Gornik-Fischl Plan for Church Property Wins Final Approvals from Planning Board

April Gornik and Eric Fischl stand against an original stone foundation wall inside the former Sag Harbor United Methodist Church.

As expected, the Sag Harbor Planning Board on January 28 gave final approval to husband-and-wife artists Eric Fischl and April Gornik’s proposal to convert the imposing 19th-century former Methodist Church into a residential arts center.

The board voted unanimously at a brief meeting on Thursday to grant site plan approval and “special exception use” permission for an educational institution to be operated in a residential zone at 48 Madison Street, just south of the Sag Harbor business district.

Also at the session, the board agreed to legalize an outdoor refrigerator that has been in use outside the Dockside restaurant on Long Wharf for many years. The discrepancy from filed plans was discovered last year during routine review by the Building Department.

The application for 48 Madison Street was the subject of a public hearing in December at which no one spoke in opposition and the board ordered its planning consultant, Kathryn J. Eiseman, to draft an approval resolution for the January 28 meeting.

At a work session before the meeting on Tuesday, the board also agreed to advise the Zoning Board of Appeals that it supports a modification that the Schiavoni family has made increasing the amount of off-street parking provided for its proposed VACS Enterprises two-story retail and office building at 31 Long Island Avenue. An application for an off-street parking variance is pending before the ZBA, which has pushed for more on-site parking.

Among the conditions of the board’s approval for the Fischl-Gornik project is installation of a fire-suppressing sprinkler system, as requested by the East Hampton Town fire marshal, Ms. Eiseman said. Also, the ZBA members must still sign a decision they made January 21 to grant the project relief from lot coverage limits. The project’s coverage is significantly less than what the board granted for a previous proposal to convert the property into a residence, according to Ms. Eiseman.

After two stalled conversion proposals by previous owners had left the former Methodist Church abandoned and exposed to the weather, Ms. Gornik and Mr. Fischl bought the building in 2018 “with the express purpose of creating an art institute that would provide the public access to the church, maintain the historic façade and encourage artists, students and residents to engage in the process of making art,” their attorney Tiffany Scarlato said at the hearing last month.

To be operated by a non-profit organization “dedicated to the fostering of artistry,” the building will have living space for up to four artists at a time and possibly a live-in manager, Ms. Scarlato said.

“The mission of the Sag Harbor Church,” Ms. Scarlato said last month, reading from a letter she submitted to the board, will be “to foster creativity on the East End and preserve the great history of Sag Harbor as a maker in the village. The church will celebrate old and new technologies as an incubator for future generations through collaboration, education and outreach.”

“In an effort to restore the dignity of the historic church structure” and make it an asset to the community, she said, “Eric and April’s project aims to allow artists housing, provide space to create and serve as an outlet to reach out and involve the community through educational classes, lectures and artistic performances.”

Programs will include master classes for up to 20 people with a resident artist, a small office with a staff of two to four people at busy time, and small art exhibitions open to the public, Ms. Scarlato said. After the Village Board last fall approved their request to expand the Sag Harbor sewer district to include the property, Ms. Gornik and Mr. Fischer “are actively pursuing that installation,” Ms. Scarlato reported.

Ms. Eiseman explained on Tuesday that Madison Street will be repaved curb-to-curb after the sewer main installation and that Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik will file a performance bond to guarantee the work.

Project architect Lee Skolnick told the board last month that his main goal has been to “restore the original architecture of the church,” although an addition made by a previous owner has been retained. “In the interior, what we’re trying to do is expose the historic construction of the church structure itself” and its “beautiful timber frame,” including 50-foot-long, single-timber oak trusses.