Dozens of North Sea residents applauded and hugged on Thursday night, March 15, after the Southampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals vacated a building inspector’s decision and determined that a controversial application for a summer day camp near Little Fresh Pond must obtain a variance to proceed.
The board voted unanimously to require developer Jay Jacobs, principal of Southampton Day Camp Realty, to apply for a change of use variance to build a summer camp on 17.3 acres on Majors Path. The board ruled that, contrary to the building inspector’s original decision, the proposed renovation and expansion of a tennis club, currently on the property, for use as a day camp would constitute a change of use under zoning rules.
“I’m thrilled,” said North Sea resident John Barona, president of the Little Fresh Pond Association, a group of neighbors opposed to the day camp. “It was a long, hard decision. I’m glad the board took the time, effort and energy to consider the needs of the community.”
The North Sea residents had appealed a decision by Southampton Town Chief Building Inspector Michael Benincasa last August that the day camp would not represent a change of use—that the tennis camp, a pre-existing and non-conforming use, was an equivalent use to the day camp. Mr. Jacobs had argued that the camp fit with the site’s pre-existing, non-conforming use.
“In short, it does not matter what the building inspector said,” ZBA member David Reilly said, in reading the decision.
Despite the variance ruling, the ZBA also rendered a decision in favor of Mr. Jacobs in regard to another key point, regarding abandonment of use. “The board also finds that the subject premises has been ‘actually used for a continuous period of three years,’ and rejects an abandonment argument,” the decision reads. If the prior use was abandoned, it would significantly impact the chances of the day camp’s ultimate approval.
As a result, Mr. Jacobs had a different view of the decision: “They lost,” he said. “I won’t say that we won, but they lost.”
He said his opponents were charged with proving the tennis camp use of the property had been abandoned, and that the pre-existing, non-conforming use had therefore been lost under town code. Should that have been established, Mr. Jacobs said, “in essence, we’d be dead.”
But, he added, “On that, the critical main issue, the Zoning Board of Appeals was very clear that that wasn’t the case. I think the zoning board did the right thing under very tough circumstances.”
The ZBA’s decision states that Mr. Jacobs’s opponents failed to prove that the entire tennis camp use has been completely discontinued or abandoned for a continuous three-year period, as required by town code.
Residents agreed after the meeting that while the decision was an important first step, the battle to stop the camp was not yet won.
“I don’t know how I can trust it,” said resident Vlasta Murase, who lives on the other side of Little Fresh Pond. “This is not a final decision. They could be just trying to calm us down.”
Since the proposal for a day camp was first pitched, scores of neighbors have voiced opposition to the plan, based on concerns over traffic, noise, pollution, and environmental issues.
But overall, the mood was optimistic as neighbors headed out to celebrate. “This was a big victory for the right side,” said attorney James Henry.
According to Adam Grossman, vice chairman of the ZBA, Mr. Jacobs next has to fill out a new application for a change of use, from one non-conforming use to another, different from a use variance, which is an extremely difficult standard, he said.
In Mr. Jacobs’s case, because he is requesting a day camp use instead of a tennis camp use, he is asking for a switch from one pre-existing, non-conforming use to another.
In order for his request to be granted, Mr. Grossman said, according to town code, the ZBA must issue a determination “that such a change will be beneficial to the general neighborhood,” and that such a change is made subject to reasonable conditions and safeguards that the ZBA may stipulate.
Mr. Jacobs said he will have no difficulty proving how his proposed camp will benefit the community. “I’m going to be able to demonstrate that in many ways,” he said.
Next steps, Mr. Grossman said, include a new application to the ZBA, a public hearing process and environmental review. In addition, the applicant will need site plan approval from the Southampton Town Planning Board.