Panel Set to Deny Wetlands Permit for Pool near Ligonee Brook

Ligonee Brook at left and the property at 36 Fordham Street at right. Peter Boody Photo

For the first time in memory if not ever, the Harbor Committee of Sag Harbor expressed its intention to deny a wetlands permit this week, deciding in a 4-1 poll on Monday to tell its environmental consultant to prepare a draft decision that would bar a wetlands setback waiver for a proposed pool in the rear yard of a house at 36 Fordham Street.

The pool would be located less than 56 feet from a wetlands boundary. The village’s wetlands code calls for a 75-foot setback and a 50-foot vegetative buffer.

The property overlooks Ligonee Brook and many people spoke against the proposal as it was aired before the board this winter, including attorney and East Hampton Town Board member Jeff Bragman representing neighbor Phillip Susswein. All argued that the pool and its infrastructure posed a threat to the habitat and wetlands around Ligonee Brook.

Barring any surprises, the draft decision will be on the agenda for a formal vote at the board’s July 8 meeting.

The board’s attorney, Denise Schoen, said in an interview on Wednesday that the board had never denied an application outright in her eight years serving as its counsel. In all other problematic cases, the applicants and the board have negotiated alternative plans to minimize the required setback waivers and maximize environmental benefits such as wider buffers and more native plantings.

In this case, the applicant agreed during the long course of the hearing to install an innovative/alternative nitrogen-reducing septic system but declined to relocate the proposed pool closer to the house to maximize its distance from the wetland boundary, as some board members had suggested.

The only board member who called for granting the application was Herbert Sambol. He did not explain his vote at the regular meeting but, at an earlier work session, he said “the existing setbacks are much worse” than what’s planned, with lawn running directly up against wetlands and accessory structures on the property line.

Chair Mary Ann Eddy and member Will Sharp said the pool would damage the environment. Ms. Eddy also noted that the applicant — an LLC for which attorney Bruce Bronster is the contact person — “has chosen not to pursue” the “practical alternative” of placing the pool adjacent to the house. “If they had, I think my vote would be different.”

“As much as I hate to do it, I think I have to vote for it,” committee member John Parker said at the work session. Lilee Fell agreed, arguing the positives outweighed the negatives, so it appeared for a while that the board might end up granting the application by a 3-2 vote.

But when the time came for the actual poll, Mr. Parker and Ms. Fell — the last members to cast their votes — changed their minds.

“I’m kind of on the fence on this one,” Mr. Parker said, citing “several mitigating factors,” and noting that “our expert” — environmental consultant Charles Voorhis — had recommended granting the application. “But there are alternate locations for the pool and the applicant is not willing to consider them,” he said, referring to one of the legal standards for denying an application.  “On that basis, I will vote against this,” he said.

Ms. Fell said she would vote “nay” because of the pool’s environmental impact and the applicant’s failure to offer a practical alternative.

Over the two years the application has been pending, and the months since the latest hearing was opened in 2018, concessions have included reducing the size of the proposed pool; removing a shed and patio from the northern property line; installing drywells to contain runoff from the pool and roof of the house; replacing 2,511 square feet of lawn with native vegetation; covenants and restrictions to restrict 24,389 square feet of the property to native vegetation; and an offer made in February to accept the installation of an “innovative-alternative” nitrogen-reducing septic system as a condition of the wetlands permit.

At the hearing in December, Mr. Bragman noted that the parcel is for sale with online advertising copy indicating a pool permit would be obtained by summer.

He said that allowing the applicant “to make a few extra bucks” on a sale because of a pool permit “is a lot less important than the point of the [village’s wetlands] legislation,” which is intended to protect wetlands, he said.

“This is a case where the answer should be ‘no,” Mr. Bragman argued, calling on the board to exercise its authority to protect the environment.