Express Sessions Panelists Tackle Waterfront Code Update

Express Session panelists Jim Larocca, Elizabeth Vail, Bob Plumb, Nat Egosi and Susan Mead at the American Hotel on Thursday. DANA SHAW

On the eve of a public hearing before the Sag Harbor Village Board on a proposal to create a new waterfront overlay district, village officials and other panelists discussed the need for stricter controls on development in that part of the village and ways the process could be improved on Thursday at the American Hotel.

The Express Sessions panel and discussion included Mayor Jim Larocca, Trustee Bob Plumb, village attorney Elizabeth Vail, Sag Harbor Partnership co-chairwoman and former Village Zoning Board member Susan Mead, and Sag Harbor Inn owner Nathiel Egosi.

Soon after taking office in July, Larocca undertook major revisions to a proposal first aired by his predecessor, Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy, expanding the boundaries of the district, eliminating a form-based code approach, which sought to guide design decisions, and jettisoning a number of proposed changes to the zoning code’s use tables.

“When I inherited this effort, I felt that it needed some fine-tuning,” said Larocca, who added that the code changes would give the village a stronger hand in regulating development in its most valuable district while protecting the three major components of the village’s economy: tourism, recreation, and the arts.

There was general agreement that the village is under intense development pressure. “I can’t remember a time when we had as many billionaires flying over the village as we do right now,” Larocca said.

Sag Harbor Mayor Jim Larocca. DANA SHAW

The sentiment was echoed by State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. “I think we are under the greatest developmental pressure we’ve ever been under,” he said.

Egosi, whose property was not in the original district, said he was happy to see it expanded. “I was disappointed earlier versions of the overlay had a narrow view of what Sag Harbor’s waterfront is,” he said.

Plumb said the initial effort was “a direct reaction” to the oft-criticized condominiums built by developer Jay Bialsky as part of the deal that gave the village John Steinbeck Waterfront Park.

“We don’t want to see that happen again,” he said.

But when Plumb said the Bialsky buildings were 55 feet tall, it drew a quick rebuttal from audience member David Harvey, the architect who designed them. He said the buildings were actually approximately 42 feet tall, but acknowledged they had been constructed at a 7-foot elevation above the street. But he added that the developer had given up 60 percent of his development rights in exchange for the right to build third floors.

Asked if the condos had, in fact, spurred the rezoning effort, Larocca replied, “The answer is yes, but there is more to it,” adding that mistakes were made in the review process.

Sag Harbor Village Trustee Bob Plumb. DANA SHAW

For his part, Egosi said the argument over the Bialsky buildings was academic and it was time to move on. “What we have in front of us is what we have,” he said.

A major change to the original legislation is a provision that would give the Village Board the authority to issue special exception permits for developments of more than 3,500 square feet.

Larocca and Vail have stressed that the change would simply provide another layer of review and would not undermine the authority of the Zoning Board of Appeals, Planning Board, Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review, or the Harbor Committee.

If, for instance, one of the regulatory boards denied an application, the Village Board would not be able to override that decision and approve it, but on the other hand, if all the other boards approved an application, the Village Board would still retain veto power over it.

But Plumb questioned whether the Village Board should be given such authority. “If we have the power to turn down for whatever reason a project that has been approved by the other boards, have we not usurped their power?” he asked. “I don’t see how there is a way around that.”

Larocca rejected that notion, suggesting instead that elected officials were in a better position to respond directly to the will of the people.

Mead, an attorney who had a long career in land-use issues, asked if there would be a timeline, requiring applicants to follow a certain sequence. If not, she said most applicants would probably choose to go before the Village Board first, with the hope that a positive outcome from it would influence the decisions of other regulatory boards.

Sag Harbor Village Attorney Elizabeth Vail. DANA SHAW

Vail said she expected most applicants would ask the ZBA to hear their cases first because unless that board issues the needed variances, any other approvals would be moot.

Audience member and Harbor Committee chairwoman Mary Ann Eddy chimed in, suggesting that her committee, which oversees the issuance of wetland permits, should be first in line for applications that are within 150 feet of the waterfront.

“Nothing is more precious to us than the waterfront,” she said, adding that often her committee was the last to see applications and had little leeway in requiring more stringent setbacks at that late stage.

Panelists agreed that it was the right decision to toss out the effort to develop a form-based code.

Vail said from a legal standpoint, it was easier to add code amendments to the existing code rather than try to incorporate special language for a form-based code in part of the village.

Mead said a form-based code lacked specificity that could help guide board members. She pointed out that a draft of the code amendments prohibited large windows in certain instances. “What is large?” she asked.

Larocca also said a form-based approach would have been more trouble than it was worth, saying the burden of interpreting such a code would add “another level of pressure” to the decision-making process. “You want it to be as crisp, as specific, as it can be,” he said of the code. “Some of these amorphous standards are more than we can manage.”

Plumb acknowledged the effort to put in place a form-based code was perhaps a matter of “overkill” that would have worked better in a larger community.

“One elephant in the room, as far as I’m concerned, is everyone is dancing around architecture,” he added. “We haven’t addressed that cohesively.”

Mead argued that the village would do well to hire a full-time planning staff, or at least budget more money to pay to have planning consultants on hand at each and every regulatory board meeting.

“We don’t have a planning staff,” she said. “We have great consultants, but their time is limited.” She suggested that developers be required to contribute toward the cost of hiring consultants, who could keep the other boards informed about the status of a given application.

Egosi said often during the application process, developers agree to conditions that are not necessarily written into covenants and restrictions accompanying the approval. “Often times, promises that were made two or three years earlier are completely forgotten,” he said.

Mead also raised concerns about future development in the area property north bounded by Bridge, Rose and Meadow streets, that is in the Office District zone. Because of the shallow depth to groundwater, development decisions will have be made carefully, she said.

Referring to Adam Potter, the chairman of Friends of Bay Street, who has been involved with the purchase of a number of properties in the area, Mead said, “We have a developer who has purchased a large amount of land. It won’t grow organically, it will grow suddenly.”

Allowing projects to move ahead “before we have the solution is backward,” she said.

Larocca said it was time for the village to develop a proper comprehensive plan. “What we lack is an integrated mechanism for defining what we want our community to be going forward,” he said. “We don’t have a comprehensive plan, we have pieces of a plan.”

Mead, who said the most recent draft of the waterfront overlay district, had overlooked several key elements, said the village would face immediate challenges even before it could complete a master plan.

“The day the code is put into law, you will see plans filed immediately,” she said of the current zoning revisions. “Anything that is not in the code, we’ve missed the window.”