From left, Edgar Papazian and Nilay Oza, the moderators, with Sag Harbor Village Planning Board Chair John Shaka, architect Erica Broberg, engineer Paul DiLandro and land surveyor Daniel Weaver. ANNE SURCHIN
Last week’s panel discussion on regional planning at Sag Harbor’s John Jermain Library, sponsored by AIA Peconic, featured a perplexing presentation on the role of architects, engineers, land surveyors, planners and government agencies all interconnected by local laws, building codes, zoning ordinances, and distinct, local regulations such as those required in historic districts.
This morass of regulations can make anyone’s head spin, especially when taken collectively. The role of architects, as they represent their clients’ interests, is to pilot through obtuse and often conflicting zoning regulations all while trying to maintain the aesthetic integrity of a project.
To illustrate the complexity of these problems AIA Peconic developed a chart on “The Making of a McMansion – How well-meaning, un-enforced, or non-existent code provisions inadvertently allow for the supersizing of homes on the East End.”
The chart begins by showing a small, existing home on a generic lot. The next diagram displays a small addition proposed for aging in place or a growing family. The following diagram notes that the addition runs counter to the 50 percent replacement threshold mandated by the New York State Building Code. Consequently, the project is rendered too expensive and troublesome. The next illustration shows the house abandoned, no longer viable for the owner’s use, and after several years it falls into disrepair. People are abandoning their homes because there’s no way for them to renovate sustainably. At that point, a spec house is proposed with little onsite review, and a building permit is issued. The site is then clear-cut to the maximum degree permitted by law. Construction commences while runoff flows, unchecked, onto the neighboring property since there was no forethought or planning for this eventuality.
The next illustration reveals that the pyramid law has been violated. This law is used to establish a sky plane from the property lines so the new house roof doesn’t puncture through it and cut off light and air to neighbors. In this “whoops” scenario, there is no mechanism in place either in the permitting or inspection process to challenge the violation. In the final diagram, an entire floor is dug out and the house sits lower down on the site in what is a moat around the house. This enables a third story to be legally constructed without violating the height limitation.
This doomsday situation is real, and “tear it down” is the consensus from the real estate field even if the house has historic significance. And that is the making of a McMansion.
Edgar Papazian, a moderator for the discussion, said that something is really broken when it comes to development. “Historic structures, woodlands, affordable housing, climate change, aging in place, demand for water, resources, and sustainability are all issues coming to a critical juncture,” he said. “Change is afoot everywhere, ever larger houses being built, the clearing of land and mature native vegetation, historic and potentially historic structures are caught up in this cycle. It’s naïve to think the current level of development in this region can be sustainable without negative, permanent change to the tone of the place.
“As professionals we should be part of the solution, not the problem,” he continued. “Because if we do truly overdevelop and erase the special things about our region, then what is left as an attraction or unique place?
His neighbor observed, “We will become Levittown for the rich.”
Architects are often pushed by clients to do the untenable. The sentiment, however, among the allied professionals on the panel reflects a do-no-harm approach. The professionals have to look at the public as a whole as “the client.”
What the AIA Peconic chart really revealed is the codes on the books are being used to achieve undesirable outcomes from unintentional consequences.
The panelists jumped all over what the outcomes could and should be. Architect Erica Broberg noted that she’ll take on a client based on how nice they are and that some of her work will not make it on to the cover of an Architectural Digest or Architectural Record. She has older clients who want to do small projects so they can age in place, and she immensely enjoys that clientele. Even younger clients want to plan now for this future transition, but the questions remain as to how to do an expedited permit for a downstairs bedroom immediately. In terms of injury, illness, disability and age, she would like to see a responsive process to accommodate those with an immediate need.
Adding a bedroom can be problematic as it may then trigger the installation of an I/A septic system to the tune of $50,000. On top of the cost of construction this additional expense makes the project untenable.
John Shaka, the chair of the Sag Harbor Village Planning Board, has been struggling with a way to structure the rules and the code so that people can turn their garage into an affordable unit, which then may trigger upgrading the septic system. He feels there has to be a way to overcome these obstacles.
