In the Hamptons, where social status is tallied in square feet, officials in three of the most exclusive villages are trying to downsize mansions and upend what some see as a worrisome trend.
Residents in Southampton Village have complained that developers in the past year have squeezed six- and seven-bedroom houses onto 1-acre and half-acre lots, altering the village's look and character.
"You have this towering monstrosity next to this quaint little cottage," Southampton Village administrator Stephen Funsch said. "A lot of longtime residents feel it's affecting the quaint feel of the village."
Officials have responded by exploring ways to scale down new mansions, including "spec" houses that developers build without specific buyers in mind and plan to put on the market once they're completed.
East Hampton Village officials have drafted tighter restrictions on the sizes of homes on lots larger than an acre in an attempt to get ahead of an anticipated wave of teardown home redevelopments.
Sag Harbor Village officials may impose a three-month moratorium on the construction of houses over 3,000 square feet and reconstructions that increase the size of a house by more than 50 percent, village attorney Fred Thiele Jr. said. The goal is to give village officials time to consider new regulations on house size, he said.
"The size of the houses we're getting in the existing zoning code are not consistent with the historic character of the village," said Thiele, who is also a state assemblyman (I-Sag Harbor). Village officials may vote Tuesday to schedule a hearing on the proposed moratorium, he added.
In some areas, the laws have drawn criticism from landowners and builders of high-priced mansions who say the restrictions are arbitrary and unnecessary.
Pat Trunzo, a Wainscott home builder, called East Hampton's effort "a solution in search of a problem" because there hasn't been an outcry about overscale houses there.
"Size alone is neither the problem nor the solution," Trunzo said at a May 15 East Hampton Village Board hearing on the restrictions. "Design, and the integrity of that design matters."
Luxury market boom
Municipal officials said the concerns grew out of a post-recession luxury home construction boom in the Hamptons. Building permits issued in Southampton more than tripled in two years, rising to 387 in 2014 from 128 in 2012, village officials said, with some new mansions looming over more modest neighbors.
"It's all tied to the housing market," said Lisa Liquori, an East Hampton planning consultant who has studied the trend for the past year for the Southampton Association civic group. "With land prices and housing prices continuing to escalate, people buying a residential lot want to maximize it."
Ann Pyne, an interior designer who has owned a home in Southampton for 32 years, said her historic neighborhood around Hill Street exemplifies the trend. Last year, a 5,500-square-foot spec house was built on a 1.2-acre lot next to hers. Pyne said it clashes with the area's 19th-century farmhouses, which are generally about 2,400 square feet -- roughly the size of her house.
"You have these big houses that make the historic houses look like a fake Hollywood movie front," Pyne said.
On nearby Corrigan Street, a 6,300-square-foot spec home with seven bedrooms was constructed last year on half an acre. It is priced at $5 million and features a home theater and wine cellar in a finished basement, according to a real estate listing.
When they meet Thursday, Southampton Village Board members are expected to consider reducing the 35-foot maximum house height to 33 feet for 1-acre lots and 30 feet for half-acre lots. Village officials are also exploring tightening limits on the maximum floor area of a home, said Paul Travis, Southampton Village Planning Commission chairman.
Village permits pay
New mansion construction brought East Hampton and Southampton villages hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue from permit fees in 2014. But the building boom has also forced officials to try to balance the gains with a desire among some residents to maintain a cozy, old-fashioned aesthetic.
Southampton officials expected $1.3 million in building permit revenue, but took in more than $2 million, Funsch said. East Hampton officials budgeted $290,000 in permit revenue but received $595,000, village administrator Rebecca Molinaro said.
East Hampton officials said an uptick in applications for large home redevelopments started last year, and planning commission members began to wonder what the village would look like if landowners across the village built the biggest homes allowable.
"There has been a trend -- even though we have a lot of lovely lots and lovely homes on them -- a lot of people are buying these lovely homes and demolishing them and building larger structures," Molinaro said.
East Hampton officials have proposed a stricter formula for determining the maximum floor area of a house based on lot size. For example, the maximum allowable size of a house on an 80,000-square-foot lot would drop to 7,800 square feet from 9,000 square feet.
Pushback on proposed rule
The proposal has angered some landowners and builders, who say the village already has effective homebuilding rules and argue officials did not adequately study how new regulations would affect construction jobs and tax revenues.
Joseph Rose, a former New York City Planning Commission chairman, said he wants to build a 5,400-square-foot house for his children near his own East Hampton home, but new regulations would limit him to 5,324 square feet -- a reduction that he said seems arbitrary and not worth changing village law over if it results in such a small decrease of square footage.
"I don't think there's a demonstrated problem of overdevelopment or outsized house construction in the affected neighborhoods," Rose said at the May 15 hearing.
Village officials are also considering a similar formula for lot coverage and a rule stopping basements from extending beyond the edges of a house.
"We are routinely now seeing basements much larger than the footprint of the house," including one with 12 legal bedrooms underground, Molinaro said.