Don’t build a mansion on shifting sands—at least that’s what Westhampton Beach Mayor Conrad Teller’s father would say.
It hasn’t seemed to stop residents along Dune Road from Westhampton Beach to West Hampton Dunes, and the small beach cottages that were once commonplace along the ocean are now rapidly diminishing in ranks as homeowners are coming in, knocking them down and building back up.
Razing along the ocean is a far cry from unusual practice, builder Michael O’Rourke said, noting that its history dates back at least three decades. But mixed with more confidence in the economy, this is the busiest he’s seen the area in years.
“A lot of people don’t want to drop a lot of money into an old piece of crap,” Mr. O’Rourke, who is currently working on a new home at 623 Dune Road in Westhampton, said during a recent telephone interview. “More often than not, it’s easier to build new than fix what was there. Me, as a builder, I’d much rather build a new home. I get a clean palette. I’m like an artist with a clean canvas. I can do whatever the hell I want. Starting new, you’re not restricted to what was there.”
A fresh slate is an attractive option along the oceanfront, Southampton Town Chief Building Inspector Mike Benincasa said, explaining that he’s seen a dramatic increase in the number of building permits along the east side of town and the shoreline in “the more expensive neighborhoods” with higher-end homes, which includes Bridgehampton, Water Mill and Dune Road in Westhampton.
Down the stretch of Dune Road from Westhampton Beach to West Hampton Dunes alone, there are half a dozen new construction projects, as well as a handful of major renovations.
“It hasn’t been this busy in about three years,” Mr. Benincasa said during a recent telephone interview. “We’re talking about major renos and new construction. People have been holding off and now that the economy is starting to turn and people can see the bottom of the market, they’re feeling more comfortable and they’re doing projects that were put on hold.”
Westhampton Beach and West Hampton Dunes are villages that fall outside Southampton Town’s jurisdiction for permitting, whereas Westhampton permits are handled by the town because it is a hamlet.
According to the Westhampton Beach Village Building and Zoning Department, the number of issued permits for new oceanfront building has remained steady over the years—four in 2009 and 2010, three in 2011 and one, so far, this year.
“The building department is just starting to pick up a little bit,” Mr. Teller said. “It’s spring. All the winter projects get started in the spring. We’re an affluent area—Westhampton Beach, Quogue, all of Southampton, East Hampton. People want to come that got money, so they’re willing to pay.”
Those looking to buy up old lots and build anew won’t have that option forever—at least not in West Hampton Dunes. Over the last several years, the village’s building department has annually issued between five and seven permits, and the area is simply running out of room, according to West Hampton Dunes Mayor Gary Vegliante.
“We only have about 25 new lots left and 30 old homes that would be candidates to be removed and rebuilt,” Mr. Vegliante explained during a recent telephone interview. “Yes, there’s a lot of building on Dune Road and we’re very happy about it. This will continue for the next several years. I’m hopeful.”
Though the history is difficult to pinpoint, many of the original beach cottages were built in the 1940s and 1950s—after the Hurricane of 1938. They were modest, two- to four-bedroom, shingle-style bungalows—most of them not raised on stilts—that lined Dune Road. Some were built by those who grew up during the Great Depression, Mr. Teller said.
“Different breeds, different mentalities,” he said. “They were frugal. They were a group of people coming out of very difficult times. They had money, but they weren’t going to part with it. They parted with it only so much. It was a whole different mind-set.”
As evidenced by Dune Road today, that way of thinking has changed. The old are now intermingled with multimillion-dollar mansions, said Jude Lyons, managing director for Westhampton Beach Real Estate in Westhampton Beach.
“My theory, and no one’s been able to verify this, but when the hurricane came in 1938, Dune Road was full of McMansion-type houses,” she explained during a recent tour of the construction in Westhampton Beach, Westhampton and West Hampton Dunes. “They didn’t have heat, but they’d be, like, eight, nine bedrooms. So I feel like, after that, people probably built shacks because if this happened again, this wouldn’t be such a big deal.”