On the evening of Tuesday, June 22, tech tycoon Terry Semel appeared before the Zoning Board of Appeals at East Hampton’s town hall on Pantigo Road.
“I was hoping to come here for a peaceful summer,” Mr. Semel, the former CEO of Yahoo, told a board of five councilmen. Flanked by a team of seven lawyers from three different law firms, Mr. Semel proceeded to spend the next 45 minutes pleading the case for a cottage on his Further Lane property-quietly at first. But by the end, he was tearing up behind his signature wire-rimmed glasses, accusing his “land-grabbing” neighbors, Jonathan and Peter Sobel, of “launching World War III” against him, and promising to defeat them. “I don’t care how much time it takes, or how much money,” he vowed.
The brothers Sobel, hedge-funders, and Mr. Semel have been at it since January; their dispute is this season’s cocktail fodder in what has become a rolling series of land wars in the Hamptons. “Every year there’s a new dispute that gets all the attention,” said the Sobels’ lawyer, David Eagan. “Last year it was Ron Baron illegally cutting into the dune.” This year it is Mr. Semel’s plan to construct a 10,000-square-foot main house, in addition to the already rebuilt 1,600-square-foot guesthouse on his Amagansett property. “They can have one or the other, but not both,” Mr. Eagan said.
East Hampton Town Law-one of the strictest zoning regimes in the country-mandates that there can be only one independent dwelling per property, unless the structure predated the 1962 zoning law. A second ongoing lawsuit filed against Mr. Semel by the Sobels concerns a broken contract and some uprooted cedar trees. “What is it about these people that they have no idea how to be neighbors?” asked one leading local real estate lawyer.
According to Mr. Semel, the fight began in 2005, with a neatly addressed envelope from his neighbors to the west, received within weeks after he purchased the $43 million piece of land stretching from the southern side of storied Further Lane all the way to the dune-protected beach. “The Sobels sent over a note asking if they could buy a piece of land,” Mr. Semel told The Observer-a narrow rhomboid sliver near the dunes, historically part of the Sobel lot, that was sold more than 50 years ago to the then-occupant of the Semel property. “I wrote them back very nicely and said I’m not ready to sell any of the land I just bought but I’m looking forward to getting to know you as neighbors.” Mr. Semel said. (“I didn’t need $150,000,” he told the zoning board.)
Mr. Semel is convinced he’s facing a vendetta by the brothers because he refused their buyback offer. “From that point forward, they did a lot of things to make life more difficult,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Eagan sees things differently. “There is absolutely no correlation between the easement on the land parcel and the illegal structure being contested, but Mr. Semel is trying to paint it that way,” he said. He contends that Mr. Semel has “razed a whole stand of cedar trees” and added an illegal fence and privet hedge. (“We put up lots of trees on the property-the whole hedge thing had gotten kind of old,” countered Mr. Semel.)
The contested cottage is a preexisting, nonconforming structure, meaning zoning laws on the books since 1962 do not apply, as the dwelling predates them. The planned 10,000-square-foot main house, for which the foundation has already been laid, is not. (The Sobels, let it be noted, have three dwellings on their property: all preexisting, nonconforming structures that they are quick to note have been meticulously preserved and used only for their originally intended purposes.)
The Semel-Sobel border war is only the latest in a place where oversize egos, large wallets, rigid zoning laws and a seasonal community combine to generate exceptional conflict: think of Martha Stewart running over Harry Macklowe’s gardener or Lee Radziwill’s fury over the “TWA house” walls blocking her view.
“There are also a lot of cases where money and power come together for good, to counter a threat or protect against a larger development,” architecture critic and Amagansett resident Paul Goldberger told The Observer. “For example, I live on Skim Hampton Road, and all our neighbors banded together to fight the A & P moving to the Stern’s department store site and we were successful.”
“School report cards used to have a designation: works well and plays well with others. People in the Hamptons aren’t passing that class,” said East Hampton entrepreneur Jerry Della Femina. “It doesn’t make sense that people who Monday through Friday are used to getting what they want no matter what would come out here on the weekends and cooperate with each other; it’s this, ‘I’m a captain of industry, I shouldn’t have to have neighbors’ mentality.’”
“NOWADAYS IN THE Hamptons, there are so many good-looking people with fancy cars,” said a Southhampton lawyer familiar with the case. “The old money was very quiet, you couldn’t see them, they had wicker furniture. They had large dark cars driven by chauffeurs in livery. Women would come to town dressed in wide-brimmed hats and sit on chairs in stores while clerks showed them wares. It was entirely different.”
