Hamptons Dispatch: Sagaponack Screwed Me Out of My 43-Acre Oceanfront Dream Lot

Don't cry for me, but do cry for America's culture of government taking and out-of-control zoning

3-D renderings of how the proposed house would look show the footprint relative to the 43 acre property. (Marc Goldman)

In 2000, I purchased a forty-three and a half acre parcel of beachfront property, located at the corner of Daniels Lane and Peters Pond Lane in Sagaponack, New York.

In 2001, I applied for and was granted preliminary approval from the Town of Southampton to sub-divide my property into four lots. Three of these were along the ocean and the fourth lot of two-and-a-half acres sat on the northwest corner of the property at the corner of Daniels and Peters Pond Lane. I limited the development to four lots even though the town’s regulations would have allowed a thirteen-lot subdivision. I did so because of my desire to devote the rest of the property to agriculture, even though I would have made much more money by making the thirteen lots. In fact, since 2000, when I originally purchased the property, I have spent money almost every year to plant a cover crop on the property in order to protect and enrich the excellent agricultural soil for which Sagaponack is rightfully known. I did this so that when I was ready to farm the land, the land would be ready to be farmed.

In 2005, with the property still not subdivided, I sold the potential rights to two potential oceanfront lots to Milton Berlinski and Michael Hirtenstein, keeping approximately thirty-three and a half of the forty-three and a half acres for myself.

The conditions Sagaponack demanded, before they would grant approval included taking approximately 1/3 of the westernmost ocean front lot for a permanent drainage easement.

In 2007, In order to more permanently preserve the land and limit development, I granted the development rights to the Peconic Land Trust, formally reducing the number of houses I would put on the property from thirteen to four. (There was a tax benefit to granting that limitation though it was nowhere near the profit that could have been realized had I done a thirteen-lot subdivision.) I was proud to do my part to maintain open space in Sagaponack and I never thought that anyone, particularly the village of Sagaponack would try to use my good deeds against me. I subsequently made an application to the Town of Southampton for the exact four-lot subdivision for which I had been granted preliminary approval several years prior. After I made that application, the newly formed Village of Sagaponack interfered with my application and asked the Town of Southampton not to proceed with it. The Town of Southampton deferred to Sagaponack’s request and took my application off its agenda. Southampton zoning at that time permitted houses of up to 20,000sq ft.

In April 2008, the newly formed Sagaponack planning board finally heard my application. After several months they returned with a conditional approval of the subdivision. The conditions Sagaponack demanded, before they would grant approval included taking approximately 1/3 of the westernmost ocean front lot for a permanent drainage easement. Sagaponack demanded that drainage easement despite the fact that there was no objective evidence presented to justify it. No construction or even landscaping would have been permitted in the drainage easement area.

My application at that time showed the fourth lot of two and a half acres located much further south on the property. (Interestingly, it was much closer to the area where the village board is now stating that they would prefer it be located.) However, when my application placed it in that location, the village board demanded that nearly 50 percent of that lot be burdened by another drainage easement, which made that lot virtually unusable. Needless to say, I viewed these unduly burdensome, unjustified and technically unsupported conditions imposed by the Village of Sagaponack as very unfair, arbitrary, and unacceptable. The village’s decision also sparked litigation between myself and Messrs. Berlinski and Hirtenstein about where the property lines should be redrawn, if at all. No further effort was undertaken on the subdivision application and it was deemed withdrawn.

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In August of 2013, I then applied to the Sagaponack Village Board for site plan approval to build only one house on the entire forty-three-and-a-half acre parcel. The application showed that the house would be located on the two and a half acre limited building area on the northwest corner. This house was to be my farmhouse. The Suffolk county soil maps show—and a well known expert who has farmed the property testified to the board—that the two and half-acres on the northwest corner is the least farmable part of the property. My preference for the northwest corner is also motivated by the fact that it is the furthest place on the property from the ocean and therefore most protected in the event of hurricanes, potential ocean surges, rising sea levels or other acts of nature. I can also have a basement in that location without concern for flooding and ground water interference. Additionally, the northwest corner is outside the FEMA flood zone, which favorably impacts my insurance cost. Finally, the northwest corner is the exact location that the conservation easement agreement with the Peconic Land Trust specifies is one of the locations for a residence.

The Sagaponack Village Board required sixteen meetings to discuss my application from August of 2013 through January 2015. In the course of those meetings I made numerous changes to my house plans in response to various concerns raised by members of the board and their consultants. I adjusted and narrowed the house footprint and I expended significant money, resources, and time consulting with experts to answer any and all engineering questions, they raised.

During the course of the hearings the Village Board’s attorney asked; If theoretically at some point in the future, you were to apply for a subdivision on this property, where would those lots be located? Would that plan meet all of the open space and other requirements of Sagaponack’s zoning rules? To answer those questions I provided professional surveys done by licensed surveyors proving that, in the theoretical event of a possible future subdivision, the subdivision would be limited to three ocean front lots and would be in full compliance with all other zoning regulations. The location of those lots also comported exactly with the limited building area designated in my agreement with the Peconic Land Trust, as does the northwest corner location.

