Sagaponack Village officials this week approved a development application as old as the village itself, presumably bringing an end to a 12-year soap opera of legal warfare, see-through chicanery — and Christmas trees.
The proposal by Sagaponack Realty LLC to build three homes along the village’s largest stretch of undeveloped oceanfront, and a fourth on an inland portion of the 43-acre property, was on one of the year-old village’s first planning agendas in January 2008.
By the end of that year, the village trustees thought they had convinced the Sagaponack Realty partners — Marc Goldman, Milton Berlinski and Michael Hirtenstein — to arrange the four lots at the southern end of the land, preserving the broadest vistas across the rest of the property. The village told them they could expect quick approval for that layout.
But it would end up taking 12 more years to bring what amounts to the same plan to the village and get that approval.
After being on the cusp of success, the Sagaponack Realty partners became embroiled in a years-long lawsuit among themselves over the size of the lots that each would receive in the subdivision map.
As they fought among themselves, the partnership’s managing partner, Mr. Goldman, tried forcing the village to approve a different layout. The village, as it had in 2008, rejected his pitch to put the fourth lot at the northern corner of the land, where it would interrupt the vista over the undeveloped agricultural land.
At one point, he tried an end-run, claiming that he planned to build just one house on the property, at the northern end of the property — even though his partners still held the rights to oceanfront lots. The village scoffed at the gambit, and Mr. Goldman sued in state and then in federal court.
When judges repeatedly sided with the village, he started what he claimed was to be a commercial Christmas tree farm along the Daniels Lane end of the land — which most others saw as a spiteful effort to block the views across the property that the village demanded be preserved.
In 2018, he tried another end-run: introducing a plan to start a commercial tomato farm, for producing a new organic tomato sauce. The proposal included the need for worker housing — which would theoretically be allowable on the agricultural land — in the exact spot Mr. Goldman had proposed the fourth house be built.
More legal infighting ensued among the partners when attorneys for Mr. Berlinski and Mr. Hirtenstein attempted to claim that Mr. Goldman had broken their partnership contracts and re-introduced the development plan the village had said it would approve.
After several false-starts, the most recent exactly one year ago this week, and a scolding from the village that it would not consider any more proposals until the three partners were in full agreement, the village finally welcomed their attorneys back this week with assurances that the plans were acceptable to all.
“The whole thing was ridiculous and did nothing but cost these people a lot of money,” Sagaponack Village Mayor Donald Louchheim said on Tuesday. “All those lawyers’ fees — they wasted 12 years of being able to use their property. And with new laws, the way they will have to construct their homes now is going to be much more expensive.”
Mr. Goldman purchased the 43.5-acre parcel on the eastern corner of Daniels Lane and Peters Pond Lane for $30 million shortly after Ira Rennert put the finishing touches on his more-than-60-acre estate directly across the street.
Mr. Goldman, who grew his family’s New Jersey dairy farm into one of the largest milk-product companies in the county, quickly recouped his initial investment when he sold two of the three oceanfront lots to Mr. Birlinski and Mr. Hirtenstein, for $15 million each.
The group then brought a proposal to the Southampton Town Planning Board for the three oceanfront homes that the partners each planned to build, and a fourth lot at the northeastern corner of the parcel along Daniels Lane, away from the water.
But an effort to put the rest of the land into an agricultural easement, which was gifted to the Peconic Land Trust to save on property taxes, took years to craft. By the time it was done, the land was part of the newly incorporated Sagapoanck Village and subject to its planning approval.
The village trustees quickly made it clear that they did not want the fourth lot at the northern end, and the legal scrum began.
This week’s approval set a number of conditions on the owners and the disposition of the property going forward. All of the pine trees that were planted at the northern end of the land are to be removed, along with 60 feet of privet hedging along Peters Pond Lane, to ensure that the public view is preserved.
A driveway to the four homes, which will run up the eastern edge of the property, will not be allowed to have any trees or plantings along its edges.
Mr. Goldman, who has attended most of the village meetings at which the various iterations of the project were discussed, was absent from Monday’s meeting. Wary of his intentions to follow through with the proposal, the mayor specifically asked his attorney, Richard Whalen, if Mr. Goldman agreed with what was being proposed. Mr. Whalen said he did.
The mayor credited the village’s attorney, Anthony Tohill, with working behind the scenes to get the three partners to bring a close to the saga: “This thing was finally ended thanks to Tony Tohill going above and beyond to get it settled among the partners.”
Acknowledging Mr. Goldman’s conspicuous absence from the meeting, the mayor said the litigious partner’s attitude toward the plans were no longer the village’s concern. He said he expects Mr. Hirtenstein and Mr. Birlinski to file for building permits soon.
“As far as we’re concerned, we have cleared the decks,” he said. “We’ve approved it. It’s up to them to implement it. If they don’t do that, it’s no skin off our ass.”