With Little Fanfare, Town Board Adopts New Building Restrictions

East Hampton Town Hall

By Stephen J. Kotz

The East Hampton Town Board on Thursday, January 5, took steps to further limit the size of houses and tighten rules for determining gross floor area.

But the board tabled a vote on a code change that would have limited the size of basements to no more than 10 percent larger than the first-floor footprint of the house and limited the height of their ceilings to 12 feet.

On Tuesday, Supervisor Larry Cantwell said the board had agreed to tweak that code change and will likely vote on an amended version in the next week or two. The new version will maintain the size limit but eliminate the ceiling height restriction in favor of keeping cellars at only one level. Cellars entries will now be excluded from the size calculations, and the town will require that they be constructed at least two feet above groundwater.

Of four proposals that were heard last week, only the one dealing with the size of basements generated much debate, and that came mostly from John Woudsma, an East Hampton resident who serves as the Village of Sagaponack’s building inspector, but who was speaking on his own behalf.

“What is the evil you are seeking to remedy by stopping people from extending a basement underneath a masonry patio in the backyard?” he asked. “What is the harm that is being caused?”

Mr. Woudsma said there was no environmental harm being caused by the excavation required and suggested the board was unfairly limiting property rights and passing up the opportunity for additional property tax revenue.

“I think the board’s concern is we are seeing some fairly exotic sized basements,” responded Supervisor Larry Cantwell, who said in some cases people were building basements that extended beyond the dimensions of their house by two or three times. Sometimes those basements connect the main house to other structures on the property, he added.

“I just permitted 5,000-square feet plus, 22 and a half feet deep for a recreational facility for a family. They can afford this. It’s a huge tax revenue,” Mr. Woudsma continued. That basement, he added, will include a half basketball court, a golf machine, an ice skating rink, soccer field and gymnastics area, he said.

“Thank you for making the point,” replied Mr. Cantwell.

Councilwoman Sylvia Overby added that someone who really needed could apply to the town Zoning Board of Appeals for a variance. “The chances of that are a big goose egg. We all know that,” said Mr. Woudsma.

David Buda, a Springs resident and frequent commentator at board meetings, agreed with the board that the limit was necessary. Another impact of oversized basements is that property owners can overdevelop a small lot with a house in which extra bedrooms could be squeezed into the extra cellar space.

Later, during the board’s public comment session, Mr. Woudsma said it was unlikely people who can afford to construct an elaborate basement space would be renting out bedrooms. “Trust me,” he said. “They are not renting that space, they are not looking for more bedrooms. They can afford bedrooms or hotels for their friends.”

Although objections were raised about several other zoning changes first raised at hearings in November, opposition was largely absent last week. Ms. Overby said grandfather clauses had been added to each, so that people with valid building permits or other town approvals would not be required to meet the new standards,

The board unanimously adopted one measure that would further limit houses sizes to 10 percent of a lot area plus an additional 1,600 square feet, or a maximum of 20,000 square feet. Previously, the code permitted a house to be 12 percent of its lot size, plus 1,600 square feet.

A third rule change will include in lot coverage calculations raised buildings and overhangs and other forms of cantilevered construction that extend 24 inches beyond the base of the foundation.

Yet another rule change that was adopted will count as double the floor area of rooms with ceilings 15 feet or taller. That measure drew an objection from Jeffrey Freireich, the executive director of the East Hampton Business Alliance, who said it would have an unfair impact on people who apply for permits to enlarge small houses on small lots with cathedral ceilings because that space will now be counted twice, making it appear their homes are actually bigger than they are.