Town Weighs Moratorium as it Explores Bridgehampton Historic District

The Queen Anne-style Henry Chatfield House on Bridgehampton's Main Street, built around 1900. Peter Boody photo

After giving the Southampton Town Board a slide show documenting the venerable structures that remain in use along Bridgehampton’s Main Street, Ed Wesnofske, chair of the Southampton Town Landmarks and Historic Districts Board, commented, “That gives you an idea of the charm and the character people would recognize today” even if they had lived in the hamlet a hundred years ago.

In order to protect that charm and character, the town board informally agreed after the slide show to consider imposing a six-month moratorium on alterations and demolition of historic structures in downtown Bridgehampton while an historic district is created to protect them permanently.

From the Topping Rose House, the 1910 Founders Monument and the 1842 Nathaniel Rogers house on the east to the Methodist Church and the 1825 Gurdon Corwith house on the west, the slide show covered more than a score of buildings and sites dating from the early 19thcentury to the early 20thcentury that continue to define downtown Bridgehampton, although some have been altered by renovations or partially hidden by street-front facades, behind which 19th-century peaks and gables loom.

Mr. Wesnofske and town historian Julie Greene presented the slide show at the town board’s work session on Thursday, December 5, to make the case for the creation of a Bridgehampton historic district that would stretch from Montauk Highway’s intersection with the Sag Harbor Turnpike to its intersection with Butter Lane on the west.

If established, it would require the owners of “contributing” properties — those found to qualify for local landmark status — to win a “certificate of appropriateness” from the landmarks board before making any exterior changes or demolishing a structure.

Supervisor Jay Schneiderman has been pushing for an historic district in Bridgehampton since last year, when he asked the town board to look into the process of nominating downtown Bridgehampton for inclusion in the state register of historic places. He noted then that the only historic districts in the town were within incorporated villages and said he was determined to protect other historic areas in the town.

A state designation wasn’t the focus of last week’s discussion. Under the terms of Chapter 330 of its zoning code, the town can create its own historic district if certain conditions are met.

By the end of the discussion last week — with board members offering either agreement or no opposition — Mr. Schneiderman asked the town attorney’s office to draft legislation for a six-month moratorium to bar changes to affected properties while the town works on setting up a downtown Bridgehampton historic district.

Aside from the moratorium, Mr. Wesnofske said the town’s first step will be to begin an educational process to explain the historic district proposal to the affected property owners “so they know what the town is doing and why.”

The first step required under the code, however, is for Mr. Wesnofske’s landmarks board to prepare a written advisory report to the Town Board formally identifying the district and showing that there are structures in the proposed area that qualify for landmark status as defined by the code.

Landmark structures may, for example, “possess special character or historic or aesthetic interest of value as part of the cultural, political, economic or social history of the locality, region, state or nation;” or they may be “identified with historic personages” or be the site of an historic event; or they may be the work of a notable “designer, engineer, builder, artist or architect.” Any one of six such criteria listed in the code would justify landmark status.

The next step would be for at least 20 percent of the property owners within the proposed district to petition the town board in favor of its creation, which Councilwoman Christine Scalera noted is “not a high bar.”

Mr. Wesnofske said the town itself owns about 10 percent of the potential landmark sites in the district, including the Founders Monument, the Nathaniel Rogers House and the Bridgehampton Community House, so support from only another 10 percent of the affected properties would be needed.

Because there are properties in the district with a condominium form of ownership, Mr. Wesnofkse said, there is a legal issue to be resolved about “what kind of vote” their owners would have.

Because the process is one that “needs more thinking through,” as Mr. Wesnofske put it, Supervisor Schneiderman asked if a moratorium wouldn’t be a way to protect potential landmark structures from alteration or demolition during the year it might take for the town to set up the historic district. Without one, “people might race” to make changes before the district takes effect, he said.

“That thought occurred to me,” Mr. Wesnofske commented.

Kyle Collins, administrator of the town’s Department of Land Management, noted that the board has authority to impose a moratorium under criteria laid out in the town code.