A matriarch from one of East Hampton’s founding families made an emotional plea to East Hampton Town Board members last week, asking that the family’s fallow farmland be made into something useful—a homestead for her children and grandchildren.
“It was over 50 years ago that this particular piece of land came on the market … for three years in a row, we planted and never got our hard costs back,” Jane Talmage said, explaining the long, hard history of the luckless lot. “Then, sometime along the way, my husband planted cedar trees—they are the sorriest-looking trees I have ever seen, and on Cedar Street, no less.”
The family’s 19-acre land on Cedar Street has been the subject of much discussion in recent months because of the family’s request to downzone the land so that it can build homes there. At least six other family members have joined with Ms. Talmage in the request.
Currently, the parcel is within an agricultural overlay district, meaning that 70 percent of the soil must be reserved for farming or kept vacant because of prime agricultural soils that the government once said existed there.
But the family and its representative, Laurie Bernhardt Wiltshire, the president of Land Planning Services in Wainscott, argue that the land has been erroneously upzoned twice because the government had wrongly classified the soil on the land as prime agricultural soil. Citing a U.S. Department of Agriculture letter from 2010, admitting the mistake, Ms. Wiltshire said the town should make the necessary corrections.
The Talmages want to remove the agricultural overlay and downzone their property from an A5 classification to an A3—meaning 3-acre building lots can be created, instead of 5-acre lots. This would increase the number of homes allowed to be built on the parcel, from four to six.
Originally, the family had been proposing to downzone to A, meaning 1 acre per house lot, which could have yielded as many as 16 homes.
Some opposition grew with news of the family’s proposal before the Town Planning Board. A few East Hampton residents said that granting such a zone change would set a dangerous precedent for other farmland owners who may in the future want to develop their land.
The Town Planning Board and the Suffolk County Planning Commission both recommended against granting that request, saying that, based on town code, the soil is too precious and the land needs to be preserved.
Ms. Wiltshire argued on Thursday that even if the agricultural overlay is removed, the family would still be required to preserve 50 percent of the property.
Nonetheless, the family submitted a revised application to the town last Monday, December 16, to downzone to A3, not giving the Planning Board time to review it.
Talmage family members, their friends and neighbors crowded the Town Hall board room on Thursday, hoping to convince the board members to grant the family’s request by supermajority vote in order to override the County Planning Commission’s decision not to approve the zone change to A, or to hear their request for a lesser of the two, a zone change to A3. Ms. Wiltshire said the application wasn’t given a fair shake at the Planning Commission because their side of the story wasn’t included in documents the town provided to the county.
“Keeping 70 percent of this land vacant after the discovery of the government’s mistake is just stealing, in my opinion,” Jane Talmage said. “It is legal but nonetheless stealing.”
She said that back when the town upzoned the land again in 2005, she and her husband, David, were unable to fight it.
“I spent two months in the hospital after a car accident, and my husband had Parkinson’s that was so advanced that he could no longer comprehend what was going on,” she said, her voice breaking. “He had to have 24-hour, seven-day-a-week care for a number of years.”
Now that one of the younger family members, Christopher Talmage, is set to take over the family business, DL Talmage on Cedar Street, the family is pushing to get the rezoning done so he doesn’t have to keep commuting from Hampton Bays every day.
“I grew up on Long Lane, but Hampton Bays is more affordable for us right now,” he said. “The zone change affected not only my family members who own the land but those who will own it in the future. The upzone to A5 has hindered my wife’s and my ability to continue the family line here in East Hampton, and possibly prevented my children from living in East Hampton. It’s breaking my family’s roots and ties in East Hampton. It’s unaffordable.”
If granted the downzone to A3, the family said it will be able to build affordable housing for its members and keep them in East Hampton.
“The choice to live here is disappearing fast,” said Sarah Talmage, a sophomore at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. “The reality is the town that once supported me is now driving me out. I fear I may not have the opportunity to provide for another generation here. Isn’t that what community preservation is all about? We’re asking for opportunity for the next generation of Bonackers.”
East Hampton Town Trustee Stephanie Talmage Forsberg pleaded with Town Board members to consider their request based on the fact that the Talmages have given so much to the town since they arrived in 1648.
“My family has continuously given back to the town in areas I believe are important,” she said, pausing to collect herself. “My grandfather, David Talmage, sold my great-grandfather’s farm. He endowed those acres of land to the Peconic Land Trust and gave land away for free near Accabonac Harbor, which is now part of the nature preserve. For generations, we have given property to the town because we thought it right and just. Today, we’re still giving land—we’re asking to put 50 percent in agricultural reserve, which will still be there no matter what is decided with the zoning.”
Theresa Quigley, sympathetic to the family’s plea, lamented the loss of young families in East Hampton and urged her fellow board members to vote in favor of the zone change “for the sake of the heart and soul of the community.”
Ms. Quigley, Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and Councilman Dominick Stanzione were ready to vote in favor of approving the zone change, but Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc and Councilwoman Sylvia Overby questioned the process of granting the request, especially since the family had just submitted a new application just three days earlier. They said the family’s resubmitted application should still have to go through the vetting process at the County Planning Commission and Town Planning Board.
“The town expects a level playing field, regardless how many generations they’ve been here,” Ms. Overby said. “I have empathy for what you’re saying, but I think we have to be conscious of everyone that is here in East Hampton. This doesn’t mean the Talmages are going to live there. How can you make sure? Once it’s subdivided, it could go to anybody. If we could plan for families, that’s where my heart would be.”
The Town Board voted to keep the public hearing open until the Planning Board and County Planning Commission offer new comments on the resubmitted application and an environmental assessment is done.