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Year in Review: What’s too big for the size of a house?

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO | The residence on Charlie's Lane that spurred a debate in 2014 on house sizes that carried over into 2015.
AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO | The residence on Charlie’s Lane that spurred a debate in 2014 on house sizes that carried over into 2015.

A subject of conversation by residents for years got louder when Brad Tolkin decided to tear down a waterfront home on Charlie’s Lane and replace it with an 8,297-square-foot house.

What began as a simple, nuts-and-bolts zoning debate about an individual project inspired a new chapter in the ongoing saga of the “Hampton-ization” of Shelter Island.

The Town Board discussed Mr. Tolkin’s plan for his 1.7 acre plot for months, with heated protests from some of his neighbors about the size of the project. Mr. Tolkin prevailed, finally, scaling back the original plan and the Town Board voted approval, with Supervisor Jim Dougherty the only vote against the large project.

The question of what is too big for Shelter Island and how does the town regulate the size of an individual’s residence, won’t go away. A product of the lengthy discussions by the board is a new word buzzing around Town Hall —“proportionality.”

Councilman Paul Shepherd wondered if he and his colleagues were serious. “Are we trying to keep things the same?” Mr. Shepherd asked. “Are we trying to manage the maximums? What is it we’re really trying to accomplish?”

Mr. Shepherd took the lead on proportionality, coming up with a system to regulate house size in light of the fact that the town code is silent on the issue, except that if a project is 6,000-square feet or more the owner needs a permit from the Town Board.

A committee was formed, made up of Councilwoman Chris Lewis, Town Attorney Laury Dowd, Councilman Peter Reich and Mr. Shepherd, tasked to come up with legislation.

Proportionality would be achieved, a proposed law states, by restricting new construction and reconstruction using a formula created by Mr. Shepherd. The formula requires that square footage of living areas may not exceed 10 percent of the first acre — not including wetland setbacks — 7.5 percent of the second acre and decreasing by 25 percent for each subsequent acre.

Since an acre is 43,5600 square feet, 10 percent of living space allowed would be a house of 4,356square feet of heated areas. A two-acre lot would be restricted to a house of 7,405 square feet.

Also included in the subcommittee’s proposal was a so-called “fragile zone ” on top of the present “Near Shore overlay zone,” to achieve goals of plentiful and fresh water.

The proposed fragile zone would include Silver Beach, Menantic Peninsula, Tarkettle Peninsula, Shorewood, both Ram Island causeways and Little Ram Island. The new zone would have a host of regulations on water usage, including the requirement for pressurized water tanks and cisterns.

There has been push back on the idea. Mr. Dougherty noted that the fragile zone was an overlay, in certain areas, of an overlay.

At a Town Board work session this summer, Mr. Dougherty asked how the proposal affected “property rights.” He was also concerned that a new overlay would be “confusing to the people we work for.”

Emory Breiner, a Planning Board member and an unsuccessful Republican candidate for the Town Board in November, asked where homeowners would seek relief from the proposed restrictions on house size. When Ms. Dowd said the Zoning Board of Appeals would be the place, Mr. Breiner responded that the ZBA would be “swamped.”

Mr. Breiner also commented on the list of restrictions that would be imposed on property owners in the fragile zone, noting that they ”probably don’t have any idea what we’re talking about. If they read the restrictions they would fill up this room.”

“I’m hopeful that they will,” Mr. Shepherd said.

Former Supervisor Alfred Kilb joined the discussion, stating that restricting house size was wrong. “You’re taking away the flexibility of people to use their land,” Mr. Kilb told the Town Board. He added that “diversity is created within the community by allowing people to use their land within the code.”

Police Chief Jim Read, speaking as a private citizen, made the point that the board had exercised “a lot of control” over proposed large construction in the recent past by imposing restrictions before granting special exemptions from the town code.

“The tools are already there,” Chief Read said. “I don’t get it.”

Mr. Reich responded that granting special exemptions is “very arbitrary” and board members “are going by the gut, there’s nothing on paper, we’re making it up as we go along.”

He added that special exemption decisions could be challenged in court because there are no written guidelines.

On December 16, at the last Town Board work session of the year, proportionality had been tabled, Councilwoman Chris Lewis said, but will be revisited sometime in the new year.