A Conversation With Anthony Brandt

Anthony Brandt in February of 2019. Christine Sampson photo

Anthony Brandt, who returned to lead the Sag Harbor’s Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review in 2016 after first helping to establish it in the late 1980s, again stepped down from the post last week. He sat down with The Express to talk about his departure and the evolution of historic preservation and architecture in the village.

What factors led to your decision to resign?

I’ve been wanting to resign for some time. I find that the burden of carrying this board, and all the things associated with it, was losing me sleep. So, I thought that I was going to stay until the end of this application and once that was done, I would then feel like I’d fulfilled that responsibility. However, it looks now like that’s going to go on for a very long time … and I have other work I need to do. As you get older, you get conscious of the time you have left. You don’t know what it is, but you don’t want to waste it. I’ve done a lot of service to the village over the years, and I think I’ve fulfilled my civic duties.

Take us back to the founding of the review board. How did that come about?

We had a new mayor, who we helped elect, George Butts. Before that time, there was an advisory board on doing pretty much what the architectural review board does now, except all they did was give advice, it didn’t have any power. It would meet maybe once a month and not even in the village offices. I was a member of that board and I thought, “This is dumb. Why on earth don’t we have some power to deny permit applications?” Joan Feehan, she was village clerk and she was a very, very smart woman, saw that there were these things called “certified local governments” (CLGs) that provided benefits to people who had historic buildings. We at the time had a lot of historic buildings and had achieved historic landmark status as a village. She suggested that we apply for this status because the federal government gives you low-interest loans if you have an historic building and you want to repair it. It also provides further protection for the historic buildings. We have 800 of them. When George was elected, we applied to become a CLG, you do that through the state historic preservation office, and I said, “Okay, that ‘s what I want to do. I want to chair that.” They wrote up the law on it basing it on the laws for other CLGs around the state. We started having meetings and I was appointed chair. The other people were longstanding local people, and we started hearing building applications.

What was the impact of the newly established board at that time?

A lot of people were upset because it meant they couldn’t do what they wanted with their house, but the village as a whole accepted it. Because, as we explained to them, if you live in an historic house and it’s designated as such, it tends to raise its value. It doesn’t decrease its value. That has been demonstrated in surveys all over the country.

What do you think the board’s impact continues to be?

Now it’s routine. People expect it … A new code was put in just before I was asked to be the chairman again, and that new code was much more stringent than the previous code, and took historic preservation much more seriously.

How have you seen Sag Harbor’s building landscape change over the years?

It’s much different now. There are many more applications. They’re bigger in the sense that people want more and at that time, all those years ago, 30 years ago, Sag Harbor was not as fashionable as it has become. Being fashionable is the worst thing that can happen to a resort. It tends to ruin them. They lose their local populations. The value of the houses suddenly dramatically rises, so they move out and sell their properties and the people who buy their properties — often they are just little traditional houses that Sag Harbor has always had — they want to expand them, put in theaters in the basement, every bedroom has to have an en-suite bathroom. They buy into a village because it’s so charming and then they want to take the charm out of it by doing stuff to their houses and expanding them. In effect, it destroys the charm.

What comes to mind as particular successes or failures during your time with the board?

There have been so many applications, but mostly I remember not the mistakes but cases where people did things without permission to historic houses. I remember them all too well. The successes were just, in a sense, routine because in the last two-and-a-half years since I‘ve been chair, I’ve always pushed for not just saying “no” but helping people to come to something we can all live with, and that involves a certain amount of compromise. People come with discussion items, “what can I do” and “how can I make this happen.” We say you can’t make this happen but you can make that happen. That’s what I wanted to happen. I wanted to work with them and we would reach a proposal that allowed them to make some changes, but not radical changes. The prime example of that is Billy Joel. A lot of people hate me and hate the board for letting him do what he did, but it was such a huge improvement over what he originally wanted to do. It’s not that big a deal now. I’ve had people say it’s not so bad.

Why did you return to the board in 2016?

I was asked by both mayoral candidates to come back, Robby Stein and Sandra Schroeder, separately and individually. Did I want to do this again? I did. There was a house on Main Street, one of the grand old houses, and it had been dismantled and put back together again, but a lot of it was lost. I’d been in the house not too long before. I was shown around by the owner’s wife. Her husband was the heir to the house and had a lot of old books and they asked me to come and see what to do about them. The back half was the really old part. It needed work, but mostly cosmetic work, and they sold the house. The house was dismantled and put back together so what is there now is a replica. I felt that this was an abomination because much of it could have been saved. That made me angry. Nobody was paying attention. I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”

What does it take to hold this position on the board?

You have to pre-read the applications and be aware of what’s coming onto the board. You spend half a day before the meeting going through the applications and taking notes. That’s part of the job. Another part is going to see the sites themselves. You have to know what you’re dealing with. And then there’s the worry, because you know some applications are going to be very controversial and it’s going to be a long haul. You lose sleep over it — at least I did. And then there’s the meetings themselves. We meet twice a month, and no other board does that. Sometimes the meetings run four hours. It can be boring.

What do you think is the most pressing issue before the review board right now?

I think the village code should be strengthened. I think the gross floor area (GFA) law should be strengthened. Too often the GFA, if you have a large enough lot, allows too much. I think the gold standard is East Hampton. It’s 10 percent of the lot size plus 1,000 feet, period. The GFA here is very complicated. Remember that documentary done about Martha’s Vineyard and the dispute over what people could do with their houses? The village, I don’t recall which one, as a whole voted to keep the house size limit to 3,000 square feet. I think 3,000 square feet is plenty big enough for most houses.

What advice would you offer to the board after your resignation, as well as board members who may be appointed in the future?

I would say get training, which is provided free of charge by the state. I would say remember that you’re independent. Stay tough.