Neighbors file lawsuit against East Hampton Planning Board

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Neighbors of a proposed modern architect and attorney’s office on North Main Street filed a lawsuit against the East Hampton Town Planning Board on January 6 over its recent decision to not require an environmental impact statement for the project.

The suit was filed in New York State Supreme Court just days before the East Hampton Town Board held a separate hearing on a proposal to designate as an historic landmark the Selah Lester house, which sits on the corner of Cedar Street and North Main Street just outside East Hampton Village and across the street from the proposed office.

In court papers filed on behalf of five neighbors, attorney Jeffrey Bragman said the Planning Board’s ruling was wrong because “there is overwhelming evidence that the project will occasion significant adverse impacts to the neighborhood character … particularly to a historic property across the street.”

The Selah Lester house is one of only six remaining examples of a Cape Cod-style house that was common among the less wealthy farmers of East Hampton in the early 19th century, according to the town’s historic preservation consultant, Bob Hefner. It was built by Jonathan Barnes in Amagansett around that time, but later moved to East Hampton in 1875 by Selah Lester, a farmer, whaler and fisherman. Mr. Lester built a three-bay English-style barn on the property, which is also slated to be designated a historic building. The town purchased the 2.9-acre property in 2005 for $2.5 million, using money from the Community Preservation Fund.

Jon Tarbet, the attorney who is planning to build the new office, argued at the Town Board hearing to consider landmark status for the Lester house that if it was designated a landmark he would have a harder time proceeding with his own project. If the house received the historic designation, state law would probably require a more stringent environmental review of his own project, said Mr. Tarbet.

Mr. Tarbet, who is a former East Hampton Town attorney, questioned the timing of the board’s decision to give the house the historic designation because, he said, it would be only the second time the town has used its authority to designate a single house as historic. He said that it appeared that the haste with which the Town Board was considering the proposition was designed to interfere with his project, which is currently being reviewed by the East Hampton Town Planning Board.

In December, Mr. Bragman charged that the Town Board was not going forward with the historic designation because it was “running interference” for Mr. Tarbet’s project.

“The timing of it is disconcerting,” said Mr. Tarbet. “I’m not opposed to the building being designated historic.”

Members of the Town Board said that the proposal to give the project a historic designation was not designed to slow down Mr. Tarbet’s project.

“It honestly has nothing to do with you,” said Town Board member Pat Mansir.

“There is no smoking gun,” said Town Supervisor Bill McGintee, who added that the Town Board does not get involved in matters before the Planning Board.

“It has been the intent of this board to give this building historic designation,” he said.

Mr. Tarbet also questioned why the Town Board had purchased the property using money intended for open space preservation from the Community Preservation Fund. The town plans to use CPF money to renovate the house and use it as offices for its land acquisition department.

That plan has come under fire from State Assemblyman Fred W.Thiele Jr., who drafted the law creating the Community Preservation Fund. Mr. Thiele has said that he doubts the project could meet the requirements for “historic preservation” if the interior of the building is used as a modern office space.

At Friday’s hearing, Mr. Tarbet said that the town could use the CPF money for historic preservation only if it had initially bought the property for that purpose. The town’s records for the 2005 purchase show that the property was bought for open space preservation, he said.

“We have to have another public hearing to bring this in,” said Ms. Mansir.

“The intent was the preservation of these buildings,” said Mr. McGintee, who added that the project might have been listed as open space by mistake.

“We will correct the designation,” he said.

According to Mr. Thiele, the town can change the CPF area under which the property was acquired if it holds a public hearing on that change. However, he said, only properties that contain buildings that are already registered as historic landmarks can be purchased for historic preservation.

“They’ve gotta do that first,” he said of the historic designation that the town is pushing for. “It sounds like they first acquired it and now they’re going to add it as a landmark and use community preservation funds to fix it up.”

Mr. Thiele said that such a move would likely be questioned by state auditors who will be looking into CPF expenditures by municipalities on the East End.

Other speakers at the public hearing had a mixed reaction to the designation. The preservation work on the building is already underway.

Republican Committee Vice Chair Trace Duryea questioned the board’s plan to restore the building now, when the town is running a historically high deficit.

“Can you put it off to a time when you have more money?” she asked.

Board member Pete Hammerle said that, since the money was coming out of the town’s CPF fund and not its general fund, the project could easily be done now, though Ms. Duryea was still skeptical, stating that the town had already shifted a large amount of money between the CPF and general funds.

“They say ‘Save what’s left.’ Well, this is what’s left. It’s a beautiful old structure. I’ve been through it. It’s worth saving,” said another resident, Chris Harmon, who called for the town to institute a demolition board of review for houses that are over a certain age.

Mr. McGintee said that the town is drafting a landmarks law that might include such a review board and the board closed Friday’s hearing without making a decision.

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