By Claire Walla
One powerful Texas businessman. Five members of a long-time Hamptons farm family. And 57 acres of highly valued oceanfront property.
It’s an all-too-familiar equation. In recent years, acres of East End farmland have been sub-divided and developed by wealthy individuals seeking seaside solace from the big, bustling city. A village originally named for the abundance of what once grew there, Sagaponack (a Shinnecock word meaning “land of the big ground nuts”) now has only one working seaside farm.
While the story of farmland development has been told before, the White property in Sagaponack is somewhat unique. Not only was it recently the subject of a glossy exposé in the July issue of Vanity Fair, but the 57-acre parcel is one of the last working farms in the incorporated village.
While the long fight to preserve the flat vista is still in the throes of tangled litigation, this week’s chapter centers on the Sagaponack Village Architectural and Historic Review Board (AHRB).
Last Friday, June 24, Anthony Petrello, the Texas businessman, presented an application to the Sagaponack AHRB proposing the demolition of a 585 square-foot structure on a 9-acre parcel of land he purchased from the White family in 1998.
A big part of the larger controversy stems from Petrello and White’s contract of sale for the land. Written into the rider at the end of the document is a clause in which Petrello is granted a “right of first refusal.” In other words, should any one of the Whites attempt to sell the property to someone outside the family, they would be legally obligated to court Petrello first.
The relationship between the Petrellos and the Whites goes back to the ‘90s when Petrello and his wife Cynthia first began renting one of the six summer cottages at the southern foot of the White family compound — right beside the Atlantic Ocean. From east to west, the cottages are: “Liberty Hall,” “Shangri-La,” “Dune Tip,” “Wainscott Station,” “The Model,” and “Meighan’s Cottage.”
Though Petrello spent most of his summers in “The Model,” he negotiated a deal with the White family to buy the south-west corner of the land for $2.1 million. This parcel includes “Meighan’s Cottage,” which is now his to do with as he pleases.
Well, as much as anyone in the village of Sagaponack can do with their land as they please.
The application to demolish the small cottage has been met with outrage from some in the Sagaponack community who worry that the cottage will be replaced by a massive home. Though Petrello has already submitted architectural plans to the Village of Sagaponack for a two-story structure, these blueprints were not up for review last week.
During the public comment portion of last Friday’s meeting, Sagaponack resident and lawyer Bruce Kaplan explained his position as a community member bent on preserving the low-key atmosphere of the agricultural community. Together with other Sagaponack residents, Kaplan previously opposed the construction of the controversial 63-acre compound built by investment banker Ira Rennert in the late ‘90s, an event which largely led to the creation of Sagaponack as an incorporated village in 2005, giving the community more local control over such matters.
“One of your most important functions is to preserve buildings that possess special character, or value as part of the social or political [character] of the village,” he told the board.
Kaplan went on to explain the historical importance of the strip of six cottages on the White property (including “Meighan’s,” which belongs to Petrello) to the history of the Sagaponack community.
They are important, not only for the significance of the buildings themselves — “Meighan’s” was reportedly built by John White Sr.’s half-brother in the 30s — “but for the people who occupied them,” Kaplan said.
He told the board that Howard Meighan, who commissioned construction of the cottage, was an executive at CBS.
“Meighan was a person of some distinction,” Kaplan went on.
He urged the board to preserve “Meighan’s Cottage” by denying Petrello’s application for demolition: “Do not let it fall victim to a wrecking ball, caught in the path of a Texas tornado.”
However, according to lawyer Nica Strunk who is representing Petrello, “Meighan’s Cottage” lacks enough historical significance to be saved. Not only that, it presents major health hazards.
And while she gave in great detail her reasons for the property’s demolition, she began her case by addressing the board on a more personal matter.
“Before I begin talking about the legal issues, I wanted to explain a serious concern that we have as attorneys for the applicants,” Strunk detailed. “We’re worried that this meeting today really has less to do with the fact that there is a 585 square-foot building on this property and more with the people who are involved in this matter.”
She noted that local publications — not to mention the Vanity Fair piece — have outlined the personal dispute that’s welled up between Anthony and Cynthia Petrello and the White family. Strunk urged the board not to weigh its decision on White’s good reputation in the community — his family has farmed the same land since the end of the 17th century — but rather to “treat Anthony and Cynthia Petrello the way you would treat every other member of this village.”
Strunk criticized the board for calling a public hearing on this matter, when similar issues in the past did not warrant additional public discussions. Later, AHRB President Ann Sanford would defend the board’s decision, explaining that the public hearing was voted on unanimously by the board.
“It has been our practice [to call a public hearing] if one or more residents step forward,” she said. “That was a signal to me that this was an important issue for the community.”
Strunk continued, “Local gossip and inflammatory articles in Dan’s Papers could have a negative impact on the members of this village. It is imperative that [these issues] do not affect this board.”
Apart from personal matters, Strunk said the cottage is not historically relevant. Besides the fact that the structure has actually been moved from its original pilings, she noted that the architectural elements (sloped roof, partial sheet-rocking) don’t carry architectural relevance.
Plus, according to a report by historian Alison Cornish in 2000, Strunk explained the structure was labeled “non-contributing” as part of a survey of historic structures, which included buildings in Sagaponack.
Rounding off Strunk’s presentation, local architect Lisa Zaloga told the board that the building is, in fact, non-conforming to FEMA regulations, the pilings contain creosote and the interior tested positive for lead paint. Restoring the structure, she said, would be “almost impossible.”
“In terms of preservation, to make this building any kind of habitable structure, we would have to heat it, the roof-rafters are not sized correctly [and would] have to be removed and it would have to be insulated,” she explained.
“I’m concerned that there might be some people who idealize this property for what beach-front property should be,” Strunk continued. “The building is so small that it doesn’t even meet house size standards.”
“It is not under any standard worthy of preservation,” she concluded.
However, resident Edie Lutnick, whose property sits adjacent to Petrello’s land, echoed neighbor Bruce Kaplan.
She said she does not know either Petrello or the Whites very well and thus concluded, “I don’t have any bias either way.”
“I do, however, look out my window, and I look at the cottages down the line and it’s convenient to say that 500 square-feet is small. These cottages make up a whole, and they make up a whole on a farm that all of us have come to love,” she explained. “To take these cottages as if they are distinct individual things that you can take apart and rip away one by one is a disservice to the residents of Sagaponack.”
Lutnick urged the board to preserve the building in order to keep the historic nature of the cottage community intact.
“The reality is, this doesn’t have to be a residential structure. You can move the house back in compliance with the coastal erosion zone,” she added. “There is a way here that everyone can win.”
The hearing is now open for a 10-day comment period, which will close on Monday, July 4.
At the end of the hearing, Sagaponack Village Attorney Anthony Tohill asked Strunk whether or not it would be possible to preserve the building, but relocate it to another piece of land off of White’s parcel.
“I of course anticipated that question,” Strunk said with a grin. “The clients are open to that option. Our main goal right now is to get a building permit on this lot, and this is one of the steps. If there is any reasonable suggestion, we are open to it.”