Express Session Panelists Grapple With Progress Versus Preservation In Sag Harbor

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The panel during the Express Sessions: Modernizing History event at the American Hotel. michael heler photo

Better education and communication are the keys to reconciling the demands of developers against the need to preserve Sag Harbor’s historic character, the panelists at Friday’s Express Sessions event agreed.

“Modernizing History: Balancing Preservation and Development in Sag Harbor” was held at The American Hotel and featured a seven-member panel that included village officials, preservationists, architects and other land-use professionals.

Anthony Vermandois, a village architect and panelist, said he is often required to rein in the expectations of his clients. “People recognize the cachet of living in a historic house,” he said. “Paradoxically, everyone wants all the amenities they would have in a spec house McMansion.”

Panelist Bob Weinstein, a member of Save Sag Harbor, said when he bought his historic house on Jefferson Street 15 years ago, “the idea of appropriateness had somehow eluded me.

“I went before the architectural review board with a proposal for two swimming pools, if you can imagine,” he continued. “Thank goodness, this was shot down immediately. I didn’t fight for it, because I was made to understand it was the wrong thing for a historic district.”

It is important for the village to communicate its objectives upfront, said Zach Studenroth, Sag Harbor’s historic preservation consultant, who also sat on the panel. “It’s about creating materials and finding ways to get them to the perspective homeowners ahead of time,” he said, “before the expectations are set as to what you might be able to do with your property.”

The village is taking steps to do just that, responded Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy, a panelist who is also a real estate agent when not serving the village. “We in the village government are doing something called ‘What It Means To Live In Sag Harbor,’” she said. “It is going to be a brochure, and it will describe all the boards and all the processes you go through.” The plan is for the brochure to be both printed and posted on the village website in time for the summer season, she said.

Panelist Brian DeSesa, a Sag Harbor attorney who represents many clients before the village’s regulatory boards, said it is his experience that clients buying property in the historic district “are more apt to be aware of the designations of contributing or noncontributing structures,” because they often have brokers or attorneys advising them.

“It becomes more challenging as you leave the historic district, because the regulations are less and less stringent,” he added. He said he would advise clients, “Before you get too far down the road, when you are working with an architect, go into the architectural review board and have a discussion.”

An attendee asks a question from the audience.

Some in the audience were skeptical that all developers can be convinced to do what’s right for the village and questioned whether the fines for tearing down a historic house or ignoring village directives were effective.

“If you are going to be building a multimillion-dollar house and somebody comes in and tears down a historic property, and they only get a fine of a thousand bucks — I mean, what good is that?” asked panelist Anne Surchin, an architect and member of the Southold Town Historic Preservation Commission, and an architecture columnist for the Express News Group.

She cited a town in Illinois, where the fine for illegally tearing down a house is equal to the value of the house itself. Although that fine structure may be on the steep side, “they haven’t had teardowns since they had that regulation,” she noted.

Mayor Mulcahy said fines were set by the state but added that she would support increases. “It has to cost them,” she said of property owners who don’t follow the law.
Ms. Surchin added that the state might be convinced to increase fines if all municipalities on the East End lobbied the governor. “That’s a force to be reckoned with,” she said of the combined influence of the local governments.

Others, including Mr. DeSesa, said fines had limited value, because developers will just factor them in as the cost of doing business. “The deterrent to a village resident is time, because time is money,” he said. He added that he has done work in another municipality where “if you tear down a structure, you are barred from applying for a building permit for one year.”

“More than fines, I think, it is the fear of getting a stop-work order and being dragged before the review boards again that is enough to make people think twice about doing that,” added Mr. Vermandois.

“The stop-work order has been our best friend,” agreed panelist Dean Gomolka, the chairman of the village’s Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review. He added that board members and concerned citizens keep their eyes peeled for violations and act promptly to stop them.

Mr. Weinstein brought the conversation back to education and argued that “people need to understand they are becoming part of a community. … Try to understand what it is you love about this village and where you see the value in this village.”

Others suggested that it would be helpful if village files had more information about historic houses and the limits placed on such properties, so prospective buyers could better understand what they can and can’t do.

Audience member Emma Walton Hamilton said when she and her husband bought their house, their real estate agent, Susan Sprott, gave them “a beautiful packet of information about the history of our house,” including newspaper clippings and information about changes that had been made to it. “It certainly contributed to our love of the house,” she said.

Alexandra Eames took that a step further, saying the village should compile mini-histories of individual houses, so residents could know who lived there and why. “We need to capture the narrative of the history of Sag Harbor in these houses and on these streetscapes in order to engage buyers in wanting to preserve that,” she said.

The panelists also touched on other topics. Mr. Gomolka was asked about the need to balance new technology, such as solar power, with the village’s aesthetic.

Mr. Gomolka raised two concerns. He said traditional solar panels “are problematic,” while new solar tiles are more attractive. He also expressed concern about clearing vegetation to accommodate larger solar arrays.

“We have all these wonderful old trees,” he said. “I’d hate to see the south side of our streets extensively pruned.”

He suggested, as an alternative, a community solar farm. “Maybe there is a plot of land that people could buy into,” he said. “We could work it out so everyone here, not just in the historic district, could buy an allowance.”

Audience member Myrna Davis said the village needs to take a step back and consider the impact of piecemeal development on an entire street. “As each house is considered on its own without considering the scale, eventually the real character of the neighborhood is being eroded,” she said.

Panelists agreed, with Mr. Vermandois saying it is a great challenge for an architect to design a new house between two historic ones.

Mr. Weinstein pointed to a new house built last year just north of the Nathan P. Howell House, a historic captain’s house on Main Street. “There was a cadence in the streetscape that was meant to be protected,” he said. He added that the village zoning code urges planners to take into consideration scale and harmony when they approve plans.

Ms. Surchin said the solution might be in developing a new code that allows for a sliding scale of setbacks or height limits for different neighborhoods to prevent out-of-scale building.

Noting that Sag Harbor was under serious pressure from development, Tim McGuire, the chairman of the ZBA, said the village needs to look to the future as well. He said Sag Harbor’s waterfront from Cormaria on Bay Street to Long Island Avenue and the new condo plan being developed by Jay Bialsky will be the next area of major development.

“It would behoove us to have some kind of plan about what we want all that to look like,” he said.

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