By Kathryn G. Menu
Displaced agents of Brown Harris Stevens real estate, which lost its office at 96 Main Street in Sag Harbor in the December 16 fire, were joined by executives and supporters at Tuesday night’s Sag Harbor Village Board meeting, where the group pleaded with trustees to make a temporary exception to its code to allow the company to sign a one-year lease to take over the Gingerbread House — a historic home at the edge of Main Street that currently houses French antique store La Maisonette.
“We need some direction,” said Robert Nelson, the senior managing director of BHS. “Everyone is sympathetic, but no one can tell me what can be done today to get these people back to their livelihood. They need to make money. Someone said to me, ‘They have other offices they can go to.’ They can’t. They are Village of Sag Harbor residents and small business people as real estate agents. We have to put them back in a temporary space.”
While Mr. Nelson said “nothing is like that spot – that spot was amazing” of the agency’s office next to the Sag Harbor Cinema property, the company had identified the Gingerbread House as a viable alternative while their building is renovated or rebuilt.
“Time is ticking here, and I need some help,” said Mr. Nelson.
Unfortunately for BHS, Sag Harbor Mayor Sandra Schroeder noted that a first floor office in an existing first floor retail space is against the village’s zoning code.
“That is the issue,” she said.
The Sag Harbor Village Board completed a revision of its zoning code in 2009, partially in response to concerns about big box stores coming into downtown, but also to prevent a proliferation of office spaces on the first floor of Main Street buildings — a trend that occurred in other downtowns, including Southampton Village, which has had a chilling effect on retail business. In response, the zoning code was amended to prohibit first floor office spaces in the village business district, unless they existed prior to 2009. Second floor office spaces are legal, and an office district was created on the periphery of the village business district, including West Water Street and Division Street, where first floor office spaces can operate.
On Tuesday night, Mayor Schroeder and other members of the board asked agents from BHS if those options had been explored.
“We need to have a presence, a presence where people can walk in and see us on Main Street,” said Jane Holden, a lifelong Sag Harbor resident “Fourteen people are unable to work because we don’t have a place.”
“This is an unusual circumstance and an exception that needs to be made and made quickly,” she added, noting the season for visitors to secure rentals for the summer has just begun.
Trustee James Larocca asked Mr. Nelson and Ms. Holden to walk the board through any other sites they have explored, wondering if the vacant Main Street building that housed Capital One would be a viable option for the firm. Being on Main Street is “paramount,” she said about moving into spaces in the office district.
Ms. Holden said a recent sale of that property has not been listed in the real estate transfers, and the firm is having trouble tracking down who owns that space now.
Peter Turino, the president of Brown Harris Stevens, added that the company selected the Gingerbread House —in part — because it was on the edge of Main Street, and set back, making the idea of it being a temporary office more palatable. The Gingerbread House, which dates back to 1840, was a residence until 2012 when Lynn Park Charveriat bought the property to operate her business, La Maisonette. According to Mr. Turino, the firm is prepared to submit a lease with Ms. Charveriat that shows a temporary one-year rental agreement as proof that BHS plans for this to be a temporary home only. The property also comes with parking, he added, and would not require a renovation — a key if agents are to start work immediately.
“You are asking us to break the law and I don’t think we can,” said Ms. Schroeder.
“I could see how there could be an exception considering the fire,” said Mr. Turino.
While the village can make exceptions to its code, it is not through the Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees, noted Ms. Schroeder and other members of the board Tuesday night, but rather through its zoning board of appeals. BHS can seek a variance from that board to change the use of the Gingerbread House. Trustee Ed Deyermond said if that board agrees, and the application is fast tracked, the firm could have approval in a month or two — far less time than it would take for the trustees to alter the code.
On Wednesday morning, Ms. Schroeder said the firm’s attorney, Dennis Downes, had been informed by building inspector Thomas Preiato that the ZBA, and not the village board, needed to hear the application.
“It’s not that we are not sympathetic, but we cannot break our own law, or make an exception for one business,” she said.
New Speed Limit Law Adopted
In other village news, the board adopted a series of local laws Tuesday night. The speed limit on most roads in the historic district of Sag Harbor will now be 20 miles per hour, as opposed to 25 miles per hour. A public hearing on the law yielded one comment from former zoning board of appeals member and Main Street resident, Anthony Hagen.
“I would like to recommend the board to consider and approve this measure, which would greatly contribute to the safety of our village and also contribute to the enhancement of crosswalks across Main Street especially at the whaling museum and library which is an accident waiting to happen at the high speed of 25,” he said.
The decision to pass the legislation was unanimous.
East Hampton Town Animal Control will also be able to issue appearance tickets for residents who do not have tags on their dogs, or who let them roam free after another local law was adopted unanimously by the board Tuesday.
A law that banned hunting in the Village of Sag Harbor was rolled back Tuesday night when the board adopted new regulations conforming its hunting laws to that of the state Department of Environmental Conservation. This came after a local hunting group, Hunters for Deer, challenged the village’s right to place a complete ban in Sag Harbor.
“I am not against hunting, but for the safety of our residents,” said Mayor Schroeder Wednesday morning. “And the DEC overrules us.”