Architectural Review Board Gets Mostly Good Marks in State Audit

From left, historic preservation consultant Zach Studenroth, board member Bethany Deyermond and board chairman Anthony Brandt examine a three-dimensional model of the proposed house at 20 Bay Street belonging to musician Billy Joel in 2017. Christine Sampson photo

Sag Harbor’s Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review scored well in an audit conducted by the New York State Historic Preservation Office, whose analysts concluded the board “meets standards” in five out of six areas, with one deficiency — “legislation” — for which it is not solely to blame, according to the audit report.

The report, dated October 30, praises the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review (BHPAR) members as qualified and professional stewards who “thoughtfully and properly” review each application that comes before them.

It recognizes the BHPAR for conducting meetings that comply with state regulations, and it commends board chairman Anthony Brandt for his forward-thinking comments on “the realities of rising sea levels and elevating buildings and structures in flood zones.” The board “meets standards” in reports and records, general activities, public participation, commission/board members and overall assessment, according to the audit.

“Overall, the Village of Sag Harbor’s local preservation program is operating well,” the audit reads.

The legislative “deficiency,” the audit notes, dates back to 2016 when the Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees adopted amendments to the “gross floor area” provision of its building code, which limits the size of houses according to the size of the lots on which they stand. The auditors found that, while the changes were in keeping with general BHPAR preservation mandates, “the village did not consult with the State Historic Preservation Office before adopting the revised language,” which was a requirement of the village’s “certified local government” agreement with the state.

That agreement is what allowed the village to establish an historic preservation and architectural review board that follows federal and state standards.

“That was the law that really changed everything,” Mr. Brandt said Tuesday. “We should have let them know when we changed the law.”

Another issue uncovered in the audit was an ambiguity in the village’s preservation ordinances, which the report says lacks clear definition of the process and role of the board outside Sag Harbor’s historic district. According to the audit report, Sag Harbor is one of a few New York State municipalities to have “a combined architectural review board and historic preservation commission.” Typically, the report states, “these governing bodies are kept separate because they have very different guidelines and standards. Our office has found that the jobs tend to blur, confusing not only the public, but many times the members of the body itself.”

Mr. Brandt acknowledged that’s a “major problem.” The audit says deficiencies “must be adequately addressed” and documented within 120 days. Failure to comply could lead to the revocation of Sag Harbor’s status as a certified local government.

“Our law doesn’t distinguish between how we treat houses that are in the historic district and houses that are not,” Mr. Brandt said. “Most other venues of this sort do make those distinctions, so they found ours to be unusual and they want us to correct it. How that’s going to happen is unclear.”

The audit recommended that the village examine the historic and architectural review policies and procedures established by the city of Saratoga Springs, which is cited as a good example of a board with those two functions combined.

The audit examined records from a three-year period from October 1, 2014, through September 30, 2017, and culminated in a visit to the September 13, 2018, board meeting. That was the meeting during which a public hearing was held on musician Billy Joel’s renovation plans for his house at 20 Bay Street. Community members spoke at length during that meeting, which had an overall civil tone even as the residents expressed strong feelings against Mr. Joel’s application.

“They seemed to think that went extremely well,” Mr. Brandt said Tuesday. “It was good to see. They liked us. I liked them. They seemed to think we were doing a good job. He very much liked the way I handled audiences.”

The report notes that, while the BHPAR did not formally take on new historic surveys or landmarking efforts during the audit period, it received a state grant of $6,000 for that purpose. Mr. Brandt said the last time the village conducted a survey was 1994.

“It gives our [consultant] Zach Studenroth a chance to go around and systematically photograph the village, house by house, and determine once again how historic a house is,” Mr. Brandt said.

Sag Harbor Mayor Sandra Schroeder was out of town this week and unavailable for comment. Village trustee Tom Gardella, who is the liaison to the Sag Harbor Building Department, said while he has not seen the full audit report, he anticipates the board will discuss it with its attorney. He said he could not comment on the legislative “deficiency” because he had not yet been elected to the village board when the 2016 building code changes were enacted.

“I would have to look at exactly what the conflict is, if there is a conflict, and how we would address it,” Mr. Gardella said. “I’m sure any recommendations the state makes … we’ll have to take into consideration. It’s great that the [BHPAR] passed in all other areas. It’s a good sign.”