Property owners everywhere should be concerned when they see such heavy-handed government attempts at taking and denial of private property rights.

To address other comments made by the Village Board I incurred significant expense to have three-dimensional renderings produced so that the board could see exactly how the house would look on the property. To put it in perspective, the property is 1,894,860sq feet and the footprint of the house, including the garage, cabana, etc. is 8,675sq feet or less than one half of 1%. In fact, the renderings show that when traveling from the east, the only thing that could even be argued that the house blocks is the view of the house on the other side of Peters Pond Lane. Otherwise the views remained 100 percent open. When driving from the west someone’s view would be blocked for all of 3.2 seconds if they were driving at the speed limit. Simple arithmetic proves that since the length of my property along Daniels Lane is 953 ft., and the house is 130 ft. at its widest point, 87.4 percent will remain completely open.

During the sixteen months of these proceedings, I finalized what I planned to grow on my property. My intention was to plant the majority of the land with a crop of tomatoes, various flavoring herbs and garlic. I then planned to harvest all of the tomatoes and herbs, and use them to produce the finest organic tomato sauce possible; with virtually all of its ingredients grown in the single location. I looked forward to many summers of enjoyable and hopefully profitable agricultural enterprise. Tomatoes, like most food crops require annual planting and harvesting and therefore, I would have to be there for the planting and harvesting as well as caring for the crop and producing the sauce.

Those who have suggested that I’m doing this for “revenge” perhaps do not know that my personal history is in agriculture; I owned and operated Farmland Dairies for many years. I also invented Skim Plus and other products. This made me very enthused about the opportunity I saw in this venture. I was looking forward to living on the farm and actively participating and overseeing all aspects of the tomato project. Of course, to do so, I needed a place to live.

I was shocked in January of this year when the Village Board chose to deny my application to build one house on my forty-three and half acres, claiming it would block the view. My application did not request any variances of any kind. The size, the height, and the setbacks of the house were in full compliance with every zoning regulation. Also, the house was clustered with the house directly across from it on Daniels Lane and the house directly across from it on Peters Pond Lane. My plan for an organic tomato farm also was lost in that denial. I had to come up with an alternative that would still enable agricultural use of the property without the need for annual planting and harvesting that tomatoes require. Trees are the only practical alternative. I don’t have to live there to watch the trees grow.

In March of 2015, in furtherance of this plan, I applied to the County of Suffolk to include the property in its Agricultural District program. Later that month I purchased 15,000 Christmas tree seedlings for planting. Amazingly, at the hearing before the County’s agricultural board in late April 2015, the Mayor of the Village of Sagaponack personally appeared and opposed my application, stating that he opposed it now so that he could have control over where my home would be put, and to extraact further open space concessions from me. Unfortunately, he was successful in having my plan derailed. Nonetheless, having bought the trees in March, in May 2015 they were planted and I also installed an irrigation system to keep them watered. Several nursery experts advised me that the seedlings would need to be protected from the elements by a windscreen composed of a perimeter of the same type of trees. The trees stabilize the soil and maintain the agricultural use of the property. I am hopeful that they will become a lucrative crop in a few years. This is the only practical agricultural use of my property at this time. Village officials are now complaining that they would apparently rather see bare dirt and unused land rather than the beautiful evergreens that have been planted.

The startling response to this reasonable use was a village official trespassing on my property and threatening to burn, poison, or run over the just planted nursery stock. In addition, there were articles in the South Hampton Press and 27east publications, which happen to be owned by the family of the Mayor of Sagaponack. These articles attacked me for planting the trees and made baseless accusations against me. Of course, no one from either publication bothered to contact me.

Screen Shot 2015-07-10 at 10.30.32 AMIn the last three years alone, during which I have been blocked from reasonable and limited development on a parcel of farmland, most of which will be preserved as such, more than $230,000 in property taxes has been paid. In addition I have incurred legal and technical expenses to comply with requests that any serious investigation of the matter would deem peculiar and not always consistent in regards to the conclusions of experts in soil science and land preservation presented to the Village Board.

My rights to my private property have been violated by the actions of the Village Board. Property owners everywhere should be concerned when they see such heavy-handed government attempts at taking and denial of private property rights. We’ve just celebrated the 4th of July, an event that prompts us to remember and cherish the fight for the freedoms that America was founded on.

I don’t expect anyone to weep for someone who can afford forty-three acres in the Hamptons. But when a government body abuses its powers against any citizen, all citizens should be concerned, even if they are not directly affected by the government’s actions. You could be next. Meanwhile, I look forward to providing you with a nice Christmas tree in a few years.

Hamptons Dispatch: Sagaponack Screwed Me Out of My 43-Acre Oceanfront Dream Lot