Scattered across East Hampton village are about two-dozen frame houses -- dating from between 1700 and 1850 -- that are posing a historic headache for local preservation efforts.
The frame houses play an important role in showing how the village, founded by English farmers in 1648, evolved, officials contend. "They're like a Polaroid snapshot of our history," said Mayor Paul Rickenbach Jr.
The buildings are privately owned, however, and village officials fear they could eventually be torn down by new owners who want to build a larger house -- especially because village code limits how large a structure can be built on any individual property, based on the size of the lot.
Now, the village is reviewing a plan to give a zoning bonus to owners of those houses, allowing them to add 35 percent of the gross floor area to any new construction -- provided the timber frame buildings are left intact.
The proposal, which could be voted on early next year, has drawn general support at public meetings, but some of the details are still being questioned, because the legislation is limited to the allowable space.
Some residents of the 4.9-square-mile village said they should have the right to voluntarily take advantage of the program, rather than being forced into it by having their home included, a requirement in an early version of the village plan.
The East Hampton Village Preservation Society, for example, says it supports the goals of the zoning proposal to protect timber-frame structures, but its executive director, Kathleen Cunningham, asked the board whether it was considering a tax abatement. She said her group could not support the legislation unless it included a provision that all dwellings on each property be used by only one family.
East Hampton architect Bruce Siska, whose family has lived in the village for 12 generations, wrote to the village board in support of the preservation concept. "These houses represent our village's past, and should be maintained for future generations," he wrote.
Siska and his wife live in a house that began as a three-bay lean-to around 1740, with wide pumpkin pine floors harvested from local trees and milled by local craftsmen, with door hinges, latches and nails made by local blacksmiths. "It is pretty remarkable when you stop and think about it," he said.
Another East Hampton architect, Greg Zwirko, sent a letter to the village board saying he has worked in the village for more than 40 years, and developed a deep appreciation for the local influence reflected in its early houses.
"Over the years, I've seen many wonderful classic and traditional houses lost . . . not everyone coming to East Hampton appreciates the heritage we have," he wrote.
Rules on expansion
In East Hampton village, where some homes are built on tiny lots carved out in colonial times and others are built on large estates, village code limits the gross area of newly constructed houses with a formula that customized the allowable size to each specific lot.
-- Maximum gross floor area is 10 percent of the total lot size, plus 1,000 square feet. No building of more than 20,000 square feet is permitted, no matter how large the lot size.
-- When a second building is constructed on a lot with cooking or sleeping facilities, the gross floor area of each building is combined.
-- The limit applies whether the second building is suitable for occupancy by a separate family as an independent living unit.
Source: East Hampton village zoning code