Board Approves Billy Joel’s Bay Street Renovations

A rendering of Billy Joel's proposed house on Bay Street by architect Bill Beeton.

Sag Harbor’s Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review sang its final note Thursday in what has been an operatic journey for musician Billy Joel’s attempt to renovate his house at 20 Bay Street, with the board voting 4-1 to approve the plans after a sometimes-contentious 18-month process.

Nearby residents turned out in force at a public hearing two weeks ago to oppose the project, but no one was given the chance to speak on Thursday, as the public hearing had already been closed. Instead, they listened to a roll call vote during which each board member explained his or her rationale.

John “Chris” Connor on Thursday said he was led to vote “yes” after Mr. Joel’s architectural team found an old photograph of the house and based much of its latest design on that.

“I was quite impressed,” Mr. Connor said. “What was the historic house — which, in my mind, was badly, badly damaged in the early 2000 renovation — was being brought back to its state, its shape, its design, because they discovered a photograph from the early 20th century. Following that, to restore the house, they would recreate the house. That in large part is why I’m voting ‘yes.’”

Judith Long, who cast the lone “no” vote, did so while saying she appreciated the attempts Mr. Joel’s representatives made during the process to appease the board.

“I want to vote ‘no’ only because the points that were made at the public hearing I thought were very good — that this could possibly set precedent for a very, very, very large building as you enter the Bay Street area,” she said.

Board chairman Anthony Brandt said he was compelled to vote yes, even though it might cost him some friends, because of the risk that sea level rise posed to the house, and because Mr. Joel’s team had been willing to work with the board along the way to reach a compromise.

“Ultimately, I think they sacrificed most of their desires according to our wishes,” said Mr. Brandt, who was the last to vote. “I’ve been working on that ever since my tenure on this board to get cooperation from people, rather than conflict.”

Indeed, attorney Jon Tarbet, representing Mr. Joel and the designer and architectural team of Jeffrey Colle and Bill Beeton, said he thought the board treated them “fairly and professionally” during the process.

“The applicant and designers … worked very hard to address each and every comment the BHPAR had,” Mr. Tarbet said Friday. “I think a lot of credit should go to them for being willing to rework their design to meet the board’s concerns. … I was grateful for their willingness to keep an open mind and approve what will be an asset to the village.”

But Myrna Davis, a neighboring resident, said she was disappointed the BHPAR seemed to acquiesce, at least in part, due to the applicant’s cooperation with their wishes rather than the architectural and historical merits of the proposal.

“Only Judy Long addressed that and had a different vote because she was concerned with those issues,” Ms. Davis said Friday. “… I didn’t feel what they had to say addressed the issues as much as they believed that someone cooperated with them. I still feel like it’s a very big project. The overall effect is one big house. I was disappointed, but I can’t say surprised. I was only surprised by their statements.”

She also took issue with Mr. Brandt’s comment that he might lose some friends over his “yes” vote. “Other people thought [he] meant us. I was distressed by that,” Ms. Davis said.

Mr. Joel earned permission to lift his house up to a height of 30 feet, 10 inches, to reduce the risk of flood damage as per Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) guidelines. Sag Harbor Village code caps the height of houses at 35 feet. The plans call for the abandoning of some habitable basement space and the removal of a small rear addition, so the house will actually decrease from 4,943 square feet to 4,334 square feet. A screened-in front porch replaces what was previously a full front addition in the design, and a proposed connecting structure between the two parts of the house has been set back further and lowered in height. The four-bedroom, six-bathroom house also includes a study, a combined kitchen and dining room and, of course, a piano room.

It was announced that board member Val Florio, who had recused himself from previous discussions of Mr. Joel’s property, had submitted a letter of resignation from the BHPAR just prior to the meeting. He said Monday he considered rescinding it before making “the difficult decision to officially resign” due to his work schedule.

Conspicuously present at Thursday’s meeting were two representatives of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, who were there as part of an audit of the Sag Harbor BHPAR.

The board also issued a rare 5-0 approval for solar panels on a house in the historic district. Alastair Cairns of 14 Bluff Point Road will have the ability to go solar after the board learned his roof is flat. The BHPAR has traditionally only issued approvals for solar panels when they are not visible from the street and from neighboring properties.

“You’d have to climb up on a ladder or a fire truck to see these,” board member Dean Gomolka said.