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May 19, 2015 4:46 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Spurned Sagaponack Developers Plant Trees Blocking View

A row of evergreen trees was planted last week around the open-space easement on a property in Sagaponack where a subdivision application was denied last winter.            DANA SHAW
May 19, 2015 6:13 PM

The owners of the largest vacant oceanfront parcel in Sagaponack have rimmed much of the property with Christmas trees—a seeming thumb in the eye of village officials who denied their application for a subdivision of the property in January.

The trees, just a few feet tall now, run almost the entire length of the property along Daniels Lane, save for a 2.5-acre notch at the northwestern corner of the property, where the owners had asked to be allowed to build a 12,000-square-foot house.

Village officials rejected the application, saying they had already endorsed a four-lot subdivision at the southern end of the property and wanted the rest of the land kept open—in part to preserve the views across farmland from Daniels Lane. Those views are now blocked by the newly planted trees.

“This is a spiteful thing by the owner, because he couldn’t get exactly what he wanted, so he’s going to spoil it for everybody,” Village Trustee Bill Barbour said. “Why do people do this kind of thing? They come to this wide-open farming country, and then they just want to change it as soon as they get their piece of the pie. It’s just shameful.”

Representatives of the owners—Marc Goldman, Michael Hirtenstein and Milton Berlinski—told Village Building Inspector John Woudsma that the area of the property that has been rimmed with trees is going to be a Christmas tree farm, according to Mayor Don Louchheim.

But officials say the planting of the trees may violate an agreement between the owners and the Peconic Land Trust that brought the landowners a windfall of tax relief on the long-vacant lot, in exchange for pledging that it remain open agricultural land. The easement expressly states that the 25-acre agricultural area should not be fenced off or screened with shrubbery or other plantings.

The single row of trees planted last week traces the outline of the easement’s boundaries along the property line, but not the entire easement area.

Peconic Land Trust President John v.H. Halsey said his organization had sent employees to photograph and survey the property and will be examining the easement agreement for compliance.

“We’ll have to look carefully at whether they’re violating the terms of the easement and notify them if they are,” Mr. Halsey said. “In any case of a violation, we have a right to cure it, and also to litigate. Usually, we don’t get to litigation in such cases, but we have the responsibility to enforce it.”

Mayor Louchheim said that village code may give the village an avenue to force removal of the trees. The code says that any preserved open space may not be screened from public view or have the vistas from public roadways interrupted.

“That property is covered by a conservation easement and … there is a section of the village code that would allow the village to pursue this,” Mr. Louchheim said. “However, a covenant on the land is much more easily enforced.”

In granting the agricultural easement to the land trust, which permanently precludes any use of that portion of land for residential development, the owners would have received a substantial tax credit. The owners reportedly claimed the value of the land to be $45 million.

The entire 44-acre property was purchased by Mr. Goldman for $30 million. In 2005, he sold two one-third shares in the land to Mr. Hirtenstein and Mr. Berlinski for $15 million each.

The village was on the verge of approving a subdivision plan in 2008, which showed three oceanfront parcels at the southern end of the property and a fourth housing lot immediately north of the westernmost oceanfront parcel, when the application was tabled by the owners. In 2009, Mr. Goldman filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against his two partners over the business arrangement.

In 2013, the application finally returned to the village for planning approval—but the fourth building lot had been moved to the northwest corner of the property, to a section of the lot set aside when the Land Trust easement was created for an agricultural building.

When village officials made it clear that the arrangement was not acceptable, and that they preferred the old one with all the houses at the southern end, the owners withdrew it and resubmitted a new plan showing only one housing lot, at the northwestern corner. Village officials immediately painted the application as an attempt to end-run their regulatory authority and rejected the proposal, with a scathing footnote of criticism for the applicants and their attorney, David Eagan. Mr. Eagan subsequently filed a lawsuit on behalf of the partners against the village challenging the denial. The suit is pending.

Mr. Eagan could not be reached for comment about the newly planted trees.

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Do the trees block the views of the hundreds of no parking signs that line Sagaponacks streets? I hope not! I'd hate for people not to see those...
By G (342), Southampton on May 19, 15 7:19 PM
1 member liked this comment
By GoldenBoy (351), EastEnd on May 19, 15 8:27 PM
3 members liked this comment
That's funny
By bigblue84 (89), Hampton Bays on May 19, 15 9:03 PM
Good for them-they should have planted a bamboo farm grows faster
By CaptainSig (716), Dutch Harbor on May 20, 15 7:18 AM
2 members liked this comment
This village is outrageous. First they don't let a house get built and now they want to dictate what kind of plants can be grown on a farm. Who really owns this land, the owner or the board?
By East End Living (1), Sag Harbor on May 20, 15 3:37 PM
1 member liked this comment
By whatapity (106), Tuckahoe on May 20, 15 9:48 PM
Goldman, Hirtenstein and Berlinski sounds more to me like the partners of a NY law firm, than three farmers wishing to grow Christmas trees, of all things. And a violation of the Peconic Land Trust restrictive covenants doesn't surprise me any more than plantings intended to block the views of the public who funded the purchase of the conservation easement in the first place. I think there's something in the Old Testament about this, but you'd have had to read it to know it. To me, it's just ...more
By Dodger (161), Southampton Village on May 21, 15 3:00 PM
maybe offer Free Christmas trees to charities!! get people back in their favor
By david h (405), southampton on May 28, 15 1:04 PM
By bigfresh (4666), north sea on May 25, 15 5:08 PM
They approved the subdivision and construction of 4 homes and are upset when the owner later asks to build one home?
By Baymen87 (135), Lugoff, SC on May 26, 15 8:18 AM
And now they can get free money from the Peconic Land Trust to help with their Xmas tree farm.
By bird (829), Southampton on May 29, 15 4:22 PM