The applicant behind a proposal to build two agricultural housing units on an 8-acre lot on Butter Lane in Bridgehampton filed a notice of claim against Southampton Town last week, detailing plans to sue the Town Board for an “undetermined” amount.
Attorney John Bennett of the Southampton-based firm Bennett & Read, who is representing the applicant, a Manhattan hedge fund chief executive whose name is shielded by Homestead LLC, argued that the Town Board is interfering with the Zoning Board of Appeals as it considers an application for several setback variances needed to move forward with the plan.
The notice of claim specifically targets Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman and board members John Bouvier, Julie Lofstad and Tommy John Schiavoni, who signed a letter to the ZBA, citing a town-issued agricultural easement for the property, which prohibits any “temporary or permanent residential or residential accessory structures or buildings.” The letter, dated May 10, reiterated a previous letter to the ZBA from Southampton Town Attorney James Burke making the same argument.
Mr. Bennett has repeatedly argued that housing for agricultural labor and residential housing are not one in the same. He pointed to a section of the easement, which reads: “Nothing herein shall be construed as precluding the grantor from erecting or constructing agricultural structure or buildings which are deemed necessary for … agricultural production.”
Mr. Bennett’s client’s proposal was, until recently, before the ZBA for a variance, which asked for a waiver of the requirement of a 200-foot side-yard setback. However, on Monday, Mr. Bennett confirmed that the limited liability company withdrew its agricultural housing application before the ZBA could settle the matter, with plans to re-file it following the outcome of the litigation.
“I don’t want the ZBA clouded by a letter by four people that hold the power of appointment over them telling them they’re not supposed to do something, which I believe is unbelievably improper,” he said. “This is a story of Town Board interference. Nobody cares what the law is — no one cares about the rules anymore.”
He referenced two appellate court decisions—Town of Lysander v. Paul Hefner, and Lewis Family Farm Inc. v. New York State Adirondack Park Agency—which found farm worker residences exempt from zoning restrictions and covenants.
However, the majority of the Town Board maintains that the construction of “any residential structure, regardless if whether for agricultural labor … constitutes a material breach of the agricultural easement.” According to the Town Board’s letter, “The express prohibition of residential structures can only mean that the intent was to prohibit agricultural-related housing.”
On Monday, Mr. Schneiderman said that the town’s building inspector would not issue a building permit for the agricultural housing units, even if the ZBA had approved the variance.
“If there is a deeded restriction, they can give all the variances they want — you still can’t build it,” he said, adding that the language of the easement was clear. “It would be a stretch to say that it allows for farm labor housing. It should have said ‘except for farm labor housing.’ It doesn’t say that.”
Mr. Bennett referenced a previous decision by the zoning board — Winega et al. v. Zoning Board of Appeals of the Town of Southampton — which states that “If there are two possible interpretations of a restrictive covenant, the less restrictive interpretation shall be adopted.”