400 Sq. Ft. Clearance: Thinking Clearly About Letting Billy Joel Do What He Wants

Billy Joel
Billy Joel, Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images Entertainment/Thinkstock

I was interviewed by a reporter from The Real Deal the other day about the relationship between local government and celebrities in the Hamptons. When it comes to zoning, do the local town officials give the celebrities more special consideration than they do locals? I replied that they certainly do not. The reporter asked for a quote. I said “The town will fight hard where it thinks the rights of its citizens are in jeopardy, regardless of who is on the other side.”

Take Billy Joel. Billy owns a house on the corner of Rysam Street and Bay Street in Sag Harbor that overlooks the boats. It’s a big house, though not some enormous mansion. It’s about 4,000 square feet, but that’s because it’s actually two smaller houses connected by a breezeway. At one part of this assemblage, the house is two stories high. At another, it is one story high. In the one-story garage, he keeps motorcycles from time to time. He’s got a lot of antique ones, and he’s a rider. He also keeps his boat Alexa across the street from time to time.

Anyway, a month ago, Billy Joel filed an application for approval to put a 409-square-foot second floor on a part of the house that is just one story high. He also wants to have the house lifted up so he can raise the foundations a bit to conform to flood zone suggestions from FEMA (which is what we all should do), and while he has the house up in the air, he wants to turn it around to be better aligned with Rysam Street, then set it down on new foundations he’d build under it.

The application is a bit complicated, according to the Sag Harbor Express. Part of the house has a CO for residential use, the Express reported, and part of it has a CO for commercial use, and when that happens you can do one or the other, according to some people.

However, the application received scathing opposition from nearby residents at a public hearing.

“The building would create the effect of a wall and destroy the open and comfortable scale of the area,” the group Save Sag Harbor wrote in a letter read at the hearing. “We strongly feel that it should not be resituated or expanded and that the current setbacks be maintained so as to not to encroach on its neighbors.”

Hey, it’s Billy Joel’s house.

Another objection came from another neighbor. He wrote, “If permitted…in its place will tower a bulky, all-white mansion, out of character and widely out of scale with its neighbors in a key part of the historic district…it would be injurious.”

Hey, it’s Billy Joel’s house.

Still another objection came about to the stone-and-fence barrier planned just inside the property line. And several town officials said the whole thing left them confused.

Hey, it’s Billy Joel’s house.

So I ask you this: If this were 1952 and John Steinbeck wanted to build an octagonal studio on his property to write Travels With Charley, and it was too close to the property line, or to the water, or something else, and there were zoning laws at that time (which there weren’t), would we fight him on it?

Or let me ask you another question. If a sitting president of the United States bought a property out here and wanted to redesign it with 400 more square feet, and a quarter turn to have it face another way, and we all loved this president like we love Billy Joel—say it was Donald Trump or Barack Obama or, well, you’d have to go back to the last president we all loved, Dwight D. Eisenhower—would we give him a hard time?

The Sag Harbor Village Board is much like most boards out here: they fidget and fuss. East Hampton Town has spent the better part of three years deciding where to park the school busses, and Sag Harbor Village has spent at least two years deciding what kind of grass should be on the Pierson High School schoolyard.

I say, Billy Joel is who we’ve got now. Give him a break. Hey, it’s Billy Joel.

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