Joel Renovation Plans Hits Sour Note with Sag Harbor ARB

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From left, historic preservation consultant Zach Studenroth, board member Bethany Deyermond and board chairman Anthony Brandt examine a three-dimensional model of the proposed house at 20 Bay Street belonging to musician Billy Joel. Christine Sampson photo

By Christine Sampson

The plans to lift, rotate and renovate various parts of the house belonging to musician Billy Joel at 20 Bay Street hit quite the sour note with the Sag Harbor Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review last Thursday, much to the surprise of Mr. Joel’s representatives.

The plans have been modified slightly from those presented to the Sag Harbor Zoning Board of Appeals in September, which simply required one backyard variance. The ZBA had rejected that variance in a 3-2 straw vote. Mr. Joel’s team then reworked the plan to eliminate the need for a variance.

“By picking it up, rotating it and making it slightly smaller, we were able to take it completely out of the rear yard setback,” attorney Jon Tarbet said by phone Monday.

A separate zoning board matter, regarding a challenge to the building inspector’s interpretation of the code that Mr. Tarbet originally sought to invoke for Mr. Joel’s project, has yet to be heard.

Appearing before the board last Thursday to address the project as a “discussion item” — meaning the project is not yet a formal HPARB application — Mr. Tarbet and developer Jeffrey Collé pitched a plan based largely on one they had presented to the board about a year ago. They even brought in multiple three-dimensional models to help illustrate the application. The proposed residence would total about 4,900 square feet and would fit together more smoothly, Mr. Tarbet explained to the board, than the currently disjointed structure formed by what was once multiple buildings on the property.

He said Monday the HPARB “initially didn’t really have an adverse reaction” back when he first presented it.

“Something changed, I guess,” Mr. Tarbet said. “…You go there expecting to have a discussion, and it seemed like it was already decided. There wasn’t a whole lot of discussion. Somehow they had a uniform opinion beforehand.”

In the year since it was first presented, considerable neighborhood objection, as well as opposition from the group Save Sag Harbor, has arisen. Paul Davis, who lives next door, said the proposed changes would negatively impact the home he has owned with his wife, Myrna, for more than 50 years. They hope to preserve what little view of the water they have, Mr. Davis said, and should Mr. Joel’s house be lifted and rotated, that would disappear.

“I really think for us and some of the neighbors we’ve talked to, this is a huge change in our lives,” he said. “We’re not totally against change. We just want to keep the history of the neighborhood, the scale and the livability.”

The board members — minus member Val Florio, who recused himself because he performed architectural work on the building in 2003  — were generally in agreement that the resulting structure would simply be too large.

Board chairman Anthony Brandt summed up the board’s feeling by saying the project “will have a huge impact on Bay Street, on Rector Street, on the neighborhood as a whole.”

“One of our prime concerns is with streetscapes and the meshing of the buildings with each other in a streetscape,” he said. “Here you’ve got something that is going to be so dominant, so huge, that it dwarfs everything within sight. … The impact of this is going to be huge. I think nobody on this board is comfortable with that.”

Mr. Collé said the square footage of the house is not actually increasing. He said with the proposed changes, the size across the front of the house would be increasing by about 16 percent. “If you go around the village, the buildings that are being built are far greater than a 16.25 percent increase in the size of the houses,” he said.

Zach Studenroth, the board’s historic preservation consultant, responded by saying “what’s deceptive is the difference between the scale and the massing.” The effect of those design elements here, he said, is that the house would appear to be three stories tall.

He questioned the need for the separate structures to become more smoothly conjoined. “There is such a thing as a building that does not incline itself to become something else,” Mr. Studenroth said.

Mr. Tarbet said Monday he is not certain what Mr. Joel will want the next step to be, especially considering an unusual circumstance has arisen: One of the Sag Harbor ZBA members who had voted against the backyard variance has now resigned from that board, and the alternate ZBA member, who is now a full member, had recused herself from that particular discussion, leaving two ZBA members for and two members opposed. Mr. Tarbet said he planned to ask the board to delay its formal vote until a new alternate ZBA member can be appointed.

“My client is going to have to decide how he wants to proceed with the HPARB, and we haven’t decided yet,” Mr. Tarbet said. “The board doesn’t like it. It’s either go in knowing they don’t like it, or tweak it. It’s sort of frustrating.”

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