit on the home next to me,” she said.

Mr. Nuzzi has argued that such dense construction could pose potential harm to public health and endanger groundwater supplies. He explained that, in some instances, variances were being granted to owners of lots measuring less than 3,600 square feet—or about one-tenth of an acre.

“That seriously affects neighbors who live next to these parcels,” Mr. Nuzzi said, adding that the new law adds clarity to the practice of granting zoning variances.

In order to protect the rights of property owners—most of whom will most likely complain that the new law devalues their land—Mr. Nuzzi said the ordinance provides them the opportunity to either sell their lots to the town, or receive credit for their lots when building on other properties in the municipality.

Southampton Town Supervisor Linda Kabot said the town would tap its Community Preservation Fund in order to buy some of the substandard lots. She noted that the town is looking to buy approximately 30 of the lots. “We’re going by a case-by-case basis,” Ms. Kabot said.

“I think purchasing these parcels with preservation funds is a viable option,” Mr. Nuzzi said, adding that doing so would preserve the parcels and ensure equity for property owners.

The town already owns three of the 55 lots in the overlay districts, which are listed as preserved, while two others are classified as wetlands and thus unbuildable. Of the 52 not owned by the town, five already have variances for construction or are awaiting permits. Ms. Kabot stated that those five lots are still subject to the new law.

The new law states that the owners of lots measuring between 8,000 and 10,000 square feet who are looking to build new homes must first convince the ZBA that the proposed project will not adversely affect public health or safety. Then, if granted a variance, owners must purchase the development rights to some other parcel in the overlay district to make up the difference in their lot size.

For example, if the owner of a 9,000-square-foot lot is granted a variance from the ZBA, that owner must purchase a development credit to make up the remaining 1,000 square feet.

However, the restrictions are lifted if a property owner constructs a home that will be sold as affordable housing, according to Mr. Nuzzi.

Ms. Kabot said that with the passage of the new law, the Special Old Filed Map Overlay District is no longer special. “It’s now equal to the Old Filed Map because now they both have standards for development,” she said.

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