By Mara Certic
Residents, builders and architects voiced firm opinions during a public hearing before the East Hampton Town Board last Thursday, which would reaffirm a part of the code, prohibiting bedrooms in cellars throughout the town.
Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc explained this week that during the administration of Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, the town decided it could no longer enforce a prohibition on basement bedrooms because the New York State building code allows them provided they are equipped with the appropriate egress, and the town is not supposed to have stricter rules than the state.
“So there was a proliferation of bedrooms in basements,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “Originally the purpose wasn’t that they’re unsafe—it’s a zoning issue. We didn’t want houses to be occupied by 10 more people.”
Local builders, however, were up in arms about the proposal to reassert the existing rule. Michael Forst, speaking on behalf of the Long Island Builders Institute, opposed the proposal.
“Affordable housing on the East End is in very short supply,” he said, adding that basement bedrooms are “often the only place where our young people can survive.”
Many speakers argued that allowing bedrooms in basements actually forces homeowners to bring their cellars up to code, and could also be a way to have people upgrade their septic systems.
“I think the elimination of bedrooms in basements in the code would be a mistake,” said Jack Forst. “I don’t think it’s going to eliminate any of the problems you have—we have code enforcement, we’re seeing in Montauk what a difference when you come down hard on an area that needs to be brought in,” he said.
Local builder Roy Dalene agreed, saying that expanding into the basement is one of the few affordable ways for a family to enlarge their home.
“This is a code enforcement issue—not a density issue,” he said. “For decades, this town government has taken tons away from code enforcement. This is the first administration that is empowering code enforcement and funding them properly and I applaud you for that.”
He suggested the board pass a law requiring future administrations to fully fund code enforcement in order to allow them to do the job.
Springs resident David Buda was one of few speakers who supported the law. “This legislation will effect a very significant and much needed change,” he said, adding that he anticipated the negative response from the building community who “make their money and profit by maximizing build outs.”
John Woudsma addressed the board from three different points of view. As a homeowner, he said, putting an extra bedroom in a basement is not only cheaper, but also more energy efficient than building up or out. As a builder, “a greedy, scumbag builder,” he said, putting a bedroom below grade allows him to keep the mass of the house smaller. And as building inspector for the Village of Sagaponack, he recommend the town look into the many other mechanisms to put in place to deal with overcrowding.
Architect Judy Freeman did not object to the use of basement space as bedrooms—“ I would hate not to be able to use a basement for living,” she said. “But I think there should be no more than two floors of living space in a residence, and I thought that’s what was acceptable.”
Councilman Van Scoyoc said the town board would continue discussing the subject at future work sessions, and added that an outright prohibition might not be appropriate, adding that he understands the need and convenience of adding more sleeping quarters for growing families, or those with unexpected houseguests.