At Express Sessions, a Call for Balanced Land Use

Panelist Melanie Cirillo answers a question from the floor during the Express Sessions event on Land Use and Preservation at the Americal Hotel on Friday, 3/22/19. Michael Heller photos

Six experts on land use and preservation convened last Friday for an in-depth conversation that came to several conclusions — among them that there are multiple types of both development and preservation, that development is not necessarily at odds with preservation, and that the East End needs to strike a balance between them while planning for changes like sea level rise and other environmental concerns.

“The East End, whether we like it or not, really is driven by the real estate industry,” said Rich Warren, owner of the Southampton-based environmental planning firm Inter-Science Research Associates and a former consultant to Sag Harbor Village.

Mr. Warren was a panelist during the latest installment of The Sag Harbor Express “Express Sessions” at the American Hotel, along with Anthony Brandt, the founding chairman of the Sag Harbor Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review; Anthony Vermandois, a local architect who has worked on many preservation projects; Melanie Cirillo, director of conservation planning for the Peconic Land Trust; Chris Nuzzi, a senior vice president of Advantage Title and a former Southampton Town councilman; and Brian DeSesa, an attorney and partner with the Adam Miller Group who has represented many builders and who is on the Southampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals.

The Landscape of Preservation

The preservation of both structures and land was front and center on Friday.

During the two times Mr. Brandt served on the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review, which first began when it was established in 1986 and later included approximately three more years from mid-2016 to early 2019, he said he and his colleagues tried to work with builders who wanted to make changes to historic houses.

“At first the board didn’t have that much to do. The applications were not numerous,” he said. “The whole process was much simpler. You didn’t have to come in with architectural drawings, believe it or not. Sometimes it was just builder’s drawings. We made some mistakes that way.”

Then, he said, “Sag Harbor became fashionable,” and by 2016, he said development got out of hand. He returned to the review board at the request of the newly elected mayor.

“My mandate was to turn the whole battleship around, if I could, and I feel that I partially succeeded. Only partially,” said Mr. Brandt, who resigned in January citing the need to focus on personal projects. “The pressure for development became enormous.”

He said the review board was sued — and lost — four times right after the village adopted new zoning code changes in 2016. “That’s when I learned from people far more knowledgeable than I am that New York State favors real estate in a major way, that the real estate lobby in Albany is one of the most powerful there is,” he said.

Mr. Vermandois, who worked on the restoration and renovation of the historic Morpurgo house at 6 Union Street, said, “I like to say everybody says they’re a preservationist until they have to do work on their own house, and all of a sudden they become a pragmatist.”

One of the challenges in historic preservation, he says, is money.

“With historic renovations, it’s a more expensive process than modern or new construction,” he said. “You are having to ideally salvage those historic materials you have, and it’s not free to do that.”

But as an architect, Mr. Vermandois knows he has a responsibility to the village when it comes to preservation.

“Sometimes clients come to me with ideas that I feel are not really appropriate for their historic property, and a big part of my job is educating them on what makes this particular house special,” he said.

Ms. Cirillo said while the Peconic Land Trust is focused on protecting farmland, woodland, coastal lands and other types of open space, it acknowledges that “100 percent preservation is not pragmatic.”

“We really have learned to take the conservation tools available to us and to blend them and to get creative and work with land owners and what their goals are,” she said. “When we all sit together and come up with ideas and strategies, it’s when the opportunity is right. The land owners are ready to make decisions when the land is for sale, and we’re able to work more nimbly when we’re collaborating with the towns because the funding is so critical.”

She, too, offered a bit of general education: the Peconic Land Trust does not directly receive funds generated by the 2-percent real estate transfer tax, the source of the Peconic Bay Community Preservation Fund (CPF). It’s simply a tool the land trust has leveraged with towns and land owners to protect thousands of acres across the East End.

“The tax is generated in the towns and villages and received by the county, who returns it back to the towns and villages so they can preserve their community character, and every East End town has a slightly different community character and set of goals,” Ms. Cirillo said.

The trust also has the ability to protect historic facades, she said.

“Kudos to those who started [the CPF]. Their foresight must have anticipated the rising values of real estate out here — who would have thought?” Ms. Cirillo said. “We couldn’t have protected as much without a fund like this.”

Mr. Nuzzi agreed the CPF “is a powerful tool.” But he said there’s one aspect of preservation that requires a bit of “pivoting” moving forward: the maintenance costs being borne by taxpayers after properties are acquired by towns via the CPF.

“It comes out of the general fund, funded by taxpayers,” he said. “It’s a point of discussion.”

He also wondered whether the East End is a “victim of our own success” when it comes to preservation and development.

