The Hot Zone

Say hello to this summer’s Ira Rennert: Courtney Ross, the elusive 52-year-old widow of the late Time Warner chairman Steve Ross.

The multimillionaire who founded the Ross School in 1991 – on an otherwise unremarkable lot on Goodfriend Drive off Route 114 in East Hampton – is on a Rennert-scale building spree. In fact, her proposed plan to turn a parcel of woodland into a 484,000-square-foot extension of the Ross School makes Rennert’s 100,000-square-foot mansion in Sagaponack look like a beach bungalow.

Ross exercised her option to purchase 133 acres adjacent to the school three years ago. In a part of East Hampton where land fetches upwards of $20,000 an acre, that’s a hefty purchase. If approved, the Ross Institute will be the largest development on the South Fork of Long Island.

Right now, that’s a big if.

The town got its first glimpse of the proposed institute in January, when Ross’s master plan was submitted to the East Hampton Planning Board. Her “campus in the woods” is intended to be an Aspen Institute-like think tank for educators around the world to develop and share teaching methods, philosophies, and curricula. Two of the five centers outlined in the proposal – the Ross School and the Center for Well Being – are already in place. The teacher-training center, mentors-elders building, and communications center are pending approval.

The Village Preservation Society responded with a full-page call to arms in the East Hampton Star: the east hampton town board must take action to examine the development of the ross institute! Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, denounced the Institute as “a mini-city in the last standing, undeveloped Pine Barrens on Long Island.”

At issue: the effect on the water supply in a town that gets virtually all of its drinking water from two aquifers, one of which is located beneath the proposed site of the institute; the impact on the plants and animals in the surrounding Pine Barrens; and the impact on traffic safety. Even preservationists who understand that the site has been zoned for commercial and industrial development wonder about the practical consequences of something so large in a town so small. If approved, the institute would surpass the Hamptons’ largest developments – Gurney’s Inn, Bridgehampton Commons (home to King Kullen and Kmart), and the Rennert complex – combined.

Protests over Rennert’s 29-bedroom, 39-bath villalike compound (albeit on a 66-acre lot) prompted East Hampton to pass an ordinance limiting construction of new houses to no more than 20,000 square feet. But there’s nothing to prohibit construction of institutes of almost 500,000 square feet – except, perhaps, public opposition. Homeowners successfully blocked a plan for the Country School, a primary school that was to be built near the Ross campus, saying it would destroy the char-
acter of the neighborhood. Sagaponack landowners, too, are trying to block Itzhak Perlman from turning a parcel of farmland into a music school.

“The Ross Institute is what I refer to as an edifice complex,” says Amper. “She’s teaching an appreciation of the environment by bulldozing Long Island’s premier ecosystem? Bad lesson for the kids!”

Of course, Ross says she has no intention of bulldozing the entire ecosystem – just 31 acres of the 133 she purchased. “I have a piece of property that’s been zoned for commercial and industrial use. I’m allowed to do this,” says Ross, who nonetheless hired crisis-P.R. specialist John Scanlon to battle the perception that she shouldn’t be.

While Ross’s team of experts prepares the institute’s revised environmental-impact statement, due at the planning board in July, the heiress herself will quietly slip away to Italy Memorial Day weekend to marry Swedish businessman and Liam Neeson look-alike Anders Holst (they met at a technology conference about two years ago).

Ross declines to say how much she’s spent on research to back up her claim that the Ross Institute poses no threat to the groundwater or to the environment. Proving the development won’t threaten a community already overrun by too many people and cars is another matter.

“If you look at any single project, without exception, you are going to be able to show that your single application in and of itself won’t destroy drinking water,” says State Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr., a longtime advocate for groundwater protection. “But people have a view of their community, and there’s no hydrologist who can speak to the issue of size and scale.”

“I could’ve put the institute anywhere in the world,” says Ross. “I chose East Hampton not just because I have a home there but because it’s the right place. You’ve got this small town with an intellectual layer of artists, writers, poets, and painters. And then you’ve got this dense population in the summer of powerful people you want to bring in to explore the potentiality of K-12 education. It’s not like it’s a shopping center,” she says with a sigh. “It’s a place of education.”

The Hot Zone