By Douglas Feiden
The longtime member and ex-chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals, a onetime village trustee who also runs Sag Harbor Charters and captains the Marlinspike, talks about his decision to step down from the ZBA and how the attitudes of applicants before the board have changed in recent years.
You’re leaving the ZBA effective immediately. The alternate, Karl Kaiser, is moving up to replace you. Why are you stepping down?
I need a bit of a break. A year from now, I could always volunteer for another board. But I’ve been on this board for almost 20 years. I’d like to spend more time with my family and on my business, so there are personal reasons, family reasons and business reasons. And there’s been a change in the climate here, and how people view their neighbors.
Can you elaborate?
The truth is, for a long time people who came before the zoning board would ask for reasonable variances. They wanted to get along with their neighbors. And now I feel they just don’t give a damn about their neighbors. It’s been happening for the last five years, but it’s been ever increasing. The result is that the climate has changed completely. They just don’t give a damn anymore.
What would be an example?
There’s been an onslaught of applications before us continuously for variances that are oversized or outsized for their lots. They are coming from people who want all the amenities you might have on a 2-acre lot, but they want them on a lot that might be only a quarter of that size or less, and that’s really changing the character of Sag Harbor.
Specifically, what are these applicants requesting?
They apply for relief from the pyramid law, relief on setbacks and relief on lot coverage for houses on small lots. They might say they need all this extra headroom, say, because they’re very tall, and so they’ll get a variance from the board. And then, the next thing you know, a couple of years later, they sell the house. Sag Harbor has become a flipper’s paradise. It’s seen as an opportunity to make money as opposed to a nice place to bring up one’s kids.
What happens when you say, ‘No’ to these applicants?
Any restrictions we impose that may stop them from making the maximum amount of profit is seen as a personal affront. They get so emotional about it. They totally disregard the impact it will have on their neighbors. They see us as impinging on their rights to make as much money as they can. It seems to be almost an emotional need. They get caught up in it, and they get very frazzled.
It’s as if their God-given right to succeed on this Earth and maximize profits is being restricted by the Zoning Board. It’s as if the spirits above aren’t looking benignly down on them. It’s about predestination: They believe they have every right because of their success and ability to make money. And we’re getting in the way of their predestined ability to make money.
They don’t have the historic perspective anymore that we live in a historic village. They can improve their property. Everybody has that right. But they don’t understand there are certain limitations, and they don’t give a damn about their neighbors.
Why not stay and nix the applications you don’t like?
I need a bit of a break from all that. I feel I’ve been on the board too long to be as effective as I’d like, and I want to see some new blood.
You also mentioned family and business reasons. What do you mean?
My wife was formerly Linley Pennebaker Whelan. Luckily for me, she’s now Linley Pennebaker Hagen. She’s in the real estate business, at Brown Harris, and I’ve always been kind of leery about any connection between the regulatory boards and the real estate industry.
We also have an application before the Planning Board to regularize our bed-and-breakfast business. And even as we’re speaking, I’m polishing and painting and varnishing my boat to get ready for the new charter season. It’s a 36-foot Down-easter lobster boat, and Billy Joel has always admired the Marlinspike.