Many opponents of a planned day camp in North Sea took advantage Thursday night of their last chance to speak out at a public hearing on overturning a building inspector’s determination that allows the camp application to proceed without a review by the Southampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals.
It was also the last chance for representatives of the owner of the parcel, Jay Jacobs, who is the New York State Democratic Committee chairman and operator of the Hampton Country Day Camp in East Hampton, to convince the ZBA that the building inspector was correct and that opening a day camp at the site does not constitute a change of use.
The parcel is located in a residential zone, abutting Little Fresh Pond, but has been used for a tennis club and tennis camp until recently. It includes a former dining hall currently used as a residence, a single-family home that would be turned into a welcome center under the plan, and several cottages that are rented out. While Jacobs says that operating a camp there is a continuation of a nonconforming use, opponents argue that it is indeed a change of use, and his renovating and building plans require variances from the ZBA.
Only four members of the seven-member board were present for the hearing. ZBA Chairman Herb Phillips and Secretary Ann Nowak were absent, while member Denise O’Brien left the meeting before the hearing began for a family engagement.
“I’m looking for additional information relating to the status of the property — the use of the property as a camp,” said Vice Chairman Adam Grossman as he opened the floor for comments from attorneys. “We need documentation on that issue in an much detail as both sides can provide.”
James Henry of the Northern Environmental Law Center in Sag Harbor, who represented the Little Fresh Pond Association, North Sea Neighbors and the Lake Missapogue Association, pointed to the former dining hall as one example, saying it has been a residence since at least 1990, and the Suffolk County Health Department stated it is a residence as recently as 2010.
The day camp plans would restore its use as a dining hall. Engineer Jeffrey Butler of Riverhead, on behalf of Jacobs, said the kitchen and bathroom in the dining hall would be expanded to meet Americans With Disabilities Act and health department requirements. Butler said the permitted outflow of effluent would be dropped from 9,000 gallons a day to 5,100 a day, and the number of people that can stay overnight on the parcel will be reduced from 122 to 40.
Grossman implored the public not to bring up the lawsuits between Jacobs and the heads of the Little Fresh Pond Association, John Gorman and John Barona, in which Jacobs accuses them of defamation and they counter sued claiming Jacobs is in violation of state law prohibiting litigation designed to stifle public participation.
But the lawsuits were referenced a couple times during the meeting, in tongue-in-cheek comments.
Henry referenced Jacobs’ lawsuit as he contested a claim that members of the groups he represents must be publicly identified. “Individuals may not want to stand up and raise their hand and be sued by people when they protest,” Henry said.
However, Jacobs told Patch earlier that day that he sued Barona and Gorman because they “maligned and defamed” him, and noted that he has not sued others who are critical of his plan.
When Barona addressed the board and introduced himself, he remarked, “I am now known world-wide as the $65 million man,” referring to the amount Jacobs sued him and Gorman for.
When it came down to his comments regarding the application, Barona said, “My neighbors and I feel the plans to expand this property are not in compliance with regulations, or the needs of the community.”
Stuart Summit, a pondside resident for 17 years and the attorney defending Barona and Gorman against the defamation lawsuit, told the ZBA that “the possibility that this change in use of this property is as-of-right, not requiring the board to function at all, defies common sense.”
In addition to asking speakers to refrain from bringing up the lawsuits, Grossman, in light of October’s lengthy and sometimes heated hearing, also repeatedly asked for speakers to keep their comments brief and for the audience not to shout out remarks. “We’re going to have a structure, and we’re going to be respectful,” Grossman said.
Grossman would later defy this rule himself when he took a swipe at Southampton resident Frances Genovese, who told the board, “You don’t do due diligence, none of you.”
Grossman replied: “When you’re trying to convince someone, do you normally attack them? Is that how you try to persuade people?”
“I don’t have enough time to deal with the absolute rudeness of this board,” Genovese said, a comment that was met with applause from the audience.
Another speaker who received roaring applause was Jeremy Samuelson, an environmental advocate for the Group for the East End. He said that, in studying the zoning law on nonconforming uses of properties, he learned that three years after a nonconforming use of a building stops, the use is considered abandoned, leaving the owner to have to conform to current zoning. “A nonconforming use that has been abandoned shall not thereafter be reinstated,” he quoted from the law.
“It's very clear. You don’t have to be an attorney to understand what this means,” Samuelson said. “The fundamental standard and principal of zoning is that we move toward more conforming uses overtime, not grow by exponential bounds and leaps toward uses that are less conforming.”
Several commenters discussed the effects they expect the camp to have on their quality of life, citing screaming children within earshot of their houses, and possibly camp counselors reveling on the pondfront late at night. Others were concerned about the effect the camp facilities could have on the health of Little Fresh Pond.
Frank Palmer, a resident of the Big Fresh Pond shore, said, “The noise that’s coming out of this camp isn’t really an issue to me. There’s no nicer sound than kids having a good time — but the water quality is something that, if we lose it, we’ll never get it back.”
Grossman noted that the health department and planning board, under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, will address pollution concerns.
The hearing was kept open until Jan. 17 at 4 p.m. for the submission of documents, with a decision scheduled for the ZBA’s Feb. 16 meeting.