The reconstruction of this house at 295 Main Street in Sag Harbor Village has neighbors up in arms. Photography by Stephen J. Kotz.
By Stephen J. Kotz
The top-to-bottom reconstruction and expansion of a modest house at 295 Main Street in Sag Harbor has become ground zero in a growing debate over the pace of development in the village, eliciting calls for a moratorium on most major construction until the village can get a better handle on things.
“It’s an application that should never have gotten off the ground to this extent,” said Mayor Brian Gilbride on Thursday, April 30, when a crowd descended to complain about it and other village development at a special village board meeting that was ostensibly called to discuss outdoor dining licenses for village restaurants.
“It’s not working,” said village resident Mia Grosjean of the village’s response to the current building boom. “It’s time for a moratorium.”
“Any lawyer in this town who knows the zoning code can just go around it,” she added. “The boards are being pitted against one another.”
Fred W. Thiele Jr., the village attorney, said he, fellow village attorney Denise Schoen, and planning consultant Rich Warren were “realistically three weeks to a month away” from having a draft of an amendment to the code that would limit the sizes of houses to a percentage of their lot size instead of an absolute figure based on what zone they are in.
A size ratio law would be expected to put an end to the shoehorning of large houses onto small lots, a practice which has become the subject of an oft-repeated complaint. Once that draft is complete, Mr. Thiele said the village might want to consider a three- or four-month moratorium as it fine-tunes the proposal.
Trustee Robby Stein, who recently announced he will run for mayor in June, said he would support a moratorium as long as it was well thought out and would not ensnare homeowners trying to undertake small projects like backyard decks.
“The code needs a revision. We have a volume problem and we have a density problem,” he said. “But you’ve got to be sure what you are doing before you impose a moratorium. You can’t just slap it on.”
“I would like to talk to the chairpersons of the boards this would affect,” said Trustee Sandra Schroeder, who is also a mayoral candidate. She agreed with Mr. Stein that she did not want to see a blanket moratorium that would prevent residents from making any improvements to their homes, but she added, “it’s clear we have to do something.”
Carol Olejnik, who is better known around town as “the Tomato Lady” for her gardening prowess, set off the latest debate when she and several neighbors appeared before the Zoning Board of Appeals in March in a vain effort to argue that a stop-work order issued last winter should not have been lifted against the owner of the house at 295 Main Street. Frank Greenwald, an East Hampton architect, owns the property under a limited liability corporation.
At that hearing, Ms. Olejnik complained that workers digging the foundation for the house had undermined her property and that the addition was larger and taller than the original house and towered over her backyard. But Ms. Schoen, the village attorney who advises the ZBA, questioned why the ZBA was even holding the hearing, saying that the village code allows for a house that preexists zoning to be taken apart and rebuilt in kind. The ZBA agreed with her assessment and allowed work to continue. Tom Preiato, who had just joined the village as its senior code inspector, had issued the stop-work order because he believed the work represented an illegal demolition.
Ms. Olejnik, who lives to the north of the house, and Lee Buchanan, the neighbor to the south, took their fight to the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review in April, arguing that Mr. Greenwald was not building the same house it had approved last year.
“Right now they have the peak sitting where it was, but they have the roofline jacked up maybe three feet,” Ms. Olejnik told the village board last week, adding that the house had been substantially reconstructed. “Apparently the code says you can do that,” she said. “There’s no definition of ‘demolition’ in your code. Damn it, there should be.”
This week, Mr. Greenwald insisted he had done nothing wrong.
To build a new foundation, the main portion of the original house was moved forward on the property before being slid back to its original position, Mr. Greenwald said. An addition built to the rear of the property conforms to all setbacks, he added.
“The finished elevation is exactly the same. The roofline is exactly the same,” he said. “The building that is there is exactly the same as what was there two years ago.”
Mr. Greenwald said he recognized people were in Sag Harbor were upset about the pace of development, but stressed as an architect he understood the rules and why they were put in place.
“I’ve become the poster child for all the problems in the village,” he said. “I think what’s happened is the village is under such incredible pressure and they’re trying to do the right thing. But if the zoning code says you can do X, you can do X, even if someone doesn’t like it.”
On Friday, Mr. Preiato said he had inspected Mr. Greenwald’s property once again, and although he did not issue a second stop-work order, he said he had requested that work be stopped temporarily.
“When I measured it, it appeared to be taller,” he said, “but I don’t know the exact grade so I asked that no further work be done until he could get a survey.”
On Monday, Ms. Olejnik insisted that a portion of the gable end of the original house that is remaining clearly shows that the roofline has been elevated.
“It’s too late for me,” she said, “but maybe I can get the laws changed for someone else.”
At Thursday’s meeting, Jane Young of Save Sag Harbor joined those who said it was time for the village to rethink its approach to development. “We’ve had some bad decisions,” she said of the village’s review boards, saying too often they bent over backward for applicants and were afraid to say no instead of fulfilling “their role to protect the village.”
As an example, she cited Howard Street, which, she said, “was once just a lovely, charming village street. Now it is on steroids. It’s just gotten blown up and they are not done yet.”
Another Save Sag Harbor member, Bob Weinstein, agreed that the village was under assault and questioned whether more could be done to impose meaningful limits on development. “It’s not a question of ‘not in my backyard,’’ he said. “Sag Harbor is everybody’s backyard.”
“We used to be a working class town, or village,” said Mr. Gilbride. “Apparently those days are long gone because nothing is small.”