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Tense hearing eyes Fire Island rebuilding

The Pavilion complex at the Pines, Fire Island

The Pavilion complex at the Pines, Fire Island burned Monday night with more than 400 firefighters responding to fight the blaze. (Nov. 16, 2011) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

Owners of the LaFountaine Building, a beloved commercial complex in Fire Island Pines that burned to the ground two months ago, should be allowed to rebuild a similar facility on the same site, said supporters in a public hearing Wednesday.

But opponents at the hearing said the reconstruction plan could set a precedent that could subject Fire Island to overdevelopment.

LaFountaine's owner, Nicole LaFountaine, needs a variance because the proposed building, like the old one, would take up more than 90 percent of its 6,014-square-foot lot. Zoning in the area allows only for 50 percent, a policy established after the old LaFountaine Building was built in 1980.

Many speakers in a tense, emotional hearing -- which lasted three hours and drew more than 200 people -- said denying LaFountaine the right to rebuild swiftly would be a critical blow to Fire Island Pines' summer tourism.

Others said approval is necessary to begin rebuilding the community, which also lost the Pavilion, a venerable nightclub and center of gay culture, in the fire.

Brookhaven's zoning board of appeals has until mid-March to decide, but chairman Paul DeChance said it would try to decide soon. LaFountaine said swift approval would allow her to reopen by Memorial Day.

"It is vital to the Pines and to our neighboring communities that we rebuild for this season," LaFountaine said.

But Meg Switzgable, who splits time between Fire Island Pines and Brooklyn, urged the zoning board to reject the proposal. "Granting this variance will establish the rather dangerous precedent that fire is an acceptable route to perpetual nonconformity," she said.

The LaFountaine Building included seven tenants, including the popular Sip N'Twirl Disco. All tenants have agreed to move into the new complex if it is ready by summer, LaFountaine said.

The new building, like the old one, would be two stories, but the square footage would be about 5,800, which is slightly less than the old building, LaFountaine said.

Owners of the Pavilion spoke in favor of the LaFountaine plan. The Pavilion owners also said they have hired an architect to design their new complex.

Andrew Kirtzman, who co-owns the Pavilion, stressed that the club competes with LaFountaine, but the viability of both is key for the community. "The future of the Pines is at stake," he said.

Brookhaven's fire marshal ruled the cause of the fire "undetermined after investigation," town spokesman Jack Krieger said. Suffolk police are investigating.

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