The historic Balasses House on Main Street and Hedges Lane in Amagansett won’t become a chic Hamptons boutique anytime soon.
A request to change the property’s zoning was denied by the East Hampton Town Board on Tuesday, barring more business from entering the heart of historic downtown Amagansett.
On Thursday, February 6, a public hearing shed light on the property owner’s wish to change its zoning from limited business overlay to central business, which would open the building up to a wider variety of uses—a clothing store, a bank, a garden center, or even a nightclub, for example. Currently, the building, which is up for sale for $2.65 million, is zoned for only an antiques store, an art gallery or an office.
Despite attorney Richard Whalen’s explanation that granting the zone change would afford the applicant more diversity in who leases or buys the space, a few members of the public spoke against it, saying it would set a dangerous precedent and add to the traffic and density of downtown Amagansett.
“What you just heard was how the center of a small, historic community gets slashed—not with a big bang but with a thousand cuts,” said former town councilwoman and Planning Board chairwoman Debra Foster in response to the request. “This is not the way we do things. If you do a comprehensive study of commercial, that’s fine, but don’t take a piece of the puzzle without seeing the picture of the puzzle first.”
According to the Planning Department, the building is in a residential zone and has been used commercially since the 1970s. The limited business overlay district, which was created in 1971, restricts the use of the parcel by limiting its commercial use to 2,000 square feet of its gross floor area, which is just over 5,000 square feet in total.
Over the years, the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals granted variances to allow additions of storage space and a second-floor apartment and to exempt the business from parking requirements based on the fact that the antique store, which had only three informal parking spaces, was of a quiet and subdued character.
Keeping within the limited business overlay and the town’s Comprehensive Plan, the building was used to house the Neoteric Art gallery in 2013, which also served as a gathering place and community center for many young, local artists.
The East Hampton Town Comprehensive Plan was adopted in 2005 to lay out the town’s goals for preserving land and limiting development. As a result, commercial zoning was eliminated from several parcels in the center of Amagansett to avoid the expansion of commercial activity and the conversion of Montauk Highway into one long commercial strip. Additionally, the plan said that no additional land adjacent to the historic district should be rezoned for commercial development unless a commercial needs study suggests otherwise.
This was the sticking point for those who spoke against the zone change. To allow the change to central business would be going against the Comprehensive Plan, and no commercial needs study has been done, according to Amagansett resident Betty Mazur.
“This is a very bad idea for several reasons,” she said. “The central business allows for smaller setbacks and would bring in business with much higher volume, like a restaurant or a drugstore. There will be more density and increased traffic. This will set a very dangerous precedent, encouraging adjacent limited businesses to do the same.”
The Planning Department and Planning Board also recommended against the rezoning for the same reasons.
But Mr. Whalen said the rezoning would not allow an “intensification of what can occur in downtown Amagansett.”
“The owners are looking for greater diversity,” he said. “If someone wanted to lease the building for dry retail use, that is currently prohibited. If a clothing store came along, that is not allowed in the limited business overlay.”
If the property were redeveloped, which is not easily done since it’s part of the historic district, he said, and a restaurant were to move in, it would be capped at only 28 seats.
Supporting the zone change, Margaret Turner of the East Hampton Business Alliance said there is a lack of commercially zoned properties, and that rezoning the Balasses House is a step in the right direction.
Of the 1,809 businesses in town, 68 percent are not located in a business district and 54 percent are located in homes, she said, and only 4 percent of all the lots in town are zoned commercial.
“There is business on both sides of the street, adequate parking and people can walk to it. It’s where you want a business to be,” Ms. Turner added. “If you keep restricting business in town it will wither on the vine.”
Despite that, Town Board members decided against the zone change at their work session on Tuesday.
“At some point we have to draw a line,” said Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc.
“I think it is appropriate to maintain [the limited business overlay.]”
Councilwoman Sylvia Overby agreed. “The line is Hedges Lane,” she said. “It’s a clear demarcation. It would change the character of that building and property if it were to go to central business.”