Of Hamptons Art Studios and Affordable Housing

Hamptons signs cartoon by Dan Rattiner
Cartoon by Dan Rattiner

Last November, all but one of the five East End towns approved a new town tax — 1/2% on real estate transactions in excess of $400,000 — to be used to build affordable housing. Southold, Southampton, East Hampton and Shelter Island voted for it. The leaders of Riverhead didn’t put it up for a vote.

It is a gift from well-to-do buyers, who, spending another 1/2% when buying a $10 million property, would hardly even notice this extra cost. But it means a lot to the towns. Millions of dollars have begun to arrive. Should apartments be built? Cottages allowed in the backyards of the well-to-do? Offices above stores on Main Street converted to low-cost housing? Whatever is built will enhance the local population and provide more workers to fill available jobs.

Also happening as the money floods in is a review of current town and village ordinances. Some might unintentionally hinder low-cost housing. Abandon them.

One ordinance that ought to be looked at is East Hampton’s ordinance 255-11-88. It’s a shocking ordinance. And, passed in 1988, it is still on the books. It needs to be trashed right away.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, artists everywhere painted in a roughly realistic manner. What you saw was what you got. Some paintings evoked strong emotional reactions. Geniuses such as Titian, Cezanne, Monet, Rembrandt and Van Gogh were celebrated.

Beginning around 1900, however, a new breed of painters developed new approaches to painting. Surrealism was born; so was art deco and superrealism. And because these new kinds of paintings were largely coming from American artists, the center of the art world shifted from Paris to New York.

Later, about 1940, abstract expressionism arrived. Leading abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning moved out to eastern Long Island, and, followed by a tide of other abstract expressionists, caused the center of the art world to shift from New York to the tiny East End community of East Hampton, specifically in the section known as Springs.

There, in a stunning northern light that painters said reminded them of Provence, art studios were built on the grounds of the homes these artists bought for a few thousand dollars, the modest sums they cost at that time. There, in these studios, these artists created some of the most famous works of art ever painted.

And most of these studios still stand.

In 1988, however, the Town of East Hampton passed an ordinance about them. And this is 255-11-88. At the time, almost all lots in town were approved for single-family occupancy. With the art studios being built on back lawns, towns feared that cheating might occur. Some people — not artists — might build a second structure on their land, call it an “artist studio,” but then, simply rent it out as another residence, bringing them a completely illegal rental income. Can’t have that.

And so, to deal with this possibility, the towns passed 255-11-88. You want to build an artist studio? You need a permit. The permit will be good for a year. Then, it expires. So every year you have to get a new permit. And you have to be a real artist. And there are rules.

“An artist’s studio shall not contain more than one story … and shall not have a gross floor area greater than that of a legally permitted accessory structure …” the ordinance reads.

“An artist’s studio may have a sink or sinks, but shall have no bath, shower or toilet or other plumbing of any kind and shall not contain kitchen appliances, but may have a microwave and coffee maker.”

(And we’ll need proof you are a real artist. Not a fake. So we’ll need the following:)

“A description of the applicant’s art form (is required.) A professional fine arts resume pertinent to the applicant’s work which may include educational background, professional training, public exhibitions, critical reviews, grants and awards. Documentation appropriate to the applicant’s particular art form which should reflect a body of work, including recent work, which may include but is not limited to photographs of his/her work, exhibition announcements and catalog reviews. Three letters of reference attesting to the artistic nature of the applicant’s work.

“No building permit shall be issued for an artist’s studio until such application has been approved by resolution by the Town Planning Board and the building inspector has received proof that the owner applicant has recorded the covenants and restrictions in the office of the Suffolk County Clerk.

“These covenants and restrictions include:

“The structure shall not be reused at any time for sleeping or living purposes.

“In the event that the art studio is not, cannot or will not be employed for the purpose or use set forth herein for more than one year, the property owner, artist or a representative thereof must notify the East Hampton Town Building Department in writing. At the request of the artist, the Town Planning Board may permit a studio to remain vacant for no more than one year …

“There shall be no commercial exhibits of art open to the public on the property, no commercial classes or other public events.

“The owner and/or renter of the property hereby consents to an annual inspection of the artist’s studio upon reasonable notice by the Building Department or the Ordinance Inspector for compliance with these provisions and may also be the subject to inspection upon reasonable notice by Building Department or Ordinance Inspector as part of an investigation or in response to a complaint.

If the owner or renter does not consent to an annual inspection, the Building Department or the Ordinance Inspector may apply to a court of competence jurisdiction for a search warrant to make an inspection.”

Finally, it says that if the artist or his studio is no longer in compliance, the town can revoke its permit. It would then become and remain vacant.

I submit that since this ordinance went into effect, artists who needed to use the bathroom, take a nap, eat a meal, and overcome the sheer insult this ordinance inflicts have now abandoned hundreds and hundreds of studios in our community and moved to, well, places like Ronkonkoma. And leaving us no longer the center of the art world.

But also leaving us with absolutely perfect units easily converted to affordable housing. Already built. Right there in everybody’s backyards.

More from Our Sister Sites