Board Hears Debate Over Billy Joel’s House, Postpones Vote

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

While musician Billy Joel was getting ready to sing at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, several Sag Harbor residents were busy vocalizing staunch opposition to the renovations he has proposed for his house on Bay Street during a meeting of the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review.

Mr. Joel, who has attended a few recent informal discussions of his project before the BHPAR, has proposed the lifting of his house to conform with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regulations, up to a height of 30 feet, 10 inches. The maximum height of buildings allowed in Sag Harbor’s building code is 35 feet.

Whereas the plans once called for a rotation of the Rector Street portion to be flush with Bay Street, Mr. Joel has abandoned that aspect of the project. The plans call for a screened-in front porch, rather than what was previously a full front addition, and the design of a connecting structure between the two parts of the house has been set back further and lowered in height. The plans show four bedrooms, six bathrooms, a study, a combined kitchen and dining room and, of course, a piano room.

Designer and builder Jeffrey Colle also outlined a plan to preserve the old elm tree in front of the house, which he estimated to be 125 to 150 years old. Attorney Jon Tarbet said this week the existing house is 4,943 square feet and the proposed house is 4,334 square feet. “The reason it is actually getting smaller is that we are abandoning an addition in the rear yard and because we are abandoning habitable space below FEMA flood plain,” he explained in an email.

Board chairman Anthony Brandt established a five-minute time limit on public comments for each speaker, a rare practice at BHPAR meetings.

Jeffrey Bragman, an East Hampton Town Councilman and attorney who attended the meeting to represent the community group Save Sag Harbor, said about 1,700 members of that organization have opposed Mr. Joel’s proposal. He called the plans “a mashup of architectural details” and said they go against the United States Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines for historic preservation.

“This is a McMansion with a Charleston-style enclosed deck pasted on,” Mr. Bragman said. “It’s kind of a false historic attribute to this building. This is not what you should be permitting. This erases history. … You should say ‘no’ to this.”

Another rendering of the proposed house owned by musician Billy Joel, by architect Bill Beeton.

Myrna Davis, a Rector Street neighbor, called the renovation “nonconforming and nonessential,” and asked the board to weigh the project based on “what it means to the village as a whole versus what it means to the applicant.”

“And I beg each applicant, and this one in particular, to consider becoming a steward of this village’s treasured history, its authentic scale and character, rather than indulging, however unwittingly, in its destruction,” Ms. Davis said. “You can use your ‘Billy Pulpit’ to be an exemplar, and leave the village improved but not too greatly changed from when you found it, and future generations will then look upon and enjoy the same qualities that attracted you and so many of us here.”

Another Rector Street neighbor, Bruce Tait, called the existing neighborhood “unique,” and said, “It’s incumbent on you guys to preserve that neighborhood, and I’d like you to do that.”

The lone speaker in support of the project was local architect Anthony Vermandois, who said while he wasn’t a fan of Mr. Joel’s music, he thought the plans for the renovation were not all bad. He said climate change and the raising of structures are a reality that must be considered in the bigger picture for Bay Street.

“I think it does need another pass,” he said. “Looking at the bigger picture here, the streetscape and the relationship to the houses, eventually Bay Street is going to have to be raised, that’s just the reality of the world we’re living in.”

While some board members expressed favorable opinions of the project when they last viewed the plans on July 26, board members did not comment extensively on the project during the public hearing on Thursday. The board’s historic preservation consultant, Zachary Studenroth, did say, “I think the design has come around.”

The board postponed a vote until its September 13 meeting because it required a full membership to vote. Member Val Florio has recused himself from all discussions of 20 Bay Street since he joined the board last year, because he performed architectural design work on the commercial portion of the building in 2003, and the board’s alternate member, Judith Long, was absent.

A rendering of the view from Rector Street of Billy Joel’s proposed house on Bay Street by architect Bill Beeton.