“This is crazy,” a wounded-sounding Tommy Mottola was saying. He pointed out that plenty of locals had big ones. (Jimmy Buffett’s is at least his size, and he’s allowed to land his seaplane at it.) But the Sony Music Entertainment chief insisted that he was merely a humble boater. “I just want to put a small boat there and go fishing for blues,” he said. Off a 233-foot dock.
Mr. Mottola is new to North Haven, the tiny incorporated village that most Hamptonites know as the road from Sag Harbor to the Shelter Island ferry. He’s also new to the contact sport of Hamptons development. He said he isn’t familiar with the lesson of Alec Baldwin’s chimney, Martha Stewart’s shrubs or Peter Kalikow’s pier. Now, he can add the lesson of Tommy Mottola’s dock to the list.
The Sony executive’s headache began last fall when he went looking for a post-Mariah Carey summer place. His friend Billy Joel told him about a funky North Haven carriage house on the market. North Haven was hot. Mr. Joel’s ex-wife, Christie Brinkley, and her husband, Peter Cook, were looking there. Mr. Buffett had just bought his property, appraised at $2 million. NBC News president Andy Lack had just bought. So had artist Eric Fischl. 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft had just sold, moving, in a fit of brave pioneering, across the bay to Noyac, previously the land of untouchables. Mr. Mottola said providing a place for Sony’s hip young recording artists to moor their cigarette boats was the last thing on his mind. He wanted the house for his kids.
He moved quickly, paying Maine newspaper publisher Alexander Brook $2.1 million in September 1997 for a gray-shingled structure, whose most distinctive feature was its 600 feet of bookcases. (Ms. Brinkley and Mr. Cook had made an identical offer but were passed over by Mr. Brook because, he said, they had a reputation as “shoppers” among local realtors. They later bought land in a gated community down the road.)
Mr. Brook said that at the time of the house’s sale, he did not know who either Mr. Mottola or his ex-wife Ms. Carey were. “If we had, we might not have sold it to him,” he said. Mr. Brook’s wife, Kelly, remembered Mr. Mottola leaving them with the impression he would change almost nothing.
A month later, Mr. Mottola revealed his plans to village officials. His blueprints for additions (almost doubling the size of the house to roughly 5,000 square feet) sailed through. But by December, he had added plans for a 1,300-square-foot pool, a 2,720-square-foot patio and a 195-foot-long dock with adjacent boathouse. At a January meeting, North Haven residents began to get their backs up. “We just had had enough,” said one resident, who like many others had been priced and glitzed out of East Hampton and then Sag Harbor. North Haven, whose property tax revenue is barely a third of Mr. Mottola’s reported $10 million salary, knew it was up against a formidable opponent. But, egged on by Mr. Mottola’s outraged neighbors, the town decided to fight his proposed alterations. “This is a tough town,” said Mr. Mottola’s North Haven neighbor and friend Joseph Traina, a Manhasset construction executive who, like Mr. Mottola, travels in a limousine with bulletproof windows. He barely got his own 181-foot dock through several years ago. “You have to adjust,” Mr. Traina said. “You have to listen.”
This, Mr. Mottola conspicuously failed to do. One neighbor, sixth-generation North Haven resident Martha Sutphen, remembered meeting Mr. Mottola only once, when he rented Mr. Traina’s place in the summer of 1991: “I remember it was the Fourth of July and some tough-looking guy said, ‘Mariah Carey’s gonna sing, and you can go on your dock and listen if you want.'”
Another neighbor, Clinique chairman emeritus Carol Phillips, who lives in the landmark 1804 Payne House, met Mr. Mottola last fall when he was walking the property with his broker. “He pointed to my vegetable garden and asked what it was,” she recalled. “I got the idea he was planning to buy the property, but I didn’t think from the looks of him that he was going to be a contender.”
After the deal was done, Mr. Mottola brought in Ronald Parlato, the same contractor who had built the 20,000-square-foot Bedford, N.Y., house Mr. Mottola recently sold to Snapple Beverage Corporation owner Nelson Peltz for $26 million. Mr. Parlato lodged a team of workmen at the Sag Harbor Motel, set them to work seven days a week, gutted Mr. Brook’s bookshelves and the rest of the house’s interior, and absorbed its shell into a Disneyish concoction with a silver turret and huge captain’s windows that met with negative reviews. “It looks like a barn on steroids,” said Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Shnayerson, who lives down the road.
Mr. Mottola did not need the town’s approval for this work. He did before he cut down a 150-year-old linden tree, a local landmark. After the fact, Mr. Mottola’s team brought forth a certificate from an arborist saying it was diseased.
