By Stephen J. Kotz
A plan for Sotheby’s Real Estate to move into the former offices of The Sag Harbor Express, pitched on Tuesday as a simple change of tenants to the Sag Harbor Village Zoning Board of Appeals, was instead painted by its opponents as an attempt to flout the village’s effort to preserve Main Street as a viable shopping district.
The attorney Dennis Downes, who represents Sotheby’s, said The Express office, like all other first-floor offices on Main Street, became a nonconforming use when the village revised the zoning code in 2009, with an eye toward discouraging a proliferation of offices in the business district.
The board, which had only four members present, closed the hearing, but was unable to reach a consensus on how to proceed, with its chairman, Anton Hagen opposed to the proposal, with board member Brendan Skislock supporting it. Members Scott Baker and Jennifer Ponzini were undecided, and Tim McGuire was absent.
The paper moved its staff to a second-floor office on the Division Street side of the building in April, with plans to rent its former space to Sotheby’s, but the move was referred by building inspector Tim Platt to the ZBA.
If a first-floor office were changed to a retail use, the office use would be lost, Mr. Downes told the ZBA, but he insisted that the 2009 code never intended that a change from one type of office to another should be prohibited.
He submitted a letter from Greg Ferraris, who was mayor at the time of the code change, supporting that conclusion. Richard Warren, the village’s planning consultant and one of the authors of the 2009 zoning code, also agreed.
Mr. Warren said before the code change, he had conducted a comprehensive survey that found 160 uses, including 28 different offices, on and around Main Street. The village board, he said, wanted to maintain “the vibrancy” of the village, and it recognized that if too many stores were replaced by offices, the village would reach a “threshold point, where you lose so many you may lose that economic engine.”
The village decided it would not allow “any more non-retail spaces on Main Street, but those 28 would have the right to convert,” he said, with the knowledge that if a property owner turned an officer into a retail use it would not be allowed to change back.
Denise Schoen, the ZBA’s attorney, conceded that the village board did not want “all of Main Street to become real estate offices,” but she told the ZBA that on the basis of the testimony of both Mr. Ferraris and Mr. Warren that “it appears to me we are here on a technicality.”
That conclusion was rejected by Scott Strough, the managing partner of Strough Real Estate Associates, whose firm rents a Main Street office. Mr. Strough said the zoning code explicitly sought to rein in the number of real estate offices and said allowing the proposal to go through would set a precedent.
“Is anyone not going to believe that there are at least 10 real estate firms watching this?” he asked the board. “The entire real estate community feels Sag Harbor has been quarantined.”
“Sotheby’s is looking at a diamond location, which is The Sag Harbor Express,” he added.
Acknowledging that he could be accused of being “the pot calling the kettle black,” Mr. Strough said he had practiced in Sag Harbor for 30 years and had his Main Street office for 14 years. “I pay a very heavy rent,” he said, “ for a use commodity in the village that is very rare.”
Simon Harrison, who is also a real estate broker, also opposed the change, suggesting that Sotheby’s employs as many as 600 agents at its three East End locations, and wondering if a quarter of them would take up residency in Sag Harbor.
His concern was answered by Alice Belle of Sotheby’s, who said the firm has about 100 agents on the East End and expects that 12 to 14 people will work in the office.
Nada Barry, an owner of the Wharf Shop, also spoke against the application. Ms. Barry said she had attended nearly every board meeting for the past 15 years, “and I very well recollect being in the room when there were discussions about redoing the zoning,” she said. “One of the impetuses was so the whole Main Street didn’t have any more real estate offices on it.” She said she feared bringing more brokers would use up already valuable parking spaces.
The opposition brought Miles Anderson, the attorney for Bryan Boyhan, the owner of the building and the paper’s publisher emeritus, to the podium. He questioned whether there would be any opposition if the plan were to rent the space to a software company from California with a similar number of employees.
“Would we be hearing any of this chorus of opposition that we are hearing tonight if that were the case?” he asked. “The blind prejudice I’m hearing tonight is shocking because that’s all it is, blind prejudice.”
“The fact that you have two competitors complaining as much as you did tells me their main thrust is they don’t want another real estate office,” added Mr. Downes.
Mr. Boyhan said he knew his decision to rent to Sotheby’s would not be popular, but added that he wanted to both protect his right to hold onto an office use and provide additional income to help keep the village newspaper a viable business.
“From early on it was understood that property owners would not be penalized” by the code change, he said. “That was a bargain the village made with the business district property owners.”
He questioned too whether the village would be well served by forcing him to rent to a high-end retailer. “One of the things that is killing East Hampton,” he said, “is not real estate, it is the retail uses that shut down in October and don’t open again until May. I’d rather have an office with people going to lunch or picking up something at Schiavoni’s before they go home.”
Although the board agreed to close the hearing, Mr. Hagen questioned whether allowing a real estate office would be considered an undesirable change to the neighborhood. “We can make a value judgment here,” he said. “Is a newspaper more desirable than a real estate office?”