Initial Draft Of Sag Harbor Waterfront Plan Unveiled

Concerns about what the future holds for the Sag Harbor waterfront has led the Village Board to contemplate tighter zoning restrictions for the area. These condominiums were approved as part of a deal that allowed the village to acquire John Steinbeck Waterfront Park. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

The initial results of a whirlwind effort begun in September to update the Sag Harbor Village zoning code to better guide future development along a swathe of waterfront were unveiled by the Village Board on January 27 and will be discussed further when the board holds its monthly meeting on February 9.

The village is contemplating adopting what is called a form-based code to augment the existing land-use regulations along the waterfront. Unlike a standard code that relies almost entirely on dimensional restrictions applied to the types of uses that are allowed in a given zone, a form-based code relies more on allowing a variety of building forms that reflect a community’s goals and visions.

Planning consultant Chris Hawley told the board the proposed waterfront overlay district would be “a finely tailored suit for the Village of Sag Harbor and not a template like you often see in zoning ordinances across the country.”

“This is the culmination of six months of very hard, very fast work done by our consultants and the committee,” said Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy. She added she believed the proposed code changes would be “very fair minded and equitable and something that will help Sag Harbor keep its scale and character.”

Tim McGuire, the chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals, and Kay Lawson, the chairwoman of the Planning Board, have served as catalysts for the zoning update.

“Kay and I both had concerns that the existing code didn’t give either of our boards the tools we felt we needed in this period that Sag Harbor is in,” said Mr. McGuire. He said with a number of properties both on the market or recently sold, residents could wake up to a day in the near future “when the waterfront is completely walled off.”

Projects like condominiums under construction next to John Steinbeck Waterfront Park, Bay Street Theater’s plan to convert the Water Street Shops property into a new theater complex, and National Grid putting the old gas ball property, which is now a village parking lot, on the market, have fed concerns about the pace of waterfront development.

Marta Goldsmith, the executive director of the Form-Based Code Institute, said the team of planning consultants who visited the village “heard loud and clear that you wanted the preservation of public views and access; that you wanted the form of your development to reflect the historic human scale; that you wanted a place that was pedestrian-friendly where you could not only drive your car but walk, bike, and skate.”

She said the current zoning code would actually create obstacles to the kind of development village residents wanted. Mr. Hawley noted that an 800-square-foot minimum required for a commercial space was too large for many small businesses. “There is nothing wrong with a 150-square-foot gelato stand,” he said.

Mr. Hawley said standard codes apply “a one-size-fits all kind of cookie cutter dimensional standards to entire districts.” A form-based code, by contrast, would “recognize the building types that exist in the village center and tailor form and dimensional standards to match the particular functions of an integrated historic core of the village.”

The plan calls for three general building types — single-use, mixed-use, and civic — in the new waterfront overlay district. Mixed-use buildings, which would have reduced setbacks from the street, would be required to have first-floor commercial spaces, and efforts would be made to require sidewalks, street trees, and other elements designed to produce a more pedestrian-friendly environment.

A universal 35-foot height restriction would be reduced to 25 feet north of Bay Street and Water Street, although developers could receive a 10-foot “bonus” by providing some form of community amenity such as public access to the waterfront. Any building allowed that bonus would require 10-foot setback of its third floor to reduce its visual impact. Owners of waterfront properties would be required to provide space to offer views of the water and set their buildings back at least 30 from the water.

Mr. Hawley stressed that the village review boards would retain their current authority, and other regulations would remain in effect.

While most village officials seemed to welcome the proposed code changes, Trustee James Larocca said he had his doubts. He pointed out that the village had already succeeded in securing Steinbeck Park and taking steps to improve Long Wharf and provide better pedestrian access without the benefit of a form-based code.

“I don’t see the ‘how’ of it,” he said. “How is this a better tool?”

Noting that the properties he had cited were all village owned, Ms. Goldsmith said the tools would “put the village in a much better position to demand a good outcome than it can get out of the current zoning ordinance.”

Trustee Bob Plumb said the proposed code changes were minor in nature. “These are not particularly onerous changes,” he said. “What they are is a set of guidelines for the ZBA and Planning Board to save a little room here, put in some setbacks, create space. And I think it’s not a major change to the code.”

He added, “No code is perfect. You have to try it out in the real world.”

Copies of the proposed code and the presentation given to the Village Board last week can be found on the village website,, under the heading Sag Harbor Overlay Waterfront Draft.