East Hampton Senior Housing Project Rejected By County Planners

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A contentious battle between developers and some East Hampton residents, which has been played out in local newspaper ads and with a growing petition, has reached a pivotal moment.

Putnam Bridge, the developer of the proposed 555 senior housing complex, likely must go back to the drawing board—on Wednesday, the Suffolk County Planning Commission voted against approving the 555 project and a zoning change to allow the luxury senior housing complex to be built on 24 acres of farmland in Amagansett.

A public hearing in front of the East Hampton Town Board is set for December 19, but in order for Putnam Bridge to ultimately get a thumbs up, Town Board members would need to overrule the commission’s decision with a super-majority of four votes—a feat that seems unlikely, since two members of the five-member board oppose the plans as they are. And there doesn’t seem to be much support coming in the new year, either, since the incoming Town Board has unanimously spoken against the proposals.

“We’re not a defeated dog,” said Francis Jenkins, an owner of the 555 Montauk Highway parcel. “We were very clairvoyant that this was the likely outcome.”

The application for the development of 555 calls for the creation of 79 apartments and cottages on the former Principi property on Montauk Highway in Amagansett. The units would range from 692 to 1,977 square feet each and would be sold mostly at market rates.

In addition to the units and open vistas, 555 would also include a field house, tennis courts, a fitness center, indoor and outdoor pools, a decorative windmill, gardens, a greenhouse and a pond.

In recent months, Putnam Bridge has scaled back the project in response to town officials’ and community members’ concerns about its size. In October, however, it introduced an application for a change of zone, asking the board to create a senior housing overlay district, which would expand the potential uses of the site.

Currently, the tract is zoned for residential, affordable housing and limited business uses, but only allows for six houses and 36 affordable housing units, according to Mr. Jenkins. If the zoning change were to be approved by the Town Board, the senior housing overlay district would allow four housing units per acre, with a maximum of 100 units for each development—thus permitting a higher-density development for senior housing, which is typically more compact and has community buildings. The town already allows higher density in certain districts for affordable housing, senior or otherwise.

The proposals, which had to be reviewed by the Suffolk County Planning Department and Planning Commission, were looked upon favorably by the County Planning Department before their defeat, according to David Calone, the Planning Commission’s chairman.

“We give strong deference to the staff and their report for each application, but we also give strong weight to the person that represents that part of the area,” he said, explaining that John Whelan is the East Hampton representative on the Planning Commission. “John felt very strongly that this project wasn’t the right project and the use of that land wasn’t right.”

After Mr. Whelan spoke at the commission’s meeting, more than 10 speakers opposing the project and its accompanying zoning change proposal voiced their objections, including Town Councilwoman Sylvia Overby on behalf of the incoming Town Board. A letter signed by all five of them—Ms. Overby, Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc, incoming Supervisor Larry Cantwell and newcomers Fred Overton and Kathee Burke-Gonzalez—was submitted to the commission before the hearing.

“We felt that this was rushed and in fact could be considered spot zoning,” Ms. Overby said. “There may be some good suggestions in the law, but it hadn’t had time to be discussed at any townwide forum.”

The current board has largely been divided about the project and its proposed zone change. In a split vote along party lines on November 7, the board slated public hearings on both the zone change and the project, much to the chagrin of those opposing the changes.

In the letter, the newly elected board listed its complaints with Putnam Bridge’s requests, in particular that they are not in harmony with East Hampton Town’s Comprehensive Plan, which is meant to prevent overdevelopment and help conserve agricultural land—an argument that the Town Planning Department had shared with the Town Board a few months back.

In the end, it was this conflict that continued to be a theme throughout the county’s public hearing. The commission voted down Putnam Bridge’s applications 11-2, with one abstention.

“It went against a few of the elements of East Hampton Town’s Comprehensive Plan,” Mr. Whelan said. “It involved 100 percent of prime agricultural soil, and the Planning Commission looks favorably on preserving farmland all over the county. Also, there was no affordable housing. Right now, the land is zoned for affordable housing overlay, and there is no component of affordable housing.”

While the overall project is geared to high-end residents 55 and older, some units would be reserved for residents with low incomes, according to Mr. Jenkins. The Long Island Workforce Housing Act requires that 10 percent of a development’s units be affordable, or that the developers pay a fee instead. Mr. Jenkins said Putnam Bridge plans to offer an additional 20 percent in affordable housing based on Amagansett’s market rate standards.

In addition to keeping the town’s Comprehensive Plan in mind, the county planning commissioners have their own rules to play by. Mr. Calone said preserving agricultural land is a priority, especially for the East End.

“John said at the meeting that when you have limited amounts of land, you take more care, not less, in making those kinds of decisions,” he said. “The commissioners from the western part of the county understand that. When we deal in Amagansett, it’s a big deal. There’s limited land, and we have to use it carefully. That resonated with the commission to make a pretty strong vote.”

He added later that having the incoming Town Board members all stand together against the proposals spoke volumes.

Mr. Cantwell said that voting down the zoning change and the project was a matter of upholding the current zoning laws that have been in place for good reason.

“I believe that the planning and zoning of the town were well thought out, and that it should be supported,” he said. “Not to say the board is not free to change the zoning, but I really believe that needs to be a more deliberative process with much more community involvement than this specific proposal has had.”

Debra Foster, a former town councilwoman and Planning Board chairwoman, and a vociferous opponent of 555, has been organizing STOP 555 to collect signatures for a petition against the project and its corresponding zoning change. She said the applications shouldn’t have gotten as far as a public hearing at the town level.

“It is shameful for this board to let it go this far,” she said. “Land isn’t preserved [in the zone change] but covered over with condos. It’s so unfair to our local people. The audacity to consider removing affordable housing units for locals who make $53,000 a year and allowing these condos for the top 1 percent is shameful.”

But Mr. Jenkins said that the opposition has spread erroneous information and that he was mystified that Town Board members spoke against the applications at the Planning Commission hearing.

“I thought it incredibly inappropriate for sitting Town Board members to speak against a project that hadn’t even come to them,” he said. “It really solidifies the myopic approach to the process by some of the elected officials.”

He said that the whole point was to create something progressive for East Hampton. He expected opposition, he said, but he hoped for cooperation with the community.

“I thought there could be a chance for rational discourse at the public hearing so people’s voices could be heard, but that quickly became apparent that was not going to happen—that the irrational minority was going to Shanghai that process,” he said. “The reality is loud and clear, that anything progressive on the site is not an option.”

He said that Putnam Bridge will regroup and think about how to move forward. He said that as the zoning is now, they could build six large houses with pools and pool houses—but that is not what East Hampton needs more of. “We were providing an alternative,” he said. “That was naive on our part.”

Despite the Planning Commission’s ruling, there will still be a public hearing at the Town Board meeting at 11 a.m. on December 19, when members of the community plan to speak. It is unknown whether a vote will take place that night, according to Ms. Overby.

Ms. Foster, who sees the commission’s ruling as a step in the right direction, is still wary of what Putnam Bridge will do next, despite the defeat.

“To me, it’s never over till it’s over,” she said. “What I do foresee is—this particular group has deep pockets, and I don’t think it’s going stop there.”

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