Sag Harbor Village Finds Support for New Zoning Codes
By Kathryn G. Menu
Members of several local organizations, including the Sag Harbor Historical Society, the Sag Harbor Tree Fund, the Peconic BayKeeper, the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, and Save Sag Harbor turned out in force January 27 to support residential zoning code revisions being considered as potential legislation by the village board of trustees.
The meeting, held at the Sag Harbor Firehouse on Brick Kiln Road, had an almost opposite tenor to a previous meeting, at which some residents raged against the board over the draft code changes, and a new moratorium adopted last month.
Chris Leonard, a member of the village’s Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review, said a proposed gross floor area limit on residential building “will make a clear statement our village will not tolerate the overdevelopment of historic properties that has occurred in the last two years.”
Mr. Leonard argued the legislation, which has yet to be formally proposed, would not diminish real estate values, but rather retain and increase value.
“Common sense suggests why this is true, these properties are special and unusual and they are surrounded by other special and unusual properties,” he said. “I further suggest that there are values more meaningful to all of us than the increasing value of real estate. Some of those values are the ability to live alongside friendly and caring neighbors, to live in a stable and supportive community, and to live in a community where we respect and support one another.”
The GFA provision of the code is one of four amendments being considered by the village board. Another code change that would have expanded the setback from 15 to 20 feet for swimming pools, similar to that in East Hampton, was scrapped in the face of public opposition, said Richard Warren, the village’s environmental consultant. The village is still updating its code to require drywells and chlorine reduction systems for pools sited above groundwater.
The Harbor Committee will have the power to waive the requirement of a chlorine reduction system, said Mr. Warren, if a hardship is demonstrated.
Another code update will formalize procedures followed by the ARB, including setting limits on the timeframe the board has to approve or deny an application, requiring notification to neighbors for all public hearings, and demanding a public hearing for any demolition of any kind in the historic district. Draft amendments would also create a new Parks and Conservation District for all government owned parks and open space, and an impact fee of $15 per square foot for any house built over 2,500 square feet, which would be funneled into the Sag Harbor Community Housing Trust.
Wednesday’s meeting was largely focused on the GFA, with Mr. Warren — who has led environmental planning services in the village for 11 years — walking the board through the data his firm, Inter-Science Research Associates, gathered for village officials to aid in the drafting of the code.
The GFA limits the size of a residential building based on its lot size. Under the current proposal, a property with a lot area of 10,000 square feet, for example, would be limited to 2,400 total square feet. Those with a total area of 20,000 square feet would only be able to have a building of 3,200 square feet, down from the 8,000 square feet currently allowed under current code.
According to village attorney Fred W. Thiele Jr., the GFA formula the village is using is a ratio of 8 percent floor area to every 100 feet of lot area.
“It is not a new concept,” noted Mr. Warren, of GFA zoning. “It is something that has been done, and a lot of communities on the East End have something like a GFA.”
Mr. Warren said the village looked toward other communities on the East End and throughout Suffolk County in crafting its proposed code change.
“But Sag Harbor is not like other communities, so you can’t try and force Sag Harbor into one of those formulas because the lots are completely different,” he said.
To come up with the GFA draft, the village compiled data looking at its 1,843 residential lots. Officials showed residents a growth chart last week that highlighted the increase in new construction house size throughout the village from 1980 to 2015. During that period, they rose from a median gross floor area of 1,610 square feet in the early 1980s to 3,301 square feet from 2010 to 2015. The data shows the current median house size is 1,587 square feet, below the proposed maximum GFA of 4,000 square feet, and far below a proposed maximum GFA of 7,000 square feet, which residents can apply for through a special permit granted by the Village Board.
As with all zoning, applicants can also appeal to the Zoning Board of Appeals for relief.
According to Mr. Thiele — who said the GFA formula could still be tweaked — 50-percent of all houses in Sag Harbor could still be expanded by at least 1,000 square feet, with 75 percent by at least 500 square feet.
