Last week’s meeting of the Sagaponack Village Zoning Board of Appeals transcended the typically sleepy minutiae of such meetings. The discussion included the principles at the foundation of zoning codes, and a dash of irony. There was even a little Shakespeare.
At issue were two applications before the zoning board by homeowners with intimate connections to the rules by which they are now to be judged.
Ira Rennert’s mammoth estate, more than 110,000 square feet of buildings on 63 acres but still considered a single-family home, is among the largest private residences in the country. It was the catalyst, when it was approved in the late 1990s, for changes to zoning codes throughout eastern Long Island, and it gave birth to some of the first discussions of Sagaponack forming its own village government, which it did in 2005.
So the application before the board on Friday afternoon, asking for relief from the village’s zoning laws to allow an addition to one of two pool houses on the property, for a Pilates studio and a bathroom, presents a relatively small issue for the board—but, at the same time, a grand one.
“We’re talking about a 633-square-foot addition to a pool house in the middle of a 55-acre lot,” Mr. Rennert’s attorney, Gilbert Flanagan of Southampton, told board members, referencing the size of the developed property, which does not include dunelands and wetlands. “It’s hundreds, if not thousands, of feet from any other residential property. You’d have to have to be in an airplane to see it.”
Mr. Flanagan’s argument that the addition is tiny in comparison to the amount of development already on the property—and therefore is insignificant in the sense of impacts on surrounding properties that zoning codes were designed to protect against—seemed an easy answer to the zoning test of whether the benefit to the applicant substantially outweighs the detriment to the community or neighbors. Certainly, nobody outside Mr. Rennert’s compound would ever know the additional space existed.
But the zoning board chairman, Elliot Meisel, pointed out to Mr. Flanagan that the code also introduces a handful of roadblocks to applications such as that of Mr. Rennert, when one considers that the Rennert property already exceeds almost every limit on residential development many times over.
“Under our code, you’re not allowed to expand nonconforming structures, even if the increase is insubstantial,” Mr. Meisel said. “The code asks whether the benefits sought can be reasonably achieved by some other manner that does not require a variance. It also asks why this variance has been requested rather than complying with village code. Could a Pilates studio be located elsewhere?”
Mr. Meisel and several members of the community expressed the sentiment that while the empirical impacts of the proposal were undoubtedly nonexistent, the intellectual argument for upholding the laws is stacked decidedly against Mr. Rennert.
“I don’t even object to the square footage,” said Tinka Topping. “It’s a question of principle.”
“I don’t object to the Rennert house anymore—I look straight at it, and I’ve accepted it,” Linda Franke said. “But I find it hard to believe that there could not be some place to tuck in a Pilates studio, which has nothing to do with swimming. I think he could find a place.”
While residents repeatedly asked, “When is enough, enough?” the tenor of the board, which was largely silent other than Mr. Meisel, seemed to be passed along by the chairman.
“It’s a question of whether to grant a variance from existing code,” he said. “It’s all very important. Even while the 630 square feet may not be a detriment to the community, I believe we have a duty to uphold the integrity of the existing law.”
The ZBA took no action on the application, asked for more information, and adjourned the matter.
Mr. Rennert may have been a reason the zoning code in Sagaponack was written—but Patrick Guarino actually wrote it. And on Friday afternoon, he found himself asking to be freed, quite substantially, from the constraints he helped write.
Mr. Guarino, an attorney, helped shepherd the incorporation of Sagaponack as a village in 2005 and, as a village trustee a couple of years later, was instrumental in the drafting the language of the village’s zoning code to constrain the size of residential structures. In doing so, he apparently set aside the consideration that he himself might someday be “hoist with your own petard,” as Mr. Meisel put it, in a nod to “Hamlet.”
Mr. Guarino’s house, which he purchased in 1989, is already 89 square feet over the existing maximum size for his lot under the current code, so any expansion would require a variance. The variance request asks that he be allowed to add more than 2,200 square feet, most of it in a new garage, so that an existing garage area could be converted to living space.
Mr. Guarino said that since the creation of the village’s zoning code, he and his wife have had two children, and they have found that the “upside-down” design of their house is impractical.
Like Mr. Rennert’s counsel, Mr. Guarino’s architect, David Sherwood, made the case that much of the new space would be out of sight and would not change the apparent mass of the house visible off the property.