SOUTHAMPTON PRESS Editorial August 21, 2014
A Litmus Test
So far, the Southampton Village Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review has adeptly handled the controversial 40 Meadow Lane application, agreeing to reopen, on a limited basis, a public hearing on the proposal after opponents say they were misled by elements of the original application. That wasn’t a guarantee, and the board wisely decided that a little more conversation was a good idea, before allowing a clearly modern estate in the village historic district.
But now is when the board’s mettle will be most tested. Frankly, it will be a tall order for the ARB to sign off on a towering zinc-roofed mostly glass structure to replace “A-wheel-y Moor,” the century-old mansion which was exactly the kind of classic Southampton structure that the historic district was designed to protect—clear evidence of just how impotent that particular designation is. It will stick out like the world’s shiniest sore thumb, although, considering its modernity among the historic structures nearby, another digit might well be implied. Moreover, this application truly demonstrates the difficulty that new Federal Emergency Management Agency height requirements in flood-prone areas will have on the village’s concerns about height. This house will be 49 feet above grade, which will make it just about an additional story higher than the village allows. As one opponent, neighbor Philip Howard, an attorney, said at the ARB hearing, “The proposed house will loom over the district and cast a shadow over the immediate neighbors.”
Clearly, village officials recognize the issue—a proposed moratorium would allow time to bring the FEMA rules into consideration and set new height limits—but those changes might not come until after a vote on 40 Meadow Lane. That would be unfortunate, since this is exactly the kind of case the moratorium is meant to examine. But even if the ARB opts not to wait, it doesn’t mean the issue shouldn’t be part of the decision its members will make. Just because the proposal is a square peg in the round hole of current village regulations, that shouldn’t mean it gets a pass—quite the contrary. By any measure, this will be a massive glass-and-metal edifice, and that should be taken into consideration as the board considers its appropriateness to the neighborhood.
Should the ARB choose to act before a moratorium is in place, it will be a good litmus test of the village’s ARB and its true value. As a regulatory board, it’s charged with exactly this type of call—whether a structure is appropriate or not. It tends not to pick fights, and usually would prefer to compromise rather than throwing out an application whole cloth. But this time it must take a firm stand against, or make a convincing argument for, an approval. Without one or the other, the board will be arguing for its absolute inadequacy.