The East Hampton Press, January 30, 2008
Hitting a Nerve
By Peter Boody, Editor
Opposition to the Town Board's proposal to limit house size in proportion to lot size was loud and clear at a public hearing on January 18. Some of it made good sense.
The basic premise that the bulk and mass of residential structures should be limited also makes good sense. The town board should not abandon it because of a predictable reaction. It's too bad, though, that the board seems to have been caught flat-footed, with some obvious holes in its legislation that could have been closed before a public hearing.
At the January 18 hearing, professional planner Laurie Wiltshire suggested, for example, that the law include language to make it absolutely clear what parts of a house are to be covered by what limit. Does it cover basements, attics and closets or are they excluded from the restrictions on living space? Those questions have to be resolved.
The law should also make it clear, she said, that any size limit is proportional to lot size, not just buildable area, so that a lot owner is not penalized for wetlands or easements on the property. That's reasonable.
Attorney Chris Kelley argued that there should be an exemption for structures in neighborhoods where houses that exceeded the limits have already been built. That's worth some thought; after all, the goal of the proposed law is to prevent structures that do not match the character of a neighborhood. If that character has changed, there should be a method for redefining it.
But the kind of exemption Mr. Kelley calls for could wind up undermining the law, making it confusing, hard to apply, and hard to enforce.
In addition to some clear and concise criticism, there is a lot of purely visceral opposition to the proposal, a passionate response to the idea that local government has the power to step in and put a lid on what someone can do with their property. There were similar reactions to the first zoning codes in this region about half a century ago.
Some of the fear and passion is based on real, practical concerns. The young couple expecting to hold onto their modest house and build an upstairs or addition one day as their family grows, are afraid they won't be allowed to do it. They're also afraid a limit on expansion will put a lid on the value of their house, spoiling their dreams. The Town Board can draft a law that addresses their concerns and, at the same time, prohibits the worst kind of outsized monstrosities.
In North Haven a few years ago, a proposal to prevent out-of-proportion houses in established neighborhoods set off a nasty political campaign full of misinformation. The Village Board, which had proposed the law, survived a subsequent election despite charges that its law would destroy families, ruin property values and prevent anybody from adding on to their houses. A similar fight erupted in Southampton Village and the board did not survive a nasty election fight. In East Hampton Village, there was less fuss; more people there were on the same page, apparently.
On Shelter Island, many local people in modest homes worried about the need for future expansion - to help parents or to help kids in need of a place to live. The Town Board has remained divided and has never adopted a law to limit house size.
East Hampton's Town Board should not be surprised that it has hit a raw nerve. But there's a difference between vitriol and reasonable criticism. There were all kinds of warnings from opponents in North Haven, for example, that the proposed size law would keep regular folks from adding on a room. They proved to be false alarms. There are plenty of additions and expansions going on in North Haven that conform to that municipality's size limits.
Yes, the law must be drafted carefully, after all the criticisms and suggestions for making it better are heard. Yes, the Town Board must be careful to allow for the kinds of building expansions that are perfectly normal in any maturing neighborhood. And no, a size limit on residential construction will not destroy property values, hurt families or undermine the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights.