A Code Written to Protect Sag Harbor Village


While some residents have sounded alarms over recent closures of local businesses and the sale of a key commercial building on Main and Washington streets in Sag Harbor, the village has maintained a downtown largely occupied by mom-and-pop shops. In the last decade, the size of most business spaces has not changed dramatically, and the village remains home to more locally-owned commercial spaces than nearby villages in East Hampton and Southampton.

“I don’t think Sag Harbor has ever been a better place to live, work and do business in,” said Gregory Ferraris, a certified public account who owns GNFerraris, LLC on Main Street. “There are communities that are very jealous of Sag Harbor right now. Sag Harbor is not Disney World. It is going to change, and all of that change is not going to be bad.”

Mr. Ferraris, a lifelong resident of Sag Harbor, remembers a time when the economy struggled to thrive in the village, with many stores boarded up. When the village began to face significant development pressure in its downtown, he led a group of lawmakers and consultants in a revision of the village zoning code in 2007. It was a year of marked change and with the knowledge that CVS Pharmacy was looking to take over a large portion of the building on Long Island Avenue that remains home to 7-Eleven and Sing City, the Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees set out to revamp what was considered an antiquated zoning code. Mr. Ferraris, then the village mayor, embarked on the two-year effort with former Trustee Tiffany Scarlato, former village attorney Anthony Tohill and former environmental planning consultant Richard Warren, of the Southampton-based Inter-Science Research Associates. The resulting code, adopted in 2009, aimed to protect the diversity of small stores and uses on Sag Harbor’s Main Street.

“There was a concern about the conversion of retail space to office space that people saw happen in other communities like East Hampton and Southampton that distracts from the retail shopping experience of visitors,” Mr. Warren said in an interview last week about the code revision. “There was also a concern about the change in the type of retail stores, where larger retail entities were looking to come in and take over several spaces, reducing the overall diversity of the mix of retail uses in the village. Our main focus was to preserve, the best we could, the character of Sag Harbor.”

The first step was identifying what existed in Sag Harbor and creating an updated table of uses. Largely, consultants zeroed in on size and use restrictions. Some of the major changes in the code revision, Mr. Warren said, included a limitation on the expansion of stores to a maximum of 3,000 square feet, with the exception of grocery stores, hardware stores or home furnishing outlets, which can petition the village to become larger. The code also created a new office district on the periphery of Main Street to provide for new office space options. Offices that already existed on first floors in 2009, as well as businesses above 3,000 square-feet, are considered pre-existing, non-conforming to the code. If they change uses — converting from an office space to a retail establishment, for example — they would have to go before the village boards for approval.

The new code also streamlined the planning process for minor changes happening on Main Street and strengthened the ability of the Sag Harbor Village Historic Preservation & Architectural Review Board to ensure that any visible changes to storefronts in the business district were consistent with the overall character of the village.

“It was important to us to try and understand what was making Sag Harbor tick — why it was so successful,” said Mr. Warren. “It seemed the diversity of stores was something that was pretty important. The business district is limited in its frontage and it was important to not have three or four spaces combine into one space. It was pretty controversial — the size restriction — but when we did an inventory of what the sizes were in Sag Harbor, it was surprising to see how many stores had less than 2,000 square feet. It was a dramatic number.

“In addition to maintaining diversity of stores by limiting the frontage, we felt that the ability to keep smaller stores probably had the likelihood of keeping smaller retailers,” he continued. “You go into some other commercial areas and it is hard to find a space where you can buy a kite or a t-shirt.”

While some residents, fearing big chain “box” stores were coming to Sag Harbor, called for a restriction on formula business, both Mr. Ferraris and Mr. Warren said regulating tenancy is against the law in New York State.

“You cannot regulate a chain store from coming in — you can’t regulate between a high-end t-shirt store versus a regular t-shirt store,” said Mr. Warren. “If a high-end clothing store wants to come in, they can, but what the village could do is regulate the size, the frontage and the architecture in terms of the façade.”

Both Mr. Ferraris and Mr. Warren said revisiting the zoning code is generally a worthy exercise every five to 10 years. That said, Mr. Ferraris said looking at Main Street’s development over the last decade, the code revision enacted in 2009 appears to have been successful.

“We have gone through the last 10 years with very little controversy when it comes to Main Street,” he said. “There are no more offices on the first floor than there was a decade ago and there is a tremendous demand for office space. All of the sizes of the stores are largely the same. In those ways, we were successful.”