Dan Rattiner's Stories

Spielberg’s Garage: Going Through Hoops at the Zoning Board of Appeals

One night long ago I accompanied a well-to-do friend of mine to the Zoning Board of Appeals here in Southampton to argue that the berm he had constructed as a sound barrier between the house and the street was just a natural upward lurch of the land. He didn’t have much hope. But it was worth a try.

We got there at 9 p.m., but didn’t get before the Board until 1 a.m. because of another man’s problem with zoning.

This man had a 35’ x 35’ barn on his property. He wanted to put a window in one wall for more light. The building department told him he didn’t need a permit. So he put one in, a bow window. One day an ordinance inspector saw it sticking out there, three feet. Sticking out meant it was a change in the footprint. So he wrote a summons. Then, looking at it more closely, he saw there was an apartment in one end of the barn. This was single-family zoning. Another summons went out.

So here was that hearing.

The man was going to claim it was grandfathered in, there before zoning was established in 1957. He had brought an older man who said when he was a boy back in 1955, the people there had a bed and chairs in the barn and a record player and electricity and he personally had slept there. There was another older guy who testified to that, too. There had been parties. Then there was another man, a colonel, who said he had bought the property next door in 1975 and there was an apartment that he saw. The board reserved judgment after two hours, but the man then said he wanted to get certificates of occupancy (C.O.s) for all the structures on his property, not just the barn. He didn’t want to have to come back again. He had a woodshed, for example.

“A woodshed?” one of the board members said in astonishment. And then there was a wishing well. “A wishing well?” the board member said. And so it went, on and on.

This long-ago encounter (my friend lost the berm fight) came to mind when I read the account of Steven Spielberg’s lawyer appearing at the East Hampton Village Zoning Board of Appeals to argue for the continued existence of a garage that had originally been built, around 2002, too close to the road. The setback requirements were 50 feet. One end of the garage was 38.3 feet from the road.

There was some discussion that the setback rule changed from 50 to 80 feet just a month or two after the garage was built. It seemed suspicious, because at 80 feet the whole garage would have been in violation. But frankly, it being more than a decade since 2002, nobody could tell if the date of construction was in hurry-up mode to beat the zoning change or that it was just a coincidence. So that issue was dropped.

Mr. Spielberg’s lawyer said that it may have been true that it was 38.3 feet from the road when built, but three-quarters of it was beyond the 50 feet. So it was more than half legal. There was some dithering back and forth about whether more than half made it better or not. Why they really built it there, the lawyer said when papers were filed, was because if it weren’t there then it would have stuck out into a driveway. But at the hearing, the lawyer said it was likely to create more space for paddocks.

With that, the village attorney pounced. When you first filed your papers to the court, she said, you wrote that it was constructed there as a builder’s error. Now you say this? Which is it? This is just another case, she said, according to The East Hampton Star, “of let’s build it now, and who’s going to make us take it away, because it’s already there.”

Then there was this other matter entirely. It involved a second residence on the property, apparently there legally if it were a second residence but not legal if it were an out building now being used for sleeping. There was discussion about this.

Mr. Spielberg’s lawyer said it was a second residence. But Ms. Lys Marigold, the board’s vice chairman, said that’s not what she was told. She said that a “very buttoned-up estate manager” had taken her around the property and told her that building was just used for “spillover”—when there are too many guests for the main house and, for example, Bill and Hillary Clinton were visiting and the Secret Service needed a place to stay. “Nobody lives there,” she said he told her.

Ms. Marigold then pointed out that the definition of a single-family residence was one “designed or arranged for occupancy by one family on a non-transient basis,” and this, apparently, was not that. Secret Service is not a family.

“These are extra guest rooms that are not occupied most of the time,” she said.

“Neither you nor I know how they are occupied,” said Mr. Spielberg’s lawyer.

In any case, the matter of the definition of what was a family was not what they were concerned about. The board was concerned that in addition to the two bedrooms on the second floor, there were now, having been built in 2005, two more bedrooms on the ground floor, built by knocking down walls between three of the five garage spaces on that ground floor so now there were, in the building, four bedrooms and four bathrooms. This puts an additional strain on the cesspools, which was why a new special permit from the Suffolk County Health Department saying that was okay might be needed. Since they did not have such a permit, they had been denied a C.O. for this building.

Mr. Spielberg’s lawyer said they had built these two extra bedrooms with an approved building permit, and then he said that no new Health Department permit was required because the septic system had been designed to handle four bathrooms and more. A Mr. Bennett, a consulting engineer to the Village, said indeed that was correct and that the system met the standards you’d need when two bedrooms and bathrooms become four. Nevertheless, said the village’s head building inspector, Ken Collum, Mr. Spielberg’s lawyer had applied for a Health Department certificate retroactively.

The board then moved on to consider a garage and caretaker’s apartment on the property of Howard Schultz, the Chairman and CEO of Starbucks. But that got adjourned.

* * *

By the way, I drove by my well-to-do friend’s house the other day. As I said, he lost the fight about the berm. But it’s still there.

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