After A Year Of Lockdown, Sag Harbor Residents Have Questions About Waterfront Zoning And Bay Street Theater Plans

Kathlyn Levy spoke forcefully against the Bay Street Theater plan at a forum held by the Sag Harbor Village Board on Friday, April 24. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

It was almost as if the Village of Sag Harbor had emerged from a year-long hibernation on Friday when the Village Board held a forum to discuss waterfront planning objectives in general, and the still-developing plans for a new Bay Street Theater, in particular.

The first village meeting to be held in person since the coronavirus pandemic forced widespread lockdowns last year brought well over 100 people to John Steinbeck Waterfront Park, most of whom wanted to hear more about Bay Street’s plans for the Water Street Shops building that was bought last year as a site for a new theater and served as the backdrop to Friday’s gathering.

Although the village had invited Bay Street’s representatives to the event, Adam Potter, the chairman of Friends of Bay Street, the not-for-profit organization created last year to find a new home for the theater, said no one was able to attend on such short notice. Instead, Bay Street will hold its own forum to discuss its vision on Saturday, May 1, at 4 p.m. That event will take place at Bay Street’s current Long Wharf location and will be streamed live as well.

If attendees at Friday’s forum expected to learn more from the board about the Bay Street project, including the source of the funding that is rumored to be behind the purchase of a number of properties in the business district, they were bound to be disappointed.

Village officials told them they did not know how much property Friends of Bay Street or others affiliated with it had acquired. Besides Water Street Shops, Friends of Bay Street has acknowledged that it is working on deals to buy the 2 Main Street building, known as Fort Apache, and finalize a lease for the National Grid gas ball parking lot. Mr. Potter has confirmed he has purchased 11 Bridge Street, the former home of the Dodds & Eder home furnishings store in a separate deal.

Nor could village officials shed any light on the plan Bay Street will ask the board to review because no application has been filed with any of the village’s review boards.

“I am personally thrilled that Bay Street is buying the property behind us and is going to stay in the village,” said Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy. But, she added, the plans Bay Street unveiled in early April were not anywhere close to being ready for review and would not come before her board anyway. “I want it to be clear. It is not my decision. Nor is it the decision of the board of trustees what it looks like,” she continued. “That will go to planning and zoning and the ARB. It will not come to us.”

She conceded that village officials were concerned about the activities of Bay Street’s financial backers, saying there was “a lack of transparency about what they have or have not bought and what they plan or do not plan to do with it,” but she added that village officials had no authority to prevent willing buyers and sellers from exchanging real estate.

“But what we can do is control the use, the size, the scale, and most importantly the character of what is put on that property,” she said. It was concern over buildings like the towering glass box condominium that developer Jay Bialsky was allowed to build on the waterfront — a building that drew several pointed comments from speakers on Friday — that spurred the Village Board to undertake the current rezoning of much of its waterfront, she said.

Trustee James Larocca, who has frequently clashed with the mayor over both the Bay Street project and the goals of the rezoning effort, took the opportunity of the in-person session to offer a rebuttal of much of what she said in what sounded like an exchange at a candidates’ debate. Later, he said he was, in fact, considering challenging Ms. Mulcahy in June’s election.

“I was not among the trustees who were thrilled when the Friends bought 7-Eleven,” he said. “The reason I was not thrilled is because at the time we had a live application with the Town of Southampton for another CPF acquisition, and we had an informal commitment from the supervisor to pay 50 percent of the appraised value.”

Mr. Larocca had supported buying the Water Street Shops building and having the property added to Steinbeck Park and had suggested the gas ball property would have made a better location for the new theater.

Mr. Larocca also raised concerns about the proposed waterfront rezoning effort. “My biggest concern is I want to know if it is going to make it easier or harder for a developer to build big buildings,” he said. “I have contrary views on many elements of it.”

He said the committee that has proposed the code changes was not well balanced, saying it had no environmentalists but “plenty of lawyers for developers.”

He called for a more transparent process and said he would support giving the Village Board the final word on the size of new projects in the waterfront district.

Kathryn Levy, a resident of Madison Street, urged the board to take a strong stance against the rumored Bay Street plans, which, she said, “would not just change this village a little. I think it would overwhelm the village and radically transform the place where we live. I think it is the biggest threat that I’ve seen in the 29 years I’ve lived here.”

She said the village had made other mistakes in the past, citing the Watchcase condominiums as an example. “This is an egregious example of the road we mustn’t go down again,” she said, adding that developers come in with over-the-top proposals and offer a compromise that nets them what they wanted in the first place. “Change is great, but not change that is going to drown this entire village,” she said to applause.

Jane Holden, a lifelong village resident, offered the lone endorsement for the proposed Bay Street plan. “I don’t understand why people want to see this ugly building stay here,” she said, pointing to the Water Street Shops building. “I keep hearing the statement ‘Big money is backing people.’ It sounds like you are jealous you don’t have the money.”

She said Mr. Larocca sounded like “a sore loser because you didn’t get your pet project” and asked why residents were so “afraid of people who want to come in and support this little village.”

Lou Grignon, the general manager of the Sag Harbor Yacht Yard, said he was more concerned about the village’s vision for the waterfront.

He said the building on the property would have to be rebuilt in the coming years and he feared the proposed new zoning restrictions, which would limit new buildings to 25 feet, would effectively eliminate that possibility. Although board members assured Mr. Grignon that he could replicate the building, assuming it was going to remain a boat repair facility, he asked “what the village is doing to not just protect the waterfront but the historical use and nature and color of the waterfront. If you make it that much harder for me to even store boats, you are really hurting or curtailing the flavor of the town.”

Paul Alter, an architect who lives on Bay Street, said one of the biggest issues facing the village is a lack of parking, and he said the proposed code changes do nothing to address that problem.

Referring to the glass Bialsky building that is still under construction, he asked how it was possible the village Zoning Board of Appeals had issued variances to allow its construction. “It doesn’t seem like anybody is thinking of protecting the scale and the texture and the history of this village,” he said. “I just wonder where everybody’s been and how that is going to change, or is it going to change with this new waterfront overlay zoning district?”

“Those buildings are exactly why we are doing this,” the mayor replied.

Others raised concerns about sustainability, the lack of affordable housing, and the impact the Bay Street plan will have on tax revenue.

Nada Barry, an owner of the Wharf Shop and a regular at Village Board meetings over the decades, said residents need to get more involved. “Start following all the different meetings that are going on in this village,” she said, “and a lot of you would have been informed already about what has come up today.”