The Southampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals is expected to decide in early June whether to grant a variance that would legalize the conversion of a Hampton Bays motel into an apartment complex.
The application filed in April 2012 has drawn opposition from community members, including school administrators, who say the conversion—which actually was completed, unofficially, about 20 years earlier—will increase the density of a hamlet already burdened by overcrowding.
Domenico and Vincenza Iadevaia, who purchased the 1-acre property that sits north of Montauk Highway in 1989, have been operating the complex as the Tiana Pines Garden Apartments for nearly two decades, even though the town approved it as a motel. Both are nonconforming uses in the town’s highway business district, which does not permit motels or apartments.
John Bennett, the Southampton attorney from the firm Bennett and Read who represents the Iadevaias, has argued that the town issued a building permit for the structure in 1971, before the town code differentiated between motels and apartments. After the code changed in 1972, adding a limit on how long visitors can stay at motels and prohibiting kitchens, the town extended the original building permit for the complex multiple times, and granted two certificates of occupancy. Therefore, Mr. Bennett contends that the complex has been operating legally for the past 20 years.
“What happens if you deny the application? What you end up with is a motel/hotel with kitchenettes and no limits on occupancy, and it continues to operate very much as it does now,” he said during the ZBA meeting on April 4.
The Concerned Citizens of Hampton Bays, a civic association formed in the past year to tackle problems plaguing the hamlet, hired Eric Bregman, an attorney with the Bridgehampton firm Farrell Fritz, P.C., to represent them in opposition to the application. Mr. Bregman has challenged Mr. Bennett’s assertion that the original town code did not distinguish between motels and apartments.
They were defined separately, he said, and the code uses the term “dwelling” to refer to a residence, such as an apartment or a house where people live permanently. At past meetings, Mr. Bregman has argued that there is a “common sense” difference between motels, where people stay for visits, and apartments.
He has also argued that when the property owners chose to rent the units as apartments, they abandoned the motel use—meaning it cannot be reinstated. The town code prohibits the ZBA from granting a change from an illegal use to a nonconforming use.
“It’s designed for someone to come in, park the car, stay a while and go,” he said, commenting on the size of each roughly 500-square-foot unit.
Mr. Bregman added that if the board denies the variance, the owners will have to comply with the current zoning, which permits only businesses or offices on the property.
Lars Clemensen, the superintendent of the Hampton Bays School District, spoke against the conversion at the most recent meeting. “An official conversion of motels into apartment complexes permanently increases the residential capacity of our hamlet, impacting my ability to deliver a first-class education to our children,” he said.
While he is “not unsympathetic” to those concerns, Mr. Bennett said they don’t belong in a ZBA forum and should not be a basis for any decision made by the board.
He and Kimberly Judd, an associate at his firm, explained that the variance would be beneficial to the neighborhood because it would allow the owners to submit a site plan application to the Southampton Town Planning Board, increasing the town’s control over things like drainage, lighting and landscaping on the property.
He also pointed out that the owners have received Suffolk County Department of Health approval to install an upgraded septic system. It would be difficult for other motel complexes in the hamlet to receive that approval, which is necessary to support apartments, because they sit close to the water and where the groundwater table is higher.
The ZBA will continue to accept written comments on the application until Thursday, May 2, and the board is expected to vote on a decision at its June 6 meeting.