Jane Holden asks the panel a question on Friday.

Two Movements at Odds?

“Generally, speaking there’s no shortage of government intervention,” Mr. Nuzzi continued. “Have we most effectively balanced other types of development and preservation? Despite the differences in the five East End towns, I think having a focus on this as it relates to preservation of housing, in particular, has to be done on more of a regional level.”

He said “the other side” of preservation is “maintaining the people, the year-round community.”

“It’s using not only zoning tools but partnering with our business community on efforts to retain local talent that wants to stay here,” Mr. Nuzzi said. “It is important and it’s going to take continued discussion to do that. We are definitely at a critical moment in terms of retention of people.”

Mr. DeSesa said preservation and development are not “at odds,” but rather the relationship between the two has evolved.

“Now they do cluster developments,” he said. “The open space requirements on subdivisions have been increased based on lot sizes.”

In Sag Harbor, it’s challenging to find a balance, Mr. DeSesa said. He explained that much of Sag Harbor lies in an “R-20” zone, meaning residential lots need to be a minimum of 20,000 square feet, but most of the lots aren’t that large. That often necessitates exceptions from zoning rules.

“We need smart people both on the applicants’ side and on the boards’ side to mediate, manage and negotiate that,” he said.

Mr. DeSesa said a balance still needs to be struck between development and preservation.

People are attracted to Sag Harbor because of its historic district, he said, but “if people move to make a big investment in the village in restoring those homes, they need to get some sort of benefit somehow. What benefit can we tolerate to still keep the historic character of the area, but also to attract those people to come in and preserve it so it doesn’t fall into disrepair?”

Mr. Warren made a similar point, saying it’s about finding “a sense of fairness both from a private property owner’s perspective, how to deal with their interests and how to deal with what the community is looking for. It shouldn’t be, ‘I like what’s here, now let’s change it.’ It’s an education process on both sides.”

In response to an audience question from Lynn Blumenfeld, who suggested “legislating real changes that will actually affect us,” Mr. Warren recalled the 2016 code change process in Sag Harbor, when the village developed house size limits based on their lot sizes.

“It was a blood bath,” Mr. Warren said. “Property owners here don’t want people to tell them what to do with their property. We had to find a balance. There are limitations here in Sag Harbor, almost in each East End community. Over time, I think we’ll see a readjustment.”

Planning Ahead

Mr. Vermandois said the biggest challenge he has — the one that keeps him awake at night — isn’t the restoration of historic properties. It’s climate change, and sea level rise in particular.

“Scientists are telling us that we’re looking at a 1- to 3-foot rise in sea level over the next century, even if we move rapidly to a carbon-neutral economy,” he said. “I say, hey, that’s something we’ve got to be preparing for, and not just in Bangladesh or Congo, but right here in Sag Harbor Village. There are parts of Bay Street, Garden Street or John Street right in the heart of the village that are 3 feet above sea level. What happens when that sea level goes up 3 feet? Either we’re going to have to say Bluff Point or Baron’s Cove become islands, or we raise streets and houses up, or we just abandon those houses, and some of those are historic houses. That’s a real challenge that we have to work with.”

Mr. Warren said New York State began to address sea level rise in its building codes when it started to incorporate updated Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines for flood maps. Even New York City is planning ahead for it, he said.

“It’s something we should all be conscious of. It’s a reality,” Mr. Warren said.

Mr. Brandt said he feels Sag Harbor lacks a long-range plan.

“This is a disaster waiting to happen,” he said. “In my imagination, I see people coming to Sag Harbor in 100 years to do underwater archaeology. That’s a joke, but it’s not a joke.”

Barbara Bornstein speaking during the Express Sessions event on Land Use and Preservation at the Americal Hotel on Friday.

Community Perspectives

Barbara Bornstein, a local real estate agent who is active in trail preservation groups, pitched to Ms. Cirillo more recreational trails on land that has been preserved via CPF moneys.

“Trails are not incompatible with farmland,” she said.

Jane Holden, also a local real estate agent, made another point about the CPF. She said when it was first instituted, it was not that hard for homeowners to swallow. But now, she said, people question it because “of the millions and millions of dollars, very little has been given back to this area.”

Ms. Cirillo responded by suggesting people get actively involved by encouraging land owners to approach the village with preservation or conservation ideas.

“We’d be all for advocating for that,” she said.

Bob Weinstein, a member of Save Sag Harbor whose house was built in 1834, called for the real estate industry to more thoroughly educate clients about Sag Harbor.

“They can open up the issues of what it means to live in an historic district and what’s viable and feasible in terms of development or preservation of a home,” Mr. Weinstein said. “We have to protect the historic authenticity of this village.”