According to Broberg, to sell one’s house in East Hampton starting in January, the C of O must be updated in order to sell the property. This will trigger a whole series of potentially expensive upgrades which could take as long as a year to accomplish.
When asked about the cleared flat site on the chart, Dan Weaver a fourth-generation land surveyor, mentioned that the spec builder has factored everything into the cost of doing business, and what is spent on site preparation, such as revegetation, will be made up by the sale price.
The other problem regarding pyramid laws has to do with natural grade. Paul Dilandro of Dilandro Andrews Engineering questioned if there’s actually any natural grade left. “It’s clear that no one knows what natural grade was 50 years ago when that law was developed, so we have to go with what the grade is now,” he said. Weaver mentioned that grades can be determined with lidar — light detection and ranging — but it doesn’t work with property boundary lines, so to use this technology the grades can be overlaid on the property tax map to determine elevations. Of course the tax maps themselves aren’t always accurate.
Pyramid laws can also vary between municipalities from existing grade to average grade. In Southold, for example, the pyramid starting point begins 10 feet above existing grade.
Shaka talked about Sag Harbor’s planning code book, which is about the size of an old Manhattan phone book. Architects don’t have a problem understanding it but when homeowners come in and ask, why can’t I do this, he finds it helpful to explain the intent behind the regulation.
From the audience, with regard to regulations, architect Bill Chaleff remarked that “they were promulgated by professionals such as are in this room right now.”
“We are building buildings that we are not happy with,” he said, “and I want to know, what do you expect or what would you like this area to look like 50 years from now or 100 years from now? And start reverse engineering whatever has to be done, whatever we have to change so that we wind up there. Just griping about a particular chapter or subparagraph ‘A’ — that’s not getting us anywhere. We have to agree as to where we want to go. We can look at what Nantucket has done.”
He also pointed out that villages and hamlets were developed in a working environment, and we don’t have that anymore. “We don’t believe in villages and hamlets anymore, just the suburban settlement pattern, and that’s the worst thing that could ever have happened on Long Island, and it is infamously on the map and in the history books for that.
Jack Rosebery, an architect who designs houses for Habitat for Humanity, has witnessed how young people are leaving Long Island in droves. To live on Long Island and buy a Habitat house is still a lot of money. His parents bought their first home at 25 but today a first home is being bought by people who range in age from 35 to 40.
And when it comes to new technologies, there is blowback from building department officials who say, ”You can’t do that.” Rosebery then asks them to show him where it says that in the code. He said we have to make it a process that is not so complex that nobody wants to do anything because they have to spend a fortune to get anywhere.
Part of the problem also has to do with how code officials interpret the building code and this, too, can vary from municipality to municipality.
Small houses like the fishing cottages could be clustered together on small acreage, according to Broberg.
Chaleff commented that having a centralized wastewater system with feeders that go out a mile or two would establish a giant radius, which would be infinitely cheaper than individual I/A septic systems and would take the responsibility for maintenance and operation off the individual homeowner. Additionally, we have 350,000 houses in Suffolk County alone, and at $25,000 to $50,000 a pop for upgraded systems, it’s ridiculous. It’s a centralized problem that demands a centralized solution.
Another audience member brought up historic resources surveys, which are supposed to be updated by municipalities every five years. This simply does not happen on the East End. Keep in mind that a building only has to be 50 years old to be deemed historic. By not updating these surveys, the East End may lose the opportunity to protect fine examples of the architecture of our recent past.
What was encouraging about this presentation and discussion had to do with the amount of enthusiasm and concern in the room for the subject matter. According to moderator Nilay Oza, this is the first salvo by AIA Peconic on regional planning, and the public can look forward to more programs ahead.
Anne Surchin is an East End architect and writer, vice chair of the Southold Historic Preservation Commission and co-author with Gary Lawrance of “Houses of the Hamptons 1880-1930.”
One fine body…