Town Board was set to approve questionable deal

A Windfall — For One Property Owner?

An accompanying article in this issue examines whether political connections play a role in sweetheart deals involving East Hampton Town — especially if those connections are with the local Democratic Party hierarchy, which traditionally controls the planning, zoning, and town boards.

Back in 2016, controversy swirled over a proposal to allow a homeowner to subdivide a Georgica Association property that would have netted the owner a small fortune.

The 5.6-acre “Floken” property at 17 Georgica Association Road contains a main house, two small “cottages,” and a boathouse. The parcel sits on Georgica Pond, where developed properties routinely list and sell for in excess of $10 million.

The owners of the parcel (Ken Joseph, “Floken” and later, Florence and Ken Joseph, are all listed on documents at one time or another) had been trying to get permission to split the lot for some time — eight years. It required myriad legal maneuvers through the planning, zoning, and town boards. The noted attorney Christopher Kelley of Twomey, Latham, Shea, and Kelley by all accounts expertly guided the applicants through the process.

In 2015, the Josephs actually got an approval from the zoning board of appeals to subdivide, but neighbors banded together and sued.

Had the decision stood, the applicants would have been a step closer to their goal: a vacant lot totaling 1.6 acres (lot one) and 3.9 acres for lot two — which contained all the structures on it.

In 2016, the East Hampton Town Board was all set to amend its Open Space Preservation Law which would have allowed the subdivision to proceed. Town officials repeatedly expressed a willingness to accommodate the property owner and renewed the process to make it happen with vigor. However, the tenacious neighbors brought in legal muscle of their own.

Linda Margolin, a partner in Bracken, Margolin, Besunder LLP and a land use specialist representing the neighbors, noted at a public hearing that only two of the four buildings had legal Certificates of Occupancy, the main house and the boat house. Two other structures on the property, each about 600 square feet, did not, Margolin maintained.

That was key to the Josephs’ argument that they were going to reduce density on the parcel and improve the health of Georgica Pond by building only a single dwelling on the property — in exchange for permission to carve another lot out of it.

Make It Happen

According to published reports, Kelley maintained granting a needed waiver would be of “a great value to the town” because of the proposed removal of the structures.

Town Attorney John Jilnicki championed the project, telling board members the lot “had multiple dwellings” and that the “applicant wanted to reduce density.” He urged the board members to “adjust the open space requirements” because “it renders the property more compliant by reducing density.” Marguerite Wolffsohn, the head of the planning department, said the environmental state of the fragile Georgica Pond would benefit from the reduced density and septic upgrades.

Apparently, no one mentioned the mega-mansion that would be erected.

Margolin carefully dissected and refuted each claim. She accused the board of withholding documents and of “acting in secret” by withholding pertinent information her firm had requested under the Freedom of Information Law.

Kevin McGowin, an attorney for Esseks, Hefter, Angel, Ditalia & Pasca, who also represented the neighbors, argued there was no benefit of any kind to the town or his clients. For example, the combined square footage of the buildings to be razed was about 3400 square feet; the applicants wanted to build an 8900-square-foot residence instead. “The notion that Floken is somehow making a sacrifice and that the town is gaining a tangible benefit by exchanging a modest boathouse and two diminutive structures . . . is simply untrue,” he argued.

Margolin also addressed the elephant in the room: that all these years numerous town officials involved in the process knew they were jumping through hoops to accommodate the Josephs, which she said would constitute illegal spot zoning. The reason: the political might of Kelley and his firm.

Politics had nothing to do with it, according to Kelley. Good lawyering did. He reportedly said after gaining ZBA approval that it was no secret that his applicants bargained with the ZBA to receive their variances “but that it was to everyone’s benefit. That is not disallowed by the law,” Kelley said at the time. “We don’t try to hide that. It’s true — that’s exactly what we did. We can get a benefit for the client, but the town is also getting their benefit.”

Town board members cooled to the idea of amending the town’s Open Space law to allow the subdivision to proceed. Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell described the proposed law change that would have allowed the lot to be subdivided as a “clunker” and the other town board members agreed it was “a non-starter.”

Shortly after the decision, two adjacent parcels down the block totaling 2.9 acres at 29 Association Road with two teardowns on them were on the market for $24 million.