“I have already heard from people it is too stringent; I have also heard from people it’s too lenient,” said Mr. Thiele. “That is the point of getting community input in terms of what that right level is.”
Jason Crowley, the preservation director for the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, praised the plan, stating in particular that the GFA law and zoning protecting against demolitions were important to preserve Sag Harbor’s historic character.
Dr. Georgette Grier-Key, the executive director of the Eastville Community Historical Society, said she believed not just architecture, but cultural importance, should also be considered in terms of protecting historic character. She also called on the village to prevent homeowners from purposefully allowing their homes to go derelict so they could be demolished.
“The trustees of the Sag Harbor Historical Society wish to go on record in support of your efforts in your zoning code,” said Barbara Schwartz, representing that body. “We just applaud your efforts.”
Alexandra Eames of the Sag Harbor Tree Fund said that group has been concerned with clear-cutting in the village and ensuring landscaping is a priority in terms of historic preservation, falling under the purview of the ARB.
“Not every value is a monetary one, and if grandiose overbuilding is allowed to continue, the true worth of Sag Harbor will be irretrievably lost,” said resident Myrna Davis. “As stewards, as well as homeowners here, most of us are thankful, grateful, and supportive of your efforts.”
Not all the feedback was positive. Michael Gaynor, who owns two houses in Sag Harbor, noted his neighbor on Main Street has had a historic house on the market for two years, and has been unable to sell it.
“In order to restore a house on the East End of Long Island it costs $500 per square foot,” he said. “There has been a lot of discussion saying, ‘Oh, gosh, we can’t be too concerned with money,’ but someone has to pay for these homes.”
“Only if we have a sound financial incentive will people take this risk,” said Marius Fortelni, stating that conservation doesn’t exist without development. He said if the code changes were adopted, people would leave Sag Harbor, and buildings would decay, creating a smaller tax base that would burden residents. He went on to state that “Sag Harbor was a dump 20, 40 years ago,” unsettling the audience and leading to a shouting match between Mr. Fortelni, another resident and some members of the board, with village attorney Denise Schoen eventually signaling to a village police officer who walked half way down the aisle without further incident.
Local attorney Alex Kriegsman questioned limitations on accessory structures that allow artist studios to be larger than, for example, a workshop for a carpenter. Mr. Thiele noted there are provisions in the code that do allow for a home office. Mr. Kriegsman also questioned whether the board actually had Mr. Warren’s research prior to that evening — charging later that the code was written prior to the village having all of the data, and based on recommendations made by Save Sag Harbor.
He based part of that argument on a request by former Trustee Timothy Culver for Mr. Warren’s report; a request that was denied by the village, with a member of the staff stating it was still waiting on information from Inter-Science.
“What they have actually done is outsourced village government to Save Sag Harbor,” said Mr. Kriegsman. “This special interest group submitted all the significant changes to the code — including the now-infamous pool law, which was withdrawn in the face of a public backlash — in private meetings with village officials back in September — months before the public was allowed to participate in the process.”
“We got input from a wide and diverse group of people in the village, including the building inspector, the various village boards, our consultants, regular citizens and that included Save Sag Harbor,” said Mr. Thiele on Tuesday. “We have had a broad base, and we looked at every recommendation that someone took time and effort to submit to us. There simply was no organization or individual that got special treatment.”
Mr. Thiele, Mr. Warren and Ms. Schroeder said this week that Mr. Warren’s data was in fact a part of numerous discussions prior to the code being drafted — all three also noting the revisions were still evolving. Mr. Warren also noted that his data is referenced in the preamble of the draft code.
“I find these comments perplexing because Save Sag Harbor, like any citizen, has a right to communicate with its elected officials and appointed officials as its local government,” said that organization’s attorney, Jeffrey Bragman. “Save Sag Harbor did submit a bunch of recommendations, as could have any citizen.”
“I said this earlier today, ‘You don’t need a permission slip from a teacher to approach your government officials with recommendations, and the Supreme Court recognizes all of this,” he continued.