(But let’s not romanticize the past too much! In 1890, when Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants bought a plot of land for a cemetery on what is now Route 114 in Sag Harbor, the more aristocratic Hungarian Jews promptly bought the neighboring plot and erected a rusted iron “spite” fence.)
“It’s bullies in the schoolyard, my money is bigger than your money,” said Hamptons chronicler Steven Gaines. “That’s what drives Martha Stewart to have trucks waiting while she gets a court order to cut Macklowe’s trees down. That’s not about the view, that’s about one-upmanship.”
He recalled one weekend years ago when the now deceased celebrity broker Linda Stein visited him in Wainscott. Early Sunday morning, a truck pulled up to the house next door to Mr. Gaines’ home. A riding lawn mower was unloaded, and the next three hours were drowned by the piercing motor of the machine. “Linda looked out the window and said to me, ‘This is what co-op boards are for.’”
Mr. Della Femina agreed: The Manhattanites are spoiled. “These people live in co-op apartments and they don’t settle for things,” he griped.
“I get calls from prospective clients all the time complaining about something their neighbor has done that they want to sue them for,” Hamptons real estate lawyer John Bennett said, “and the first thing I ask is, ‘Have you spoken to your neighbor?’
‘Well, no, of course not. Why?’”
(A recent homeowner on Cottage Avenue recounted her surprising introduction with her next-door neighbor, who instead of offering the expected salutations cut right to the chase and demanded if the new owner would be comfortable trimming her hedge several inches shorter; the previous owner had been uncooperative.)
Stalinesque zoning laws don’t make matters easy. “East Hampton has some of the most, what I would call progressive, but you might call strict, zoning laws in the country,” East Hampton Assembly Speaker Larry Cantwell said with a note of pride. Indeed, it is one of the only towns in the country with a resident architectural historian whose job includes patrolling the homes in the village to ensure that no changes are being made.
Only last week, the travails of Madonna’s horse paddocks were reported on Page Six, detailing that the recent Bridgehampton resident received a cease-and-desist letter from Suffolk County on July 7 when Ms. Ciccone began building a fence without proper permission (her minions have since submitted the proper application).
EAST HAMPTON ZONING laws define an independent dwelling by the existence of a kitchen. Mr. Semel said what the cottage has is more of a canteen. “The guesthouse does not have a kitchen,” he insisted to The Observer. “It has a refrigerator and a sink, but you couldn’t cook a meal there! 0
“We wanted a guest cottage,” he continued, “so our kids”-there are four-”would come and stay with their friends. We deliberately didn’t want a kitchen because we knew if we did, we would never see them again! This way they can sleep in the cottage, but if they’re hungry they have to come visit us in the main house.”
Originally 600 square feet, the “shack” (as described by both counsels) was expanded and re
by the revered architect Charles Gwathmey, who died in August 2009. “When Charlie got sick, the guesthouse was 90 percent finished, and we had already put in the structure for the main house. He said, ‘I’ll be back,’ but of course, he wasn’t able to come back.” Mr. Semel said.
Describing the guesthouse further, the mogul said: “It has what I’m going to call a very small living room and two bedrooms. We needed a place to sleep when we came here while the house was being built. Can you live here full time? No.”
He recounted incidents of Sobel-lurking (“Once when our housekeeper was alone in the cottage, she saw one of them taking pictures through the window!”) and charged that the Sobels took down the fence Mr. Gwathmey had designed, replacing it with their own.
“Mr. Semel’s main defense is that he’s entitled to a guesthouse!” Mr. Eagan fired back bitterly. “We have scores of clients both south of the highway and north who would love to build a second house on their property, and they’re just as rich, but they know they can’t because it’s against the law.”
He described Mr. Semel’s plea to the board as “a discussion about nothing but entitlement,” articulating what many diagnose as the definitive characteristic of the Hamptons Hedge Hog.
“I’m sorry to get exasperated, but you get tired of hearing how bad your clients are when they are really just like everyone else,” Mr. Eagan said. “We all come out here and spend a severe premium to be here and part of the reason is that we like the way it looks, and my clients shouldn’t have to get up one day and look out and see an illegal 10,000-square-foot house!”
Mr. Semel says he takes no pride in being the alleged Hedge Hog of Hamptons 2010.
“This has been a nightmare,” he said with a sigh. “And I don’t feel that we are alone; I feel like this has plagued a number of neighbors.”
Indeed, he suggested, New York’s favorite resort community might be a unique breeding ground for neighborly nastiness.
“I have houses in other places,” Mr. Semel said, “and I have never run into anything like this.”