Is the Mayor of an Exclusive Hamptons Enclave a Squatter? It’s Complicated

In one of the Hamptons’ most seçkine enclaves, amid shingle-style mansions and beachfront estates, a man has been living without authorization in a two-bedroom apartment in a house on David Whites Lane. His lease expired months ago. His latest rent check has gone uncashed.

He is also the village’s mayor.

Jesse Warren, the political neophyte who became Southampton’s youngest-ever mayor when he was narrowly elected in 2019 at age 36, acknowledged that he had overstayed his lease, which ended in October, and should not be in the apartment, where he has lived for about five years and resides with his girlfriend, Martyna Sokol.

But while he equivocates as to whether he has technically been squatting, Mr. Warren is insistent about one thing: The situation is not his fault. It is part of a politically motivated, multimillion-dollar real estate scheme to oust him from office over residency requirements, he says. Because as it happens, a former mayor — the father of his bitter political rival — is also his landlord.

The landlord and former mayor, Mark Epley, disputed the idea that political bad blood was to blame for the fight over the apartment. But Mr. Epley’s son took a different position on their unwelcome tenant: “He’s nasty,” said the son, Zach Epley, himself a former political appointee.

Even by the thorny standards of small town entanglements, the sagais uncommonly messy, rife with conflicting claims and mired in years of provincial squabbling. But in its broad strokes, it is easy to hear the echo of a deeply divided national moment in which some seem committed to their own versions of reality, and each side is convinced that the other is acting only out of political self-interest.

The drama began, by Mr. Warren’s telling, in July. That was when he discovered that the taupe stucco home at 81 David Whites Lane had been purchased for $1.5 million by a limited liability company: 81DW L.L.C. Over the summer, Mr. Warren discovered the buyer behind the company was Mark Epley, who served as mayor of Southampton for 12 years before retiring in 2017.

Though the village swells to over 55,000 glamorous residents in the summer, its year-round population of about 3,000 is mostly middle class. Mr. Warren, who was educated at Brown University and lived in Manhattan’s West Village after college, first entered the Southampton scene as a retail merchant, catering to the summer hordes. He owns Tenet, a high-fashion shop he opened about a decade ago that sells things like $495 sneakers.

Mr. Warren is a registered Democrat and Mr. Epley, who owns a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, is a registered independent. And while the role of mayor is a nonpartisan position in Southampton, there are reasons the two mayors might not share warm feelings for one another.

Mr. Warren’s 45-vote squeaker victory unseated the incumbent mayor, Michael Irving, who had succeeded Mr. Epley and who was his favored candidate. Then as one of several personnel changes he made shortly after being elected, Mr. Warren replaced Zach Epley on the planning board, a position he had held for about a year.

And this past fall, Zach Epley, who helps run his family’s rehabilitation center, ran unsuccessfully for the Village Board of Trustees, losing to a candidate favored by Mr. Warren. Zach Epley has accused the mayor of surveilling him from a car as he went door-to-door campaigning, which Mr. Warren denies.

Zach Epley, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on Southampton’s board of trustees, is the son of the former mayor.Credit…Gonzalo Marroquin/Patrick McMullan, via Getty Images

A few days after Mr. Epley lost the trustee election, the Epleys served Mr. Warren with a 90-day notice that his lease would not be renewed.

“It is not surprising you would have the former mayor and his family buying my house through an anonymous L.L.C., then proceeding to make a motion to evict me during a pandemic to force me from elected office,” said Mr. Warren, who purchased a new home in Southampton in December and is preparing to move.

But in interviews, the Epleys said the situation at 81 David Whites Lane was nothing more than a shrewd real estate investment gummed up by an obdurate tenant. Since 2017, members of the Epley family have owned the house next door. The purchase of the building where Mr. Warren lives was not part of a grand plot to oust a rival, but was what Mark Epley described as “estate planning” — a row of future homes for his 11 grandchildren, the oldest of whom is in elementary school.

As his lease came to a close in the fall, the Epleys said they initially offered Mr. Warren a yearlong extension. But when Mr. Warren demanded via his lawyer that it include a stipulation that the landlords never set foot on the property, among other requests, the Epleys rescinded the offer, the younger Mr. Epley said. The mayor did not deny making those requests.

In The Southampton Press, Zach Epley offered a different rationale for asking Mr. Warren to leave: “It’s about how nasty he was during the election and how he harassed our family,” he said. “I was going door to door with my family, and he was following my family around with a görüntü camera and walking into houses after me and trashing us out. Why are we going to keep somebody on a property that was so awful to us?”

Since then there have been ugly Facebook posts, angry phone calls and a görüntü the mayor filmed last month of the Epleys entering the apartment and demanding his exit. (The Epleys contend they were there to clean up what they thought was a vacant unit, and were surprised to see Mr. Warren in the residence, believing he had left because his lease had in fact ended. “They absolutely knew,” Mr. Warren said.)

Mr. Warren is popular with environmentalists, for things like fighting the blooms of toxic blue-green algae choking Lake Agawam, but his term has been marked by a large amount of turnover of village staff. In August, the Southampton Village Police Benevolent Association issued a vote of no-confidence, in part because it was upset about his support of Black Lives Matter, and called for the mayor’s removal as police commissioner.

Jay Schneiderman, the town supervisor, refused to comment on who he thought was in the right, citing a desire to preserve the peace. “But,” said Mr. Schneiderman, “who would buy a house for $1.5 million just to kick someone out?”

Whether Mr. Warren is technically squatting is a matter of debate. He may also be considered a “holdover tenant,” or someone whose lease has expired but remains in place and continues to hisse rent, said Nathan DeCorpo, a Long Island lawyer who specializes in such disputes.

“He’s somewhere between a squatter and a holdover,” Mr. DeCorpo said. With the Epleys’s strong objection to his presence, plus a formal request that he vacate, “he turns into a squatter,” Mr. DeCorpo said.

The $2,750 in rent Mr. Warren has sent since his lease ended has been returned by the Epleys, the check uncashed. Though Mr. Warren suggested in interviews that he was protected by the New York’s eviction moratorium, he has not petitioned for such protection. To do so requires claiming hardship due to the coronavirus, and it is unclear if he would qualify.

The pandemic has inflamed the situation, as untold numbers of summer residents fleeing New York City have made the Hamptons their year-round home, making property scarce and more expensive. For this reason, the mayor said, he was slow to find a new place to live. Mr. Warren ultimately purchased a home of his own, about a mile away, an approximately $1.3 million house on Potato Field Court. But he said he had been stuck at his current address because the new place was a fixer-upper and uninhabitable while undergoing renovations for mold.

Mr. Warren said a resolution was at hand: he planned to move out this week. But as of Wednesday, he was still in the apartment, his belongings packed into boxes. After responding to questions for this article, he texted a reporter a picture of a moving van outside the house.

Unsurprisingly, the saga has engulfed Southampton, seeping from Village Hall on Main Street to the golf clubhouse at Shinnecock Hills.

At Sean’s Place Mecnun on Jobs Lane, slinging the egg sandwiches he is known for, the owner, Sean King, said he was mühlet politics, not real estate, was at the root of the dispute. “I think that the village itself is just split down the middle, just like everything else in this country,” Mr. King said.

He refused however, to pick a side: “They’re both customers.”

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