North Haven residents, who had been boning up on Mottolana (thanks to color photocopies of a 1996 Vanity Fair article circulating through the hamlet), were growing suspicious. In Bedford, the press reported, Mr. Mottola had been accused of multiple acts of arboricide. North Haven locals began to fear for a beloved waterfront cedar grove and for the pines Ms. Sutphen’s great-grandfather had brought back as seedlings from Japan. Locals had seen red flags around their trunks, indicating they were set for slaughter.
By March 1998, Mr. Mottola realized he had a problem. So like any good executive, he changed his team. He hired a new marine architect and retained Edward Burke, a local attorney who is also a Southampton town justice (“the Hampton’s Sid Davidoff,” Mr. Traina called him, “a wired guy”). “Mistakes were made,” Judge Burke said, “but it wasn’t Tommy. It was the builder.”
Judge Burke got the workmen to spare the pines. Mr. Mottola withdrew his plan for a dock, sacrificing it to get his swimming pool and patio built. But then he came back in June with a plan for a longer dock, 233 feet, with jet ski ramps and stepping-down platforms. He told The Observer that the extra footage is necessary to get the dock out to the requisite water depth for his fishing boat.
Neighbors joked that the fiercely competitive Mr. Mottola would not rest until he had the biggest dock in North Haven. Why, they asked, couldn’t he just dock a dinghy at a short pier and row out to a mooring, like everyone else does?
Worried that Mr. Mottola’s application to the Army Corps of Engineers would leave North Haven residents iced out, on June 24, Carol Phillips and another local woman went down to the Sag Harbor Express and tried some old-fashioned town democracy. They took out an ad that ran on the back page of the paper on June 25. “Please don’t, Mr. Mottola,” it read, and was signed “Citizens for a Safe Harbor and a Safe Haven.” The ad stressed that it was not just the precious view of a few wealthy residents, but the navigability of the busy waterway under the Sag Harbor bridge that was in peril. The latter was a thinly veiled message to Joe Power Boater, always a potent constituency in Sag Harbor.
Worried citizens were urged to write to the Army Corps of Engineers, and to date, 75 letters have been received (North Haven has only about 650 registered voters). “This … may even surpass Kalikow’s pier in terms of people really hating it,” said James Haggerty, chief of permits for the New York section of the Army Corps of Engineers, referring to a fight over the real estate developer’s Montauk pier. The corps, which has the ability to kill the pier (as does the town planning board), has promised a close examination of the navigation issue.
Big Swinging Dock?
Mr. Mottola has now agreed to give up the boathouse, the seawall and the jet ski tie-ups. He has taken a no-cigarette-boat pledge. “I’m a person who really doesn’t like cigarette boats,” he said over the phone. Local fears that he will pull a page from Mr. Buffett’s best-selling book, A Pirate Looks at Fifty , and land a seaplane there made him laugh. “I’m actually hoping to bring in a 727,” he joked. (The cautioning voice of his publicist, Howard Rubenstein, was audible behind him.) Mr. Mottola added, “I just want to be a good neighbor.” He stressed that he has not built a party house.
Still, the local residents aren’t ready to make a deal. “I’m not looking for new friends. I’m looking for no pier,” said Ms. Phillips. “I understand that he’s in a rage,” a pleased Ms. Sutphen added. A hearing is scheduled for July 23 to review the application one more time.
“If there is something I can do for the community,” Mr. Mottola told The Observer , “I would certainly be available to help. I hope to live here the rest of my life. I love exactly where I am.”
The deeper mystery is why . Mr. Mottola’s house has all the privacy of a front porch on a highway. From the Sag Harbor bridge, his flagpole with the American and Italian flags is plainly visible, as are (chuckle, chuckle, go the neighbors) nautical flags for the letters T and M. One day recently, Mr. Mottola could be seen in what looked like a white bathrobe, hair slicked back, cordless phone in hand, looking out across a power-boating tableau. Workmen clambered over his roof. He will put an estimated $5 million into his property. When and if it is done, he will still have just 2.7 acres on a crowded bit of North Haven. His view will be of Connecticut day-trippers getting off the boat at Sag Harbor’s 720-foot, ugly asphalt pier. And no matter what, that dock will always be bigger than his.
As the hearing approaches, Mr. Mottola might do well to listen to an unlikely voice, that of John White, whose family has farmed Sagaponack land for 300 years. Mr. White is this season’s antidevelopment martyr, having been sentenced to 10 days’ jail time (by Mr. Burke in his capacity as Southampton town justice) for refusing to clean up a horse manure pile on his property. Mr. White told the Long Island section of The New York Times , “I felt safer in jail than … in front of the planning department. At least … in jail you know what the rules are.”
Mr. Mottola has now learned one of those rules the hard way. Mr. Buffett strums the guitar for the tots at the local grade school. He gets to land the seaplane.