Preservationists Win in Southampton, Developers Win in Water Mill

First Presbyterian Church Clock Tower in Southampton
First Presbyterian Church Clock Tower in Southampton, Photo: S. Dermont

In the never-ending battle between the preservationists and the developers, there were two interesting items in the news last week, one of which was a win and the other a loss, depending upon your point of view.

In the preservationists’ column, there was a decision handed down by the State Supreme Court last week about a lawsuit involving the First Presbyterian Church of Southampton.

This grand church has stood for 170 years on the corner of Main Street and Meeting House Lane, standing there not only as a beautiful place of worship but also as a kind of visual architectural stop to the commercial district of that town. Across the street is the decorative Tower Gallery, another tall building just slightly smaller than the church, serving that same purpose for Main Street and Jobs Lane.

In 2011, Metro PCS proposed (then withdrew) a request to put eight antennas atop the clock tower. In May of 2012, the application was amended so that the antennas would be inside the tower and thus invisible to those outside the church. It was a good idea. In the summertime, cell phone service is really terrible out here when the crowds arrive. (They arrive, they dial friends and say “I made it to the Hamptons,” and it jams things up. It stays lousy till fall.)

But to put in their antenna and transmission equipment, which would not be seen from the road, the phone company would need to use the space up in there where an individual came up to wind the clock every week. That activity had been going on every week since the clock was installed in 1871, a chore involving the climbing of four flights of stairs, a service performed by a member of the Corwin family over the years, Tim Corwin and his son Travis Corwin most recently.

MetroPCS also said that in order to install the equipment, some wooden slats would have to be removed from the side of the tower; replacing them with identical-looking polymer slats would enhance the increased transmission.

Anyway, the application went through the usual processes and, in the end, was rejected by the Board of Architectural Review and Historic Preservation as being not in keeping with the nature of this historic structure. Maybe regular people wouldn’t know they were looking at polymer up there, but they would. The wood would have to stay.

After the decision, MetroPCS and the church filed a joint lawsuit. They said that the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which says businesses must be allowed to compete against one another in any market, should trump local historic preservation laws. The church was willing. Metro PCS was willing. The Village should get out of the way.

The judge, Justice Paul J. Baisley Jr., ruled against Metro PCS and the church. He declared that the Village was within its rights to enforce its codes. And he said the Village presented existing and legitimate objections to this project.

So there will be no cell phone tower in this clock tower, unless a higher court overturns this decision.

During all this process, a change did occur on how the clock up there got wound, and it seems this change is to be permanent. Travis Corwin had been charging $15 for his weekly visits for years. But when Travis heard that these cell phone radio waves might be up there, he told the church that he would not go up there to wind the clock because of the potential radiation. The church, however, had been looking for ways to have an automated clock winding system put in. Not long thereafter, they found a benefactor from the church congregation to donate the money, got a manufacturer of clock-winding systems and, last year, installed it. Travis Corwin’s clock-winding services would no longer be needed.

The contraption, which is run by electricity with a backup battery, is up there today. It’s not visible and is something that can be put in and taken out, so it’s not subject to architectural review. It’s not, however, as charming as having Tim or Travis run up there and do it. Travis recently told me he wants nothing further to do with the clock tower. If they do take it out, they will have to find somebody else.

It seems to me that MetroPCS ought now to look into placing the antenna atop the Tower Gallery building across the street. This building also is historic, though it dates back only to the early 20th century. And it’s not as tall as the church. If they can put a needle atop a tall building in Manhattan, perhaps they could put one on the Tower Gallery and get it approved. Visually, it might bring the Tower Gallery up to an equal height with the church, which, as an end to Main Street, should look pretty good.

In the developer’s column comes news of a victory in Water Mill where the Town of Southampton has been angling to buy the 20-acre Sikorski potato farm. The town had the money, about $7.2 million, available from the Community Preservation Fund (CPF). But they had been working in partnership with the Peconic Land Trust. It was complicated. The Trust would buy the land, put restrictions on it so it could only be used for traditional farming, then sell it to the Town. This would accomplish three things. It would enable the Trust to initially have to put up only about $600,000. It would defeat the current zoning, which would allow the building of 10 homes on the property clustered on six acres and it would eliminate the possibility of the property being used for a horse farm (more about that later). A hearing had been scheduled at Town Hall for last Tuesday, but it never happened.

Just before the meeting, the Land Trust and Town were told by the Sikorski family that the deal was off. They had received a higher offer from another party and accepted it. According to The Southampton Press, a source estimated the offer to be between more than $9–10 million.

Oddly, the reason the Town really wanted to save this property was because of horse farms.More and more horse farms are being created out of what once were farms that grew potatoes, strawberries, wine grapes and cauliflower, and though a horse farm is beautiful and does save open space, it doesn’t put food on the community’s table. Furthermore, although legal within the restrictions of “open space,” there’s such a demand for horse farms among the rich that traditional agricultural farmers are being priced out of the market. The rich want horse farms. They bid the prices up and up, and the result of this is that farmland is approximately $100,000 to $200,000 an acre, taxes are rising and vegetable farming is not profitable (again.) The reported buyer, Joe Dimenna, is a hedge fund owner who owns dozens of adjacent acres and a polo club nearby.

Well, as I said, you win some and lose some. And it depends which side you are on. The downside for both of these decisions is going to be less traditional farmland and lousier phone service. The upside—more polo ponies and houses and a historic structure preserved.

Choose your side.

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