East Hampton Town failed to send an attorney to court to defend a ruling by its own Zoning Board of Appeals about three years ago, resulting in a State Supreme Court justice’s order giving an applicant permission to build a home on wetlands in Amagansett—despite a ZBA vote denying the plan.
Amagansett resident Rona Klopman said she was “startled” to learn recently that construction is beginning on the lot. Ms. Klopman is president of Amagansett East, the civic association that represents about 315 homes in Beach Hampton, where the Ocean Lane lot is located.
“You would think that if the zoning board votes unanimously that it can’t be built, the Planning Department [says] that it can’t be built on, and they sue, that the town would defend their position,” Ms. Klopman said.
The town defaulted in responding to a lawsuit by Evelyn Clark, who sued after the ZBA denied her application for variances to build a two-story home on a 12,000-square-foot parcel on Ocean Lane that contains freshwater wetlands. The denial was issued on December 29, 2009, and State Supreme Court Justice John J.J. Jones Jr. ordered the ZBA to grant the requested variances on November 23, 2010, “upon the default of the respondent.”
When reached on Monday, Town Attorney John Jilnicki, who was not the town attorney at the time, said he doesn’t know why the town wasn’t aware of the deadline to respond to the lawsuit. “We’re actually trying to get to the bottom of that,” he said.
He stressed that conversations between the town attorney’s office, the ZBA and the applicant’s attorney were ongoing during the lawsuit, and the discussion included coming up with an alternate location for the house on the lot, he said. The court’s order to grant the variances and approve one of two versions of the plan proposed by the applicant caught town officials by surprise.
Once town attorneys realized they didn’t respond to the litigation by the deadline, they contacted the ZBA to see if it wanted to vacate the default judgment issued by the court. But the board did not wish to do that, Mr. Jilnicki said.
It’s doubtful that the lack of response was intentional, Mr. Jilnicki said. Asked if it was concerning to him, he replied, “Of course. ... That should never happen. The town should always respond.”
East Hampton Town Councilwoman Sylvia Overby said she’s aware of the situation and said it highlights the importance of the ZBA, since it ultimately decided not to pursue vacating the default judgment.
“I think my takeaway is that it’s very, very important to have the right people on the ZBA, because the ZBA is the group that is really making some major decisions on what East Hampton is going to look like in the future,” Ms. Overby said.
East Hampton Town Councilwoman Theresa Quigley, the liaison to the town attorney’s office, said she found the situation “extremely troubling” and has asked Assistant Town Attorney Robert Connelly, who is currently the town’s ZBA attorney, to look into the matter.
“There should be a record of what happened, and there doesn’t seem to be a record,” Ms. Quigley said on Tuesday. “Not having a record makes you say, what did seem to happen? And there’s all sort of possibilities, none of which is good.”
Mr. Jilnicki said the situation raises the issue of how to keep town residents informed about developments in court that might affect their communities. “I’m trying to figure out if there’s a way to make sure they’re aware of changes,” he said. “Unless you’re participating in litigation in some way ... I’m not saying being aware would change anything for a neighbor, but it should be something they’re aware of, I think.”