Why Did the Sagaponack Farmhouse Cross the Road?

house 2 dawn house movers Why Did the Sagaponack Farmhouse Cross the Road? A restraining order is usually placed on an animate object—someone who actually has to be restrained. Not on, say, a house.

Sagaponack resident Lilith Jacobs, however, did just that.

Ms. Jacobs placed a restraining order on a small, 1930s foursquare farmhouse on Hedges Lane, insisting the home remain at least 300 feet from her property.

The house, originally at 243 Hedges Lane in the heart of Sagaponack, the fertile nook of farmland between Bridgehampton and the Atlantic Ocean, is certainly a relic of another time, bookended even today by rambling lawns leading up to vast, gambrel-roofed second homes.

But this unassuming foursquare has been the cause of perhaps the most heated debate in the hamlet’s recent history, with the Village of Sagaponack and the Peconic Land Trust on one side championing the preservation of the house, and the neighboring residents of Sagaponack pitted against them, calling the structure an eyesore.

Extreme measures have been taken and grave allegations made.

 

THE FOURSQUARE HOME was one of a handful of structures on the 40-acre farm at 243 Hedges Lane, a farm once owned by the Hedges family and then the Barshefsky family. Several years ago, lawyer Alan Schnurman bought the property with the intention of subdividing and developing the unused farmland. A multi-year stalemate ensued regarding the zoning and development rights of the land.

“You really couldn’t sell that land to anyone with all the old houses on it,” explained East Hampton Star reporter Jennifer Landes, who broke the story last December, adding that the property was overgrown and abandoned for several years while Mr. Schnurman sought the myriad zoning, development and demolition rights needed to make the land saleable.

In 2009, Mr. Schnurman found a prospective buyer, local contractor Michael Davis, who, naturally, planned to demolish the surviving structures. Before the transaction could be brokered, though, the village needed to issue the following permits: approval of the movement of an 1840s Greek revival home dubbed “the honeymoon cottage” to the front of the property to act as a gatehouse; a variance allowing Mr. Davis to have two dwellings on a single property; demolition rights for the remaining barns; and development rights for an as-yet-unbuilt main home.

The only stone left unturned was the issue of the foursquare house. Mr. Davis wanted to raze it; the Village Board resisted, arguing that it was ripe for preservation.

Here’s where the he said/she said begins. According to Sagaponack residents and others involved in the deal, this is what we know: Alan Schnurman made an $85,000 donation to the Peconic Land Trust, an influential local nonprofit with the muscle to move the house. The Land Trust moved the incendiary foursquare to a plot of preserved land up the road. The Village of Sagaponack issued the necessary permits with the Zoning Board of Appeals, ruling that they were in the interest of the community.

The foursquare was moved to an 11-acre swath on the corner of Hedges and Fairfield Pond lanes, a plot that was donated to the South Fork Land Trust in the 1977 by cosmetics moguls Ronald and Leonard Lauder. (The South Fork Land Trust recently lost its 501-C3 status as a nonprofit and its affairs have since been absorbed under the umbrella of the Peconic Land Trust.) The land was donated without any development restrictions, meaning that under the current zoning, the plot could be subdivided into three developable lots.

The Land Trust planned to move the foursquare to the fallow corner of the property, across the street from Ms. Jacobs’ house. She followed by placing the restraining order and then later sued the Land Trust and the Village of Sagaponack, at which point the movers picked the house back up and trotted it to the other end of the property.

One of the 11 acres has now been carved out with the farmhouse on it, and will be sold, with the profits going to the Land Trust. Peconic Land Trust president John v.H. Halsey told The Observer, “The proceeds from the sale of the house will ensure that the rest of the 11 acres will be perpetually protected. It helps us preserve more farms and more land.” He was referring to the Land Trust’s plan to use the profits from selling the 1-acre subdivide to fund the purchase of Hopping Farm on Sagg Main Street.

 

BUT COMMUNITY MEMBERS allege that the deal was not quite as clean as the above outline, drawing attention to the overlapping interests between Sagaponack Village officials and Peconic Land Trust board members. Mayor Donald Louchheim’s wife, Pingree—a vocal advocate for the preservation of the foursquare—is a former Land Trust board member, and Deputy Mayor Lee Foster is a South Fork Land Trust member; her husband, Cliff, is that trust’s chairman and their daughter, Marilee, is a Peconic Land Trust board member.

At a village meeting, William McCoy, a local real estate agent who lives across from the foursquare’s new location, announced that 80 percent of Sagaponack’s population was against the preservation and accused the village of improper involvement in the move. He suggested that the $85,000 donation to the Land Trust was really extortion on the part of the trust and the village in return for removal of the house and the issuing of needed permits. Both Mr. Halsey and Mayor Louchheim vehemently deny such allegations.

Mayor Louchheim grew angry when questioned on the subject, calling such allegations “a total falsehood” and completely erroneous. “There is absolutely no connection between the approval of the variance and the donation. I don’t know how there could have been.”

Though the nagging question remains: Whose idea was it to gift the house to the Land Trust?

The mayor said that the only thing the Village Board was asked to approve was the creation of the 1-acre lot as a final resting place for the forlorn foursquare.

The details of the subdivision plan were outlined at last Monday’s planning board meeting. “Two of the more vociferous critics were in the audience,” Mayor Louchheim said, “and they were asked if they had any comments, and they didn’t!”

But there might be a reason they didn’t comment. Sagaponack resident Ana Daniel, once a vocal opponent to the foursquare move, was nervous and uncommunicative when The Observer reached her by phone. “I really can’t say anything about it since I have been threatened with a lawsuit by the mayor’s wife and the mayor.”

Of the nature of the donation, Mr. Halsey, the Land Trust president, explained, “We pointed out to [Mr. Schnurman] that there were going to be costs involved in moving it, and that we would be most appreciative of a donation. We put together a budget that took into account all conceivable expenses. We requested a gift but he certainly had no obligation to give it.

“It was really about finding a home for a homeless farmhouse.”

cmalle@observer.com