ARB Resists Offer from Builder Who Removed House It Wanted Saved

The new house at 20 Grand Street. The old building at right rear was to have been incorporated in the front-gabled section of the new house. Peter Boody photo

Builder Tal Litvin did not get a warm response when he went before Sag Harbor’s Historic Preservation and Architectural Review Board last week with an offer to salvage at least pieces of the original old house, a simple front-gabled structure from around 1900, that the board required him to incorporate into the new house he’s building at 20 Grand Street.
Instead Mr. Litvin attempted to demolish the old structure and, when prevented from doing so by the Building Inspector, moved it out of the way to the rear of the property. Continuing to erect the new house, he made changes in the design including a pitched roof in a location where the board had called for a flat one.
“If I had my way, you’d be put in the stocks down on Main Street,” said board member Judith Long early in the board’s December 12 public hearing on Mr. Litvin’s after-the-fact application to keep the design changes he made.
“If you approve, we’ll start work tomorrow,” Mr. Litvin said after offering to take down the new section of the house that was supposed to incorporate the old structure and rebuild it using any “salvageable” parts of the old house but leaving out whatever isn’t rotten, termite-eaten or unsound, as he put it.

Builder Tal Litvin, left, and his attorney Alex Kriegsman at the December 12 meeting of the Sag Harbor HPARB. Peter Boody photo

Board members resisted, tabling the application for further review at their next meeting on December 19 meeting. The original house is a “contributing structure” in the Sag Harbor Historic District.
“My mantra is, if it’s wood, you can fix it,” said the board’s historical consultant, Zachary Studenroth, who filed a report finding no reason for the board not to stick to its original decision and calling for the old structure to be repositioned at its original site. He added that “there’s absolutely nothing in open air structures that cannot be retained and repaired.”

“Leaving the process of repairing and retaining” the old structure “up to you and your professionals is not a good conclusion,” he told Mr. Litvin.

“This was a real deal and you retraded on us,” said board member Steven Williams, using the real estate term for an attempt to rewrite terms after a contract is signed.
“There should be no quid pro quo,” said board member David Berridge. “We’re not in the horse-trading business here.”

Board chair Dean Gomolka told Mr. Litvin the board had approved the project in 2018 with the old structure retained in the design, in a section of the house that was to have been smaller and lower or “subordinate” to the main part of the dwelling, according to the plans the board approved.

“Now it’s above the height of the original structure,” with a steeper pitch, and an approved flat roof in the rear is instead gabled. “The recommendation of our historical consultant is to put the historic structure back on that foundation,” Mr. Gomolka noted.

He said what’s happened at the property violates “the premise of why we’re here” as a board charged with protecting the Sag Harbor Historic District and its architectural integrity.

Two members of the public spoke against the application, including a Madison Street man who said it was “an unbelievable offense this is going on.” Mare Dianora, a Grand Street neighbor, said she and her husband had watched the project “since they first removed the 1960s addition” on the old structure “in mid-June 2019. We watched the crew remove the roof and siding and during that process the crew took an excavator to dig into the actual structure of the historic building trying to knock the entire building down.” In response to her husband’s complaint, Building Inspector Tom Preiato imposed a stop work order on the property.

Mr. Litvin has said he could not use the old structure because it was too far gone. He submitted with his application an October 11 report from Greg Llewellyn of Llewellyn Engineering, prepared per Mr. Litvin’s October 8 request, finding that the old building — by then having been moved off its foundation — is an unsafe structure as defined by state and village code. “My recommendation is not to use this structure but to remove it before it falls down,” Mr. Llewellyn wrote, adding that only parts of the structure could be incorporated in the new house. Mr. Litvin also submitted a “wood destroying insect inspection report” prepared by John W. Bennett finding termite damage.

In his report, filed on November 18, Mr. Studenroth wrote that, “although the applicant has furnished engineering and pest reports … the evidence for this assessment was not observed during a site visit conducted by this consultant on November 12, 2019. On the contrary, the visible sills, corner braces and posts, and wall studs all appear reasonably sound for their age.”
Mr. Litvin told the board that he had built a gabled instead of flat roof on the new structure because it correctly confirmed to the local vernacular. “There is no flat roof there,” he said, referring to the neighborhood. “Why start now? A modern box squat in the middle of the block doesn’t make sense.”

Mr. Berridge called the new addition that Mr. Litvin had built “graceless, a building you weren’t allowed to build.”

Building inspector Preiato in late November denied a request from Mr. Litvin’s attorney, Alex Kriegsman, for permission to resume work at the site while the case is pending before the board in order to complete a retaining wall and to install windows that have been delivered.
Mr. Preiato wrote Mr. Kreigsman that the stop work order “will remain fully in place, for the entire premises, until such time a building permit is obtained for the unapproved improvements that have taken place.”