Until now, the public face of the effort to preserve three historically African American communities in Sag Harbor has been largely positive, with proponents advocating for the creation of a historic district that not only recognizes their architecture and sense of scale but also the neighborhoods’ more general sense of place and community.
Another voice was added to the conversation on Friday when The Sag Harbor Express held its latest Express Sessions forum at the American Hotel, as some residents said they feared new regulations, however well intended, could infringe upon their property rights and even have a chilling effect on property values.
“SANS: Planning to Protect Historic Communities” brought together a panel that included community leader Renee Simons, who has been instrumental in the effort to recognize the cultural significance of Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest and Ninevah Beach, the three communities that are now commonly referred to by the acronym SANS.
She was joined by Georgette Grier-Key, the executive director of the Eastville Community Historical Society; Sarah Kautz, the preservation director of Preservation Long Island; Julian Adams, the director of the Bureau of Community Preservation Services for the New York State Historic Preservation Office; and Sag Harbor Village Trustee Bob Plumb.
“As a resident of SANS, I see a very strong, priceless legacy and an enviable sense of community, bar none,” Ms. Simons told the gathering. “We think that, ‘Oh, it’s here now — it will last.’ There is no guarantee of that. It can go away” if not protected, she said.
The three subdivisions, which hug the bay on the east side of the village, were named to both the National and State Registers of Historic Places last year, but those are only honorary designations.
“Preservation is not just one individual thing. It is a collection of places, people and stories, and that is what we have collectively in the SANS community,” said Dr. Grier-Key. She added that those communities were in danger of “raw displacement” as real estate speculators replace modest homes with mansions and families that lived there for generations move away.
Ms. Kautz said the communities “included architects, doctors, lawyers, all kinds of professional people of color looking for a place where they could have a second home,” in an era when restrictive covenants closed many other communities to African Americans. It is less about the quality of the architecture and more about “the story behind it and why it is there,” she said.
Mr. Adams said communities like SANS are rare, because similar ones have been “swallowed up” as people have been priced out of them. “We are looking past the architecture and looking at the cultural significance” of SANS, he said.
“It goes without saying the spirit you are trying to preserve is obviously important,” offered Mr. Plumb, but he added that “spirit is ethereal,” and trying to translate that into a protective code is not easy. He urged residents to monitor applications before the ZBA and the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review. “They really do listen to the neighbors,” he said. “It would behoove everyone to show up to a meeting and tell them how you feel.”
Although the discussion did touch on some frustration with the village zoning code and how it is administered, others had more pressing concerns.
“How do you balance the interest of the homeowners who have owned some of these historic homes?” asked Errol Taylor, the president of the Ninevah Beach Property Owners Association. “Most of their wealth is tied up in these homes.”
Mr. Taylor said he applauded the efforts of those seeking to preserve their neighborhoods, but added, “We are talking about issues that deal with the wealth of our neighbors without really engaging those who have been here forever and whose major asset we’re talking about. It is so important to preserve the history, culture and community that we all love in these communities — but I hope we find a way to do that in a way that respects all the community.”
Mr. Taylor’s concerns were echoed by Stephen Roache, also a Ninevah resident, who said, “African Americans in the U.S. have, on average, a negative net worth,” and that it was important to make sure property owners were able to realize the full value of their homes. “It may have a chilling effect on valuation,” he said of a historic district with restrictions on what owners could do with their properties.
Steve Williams, a member of the village ARB and a longtime Azurest resident, said he, too, chafed at the idea of restrictions being placed on his right to build an addition to his home if, say, his son and family moved back east and wanted to use the house.
“I think this is a very complicated, multilayered situation. Architecture is one thing, and owners and occupants of that architecture are something else,” he said. “The fact that our buildings don’t change if we have a designation doesn’t mean we still can’t get bought out, and it doesn’t mean that we still won’t be replaced by people who are not of the culture.”
Ms. Kautz said it was too early to be concerned about new restrictions on development. “I don’t think we know what the plan is,” she said. “Presumably, you’d be taking the National Register nomination and making it a locally designated district as well. It’s a process that’s going to take a while. It’s great we are starting the dialogue now.”
Mr. Adams stressed that rather than declining in value, houses in historic districts tend to increase in value: “In reality, local designations have proven over and over and over again, nationally and statewide, to, number one, stabilize property values, and, two, improve them.
“Historic preservation is not about freezing time, it’s not about stopping change,” he added. “It’s about managing it.”
“There is substantial data showing that houses that are designated historical, their value increases more than comparable houses that are not in a district,” added Ms. Simons.
Donnamarie Barnes, a Ninevah resident and the curator at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island, urged the community to come together for the common good. “We have to all agree that we have this legacy that we are protecting for the future so we are not a forgotten community,” she said.
Dr. Grier-Key said it was important that African American communities be included in the discussion of what is historically significant, adding they have too long been excluded.
She pointed to an example in Sag Harbor, where she said the Eastville Community Historical Society was founded in the 1980s in part because when Sag Harbor created its own historic district, it stopped a block short of St. David A.M.E. Zion Church, the oldest church at its original location in the village.
“We are only trying to do what should have been done a long time ago and was neglected,” she said of the effort to protect the SANS community.
Elon Simons said the community had to do a balancing act, with some residents fearing a loss of value, and others a loss of history. “Can a historic cultural designation co-exist with rules?” he asked. “That’s a big question.”
For now, at least, participants seemed to agree that the current zoning code is not working for SANS.
“There’s a house by the architect Peter Cook. It’s in Sag Harbor Hills, and it’s quite large, and now it is sitting on the market,” said Lindsay McNeil. “You go six houses down the other way, and there is another house, large in scale, that has been sitting on the market for five or six years.”
Ms. Simons said that residents had opposed those projects, but they had been approved anyway.
“The elephant in the room is, there is spec building versus homeowner building,” said Mr. Plumb. “They have a different outlook, they have different motives. It’s not necessarily to preserve a neighborhood. It’s to maximize out their property.” Speculators also come “armed with attorneys” and “can be expensive to fight,” he added.
Will Sharpe, a resident of Ninevah, said real estate speculation was harming the community and suggested that it was time to explore whether those who flipped properties could be taxed: “If we don’t meet these people at their level, we’re doomed.”