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Petrello Sues Over Erosion Hazard Law

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By Claire Walla

What had sparked a wellspring of outrage from local homeowners and had even been featured in a glossy spread in Vanity Fair magazine has now turned into a lawsuit for the Village of Sagaponack.

Last month, Anthony and Cynthia Petrello filed a lawsuit against the Sagaponack Village Board of Trustees, the Sapaponack Village Planning Board and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The issue of contention is the village’s Coastal Erosion Hazard law, which was adopted in December of 2010, but went into effect in June of this year. The law effectively creates a larger buffer of land between coastline properties and the ocean, which — as it affects Petrello — means his current building application is non-compliant.

In 2010, the Petrellos finalized a deal to buy a 1.5-acre piece of property, a corner lot with a simple one-story cottage, that had belonged to the White family farm. Soon after the Petrellos bought the property, they submitted a building application to Sagaponack Village.

The plan was to tear down the existing cottage — a move that was okayed by the village’s architectural and historic review (AHRB) board in June — and erect a two-story, five-bedroom home on a footprint of 4,632 square feet. The building would be complete with a swimming pool, a library and a pool house, which would be connected to the main house by an enclosed walkway.

The plan was submitted to the village’s planning board in 2010 and approved on May 9, 2011. However, that was before the village enacted its new law.

“The new resolution we adopted gave a 125-foot buffer” between coastal buildings and the crest of the dune, said Sagaponack Village Clerk Rhodi Winchell in reference to the village’s coastal erosion hazard law. Petrello’s building application had been approved by the planning board and the DEC because the proposed building currently complies with the state’s imposed coastal erosion hazard line.

However, the village’s more generous setback would cause Petrello’s architectural team to have to redraft the building plan, pushing the structure away from the water by roughly another 30 feet.

“Had they been vested, then they wouldn’t have been in this predicament,” Winchell continued.

In other words, because no structural elements had been in place before the village passed its law, Petrello’s property is not exempt from Local Law No. 1, which, the village contends, currently requires the Petrellos to shift the plans for their new home back a bit.

Changing the architectural plans would place some strain on the Petrellos’ architect, Lisa Zaloga, who Sagaponack Village Building Inspector John Woudsma said already had her work cut out for her trying to fit the Petrello’s two-story home into that 1.5-acre parcel.

According to Woudsma, the property itself needs to sit two feet above the flood zone, and the height of the building needs to be capped at 32 feet from the natural grade, or 40 feet above mean sea level, whichever is more restrictive. This caps Petrello’s building height at 38.5 feet, which he said is pretty “squat” for a two-story structure.

Plus, because the lot itself is triangular in shape, it required the western wall to be designed in a rigid step-like shape to conform to the diagonal property line.

“For the tremendous restraints, the architect actually did a very good job,” Woudsma explained.

But, pushing the property 30 feet back would squeeze the building into an even smaller space, adding even more restriction.

In the lawsuit, drafted by Petrello’s lawyer, Nica Strunk, the plaintiffs argue that the DEC “improperly certified” Local Law No. 1 of 2011. The lawsuit goes on to explain that the Petrello’s application was part of the DEC’s “Letters of No Jurisdiction” issued on December 21, 2010, which therefore protects the Petrellos from having to comply to the village’s law.

What’s more, according to the attorneys, the New York Environmental Conservation Law (ECL), article 34 on coastal erosion “does not provide any authority for a local municipality to enact a coastal erosion hazard area law purporting to affect areas outside of the land defined in the ECL as ‘erosion hazard area.’”

Petrello’s building application is currently set to be reviewed by the AHRB at its monthly meeting this Friday, September 16, after having been postponed from last month’s meeting.