Let Them Speak (9/27/12)


Development wise, there is a lot going on right now in this village. Not only are the Bulova condominiums and the library project well underway, but Sag Harbor is also looking at applications that seek to expand Harbor Heights Service Station on one end of the village and redevelopment of Baron’s Cove Inn on the other.

And in between there are a lot of people who have strong opinions about it all.

This week, the Sag Harbor Planning Board issued a negative declaration under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) for the Baron’s Cove project, which includes the creation of a new restaurant and bar.

The project will still have to undergo site plan review by the planning board.

But the neighbors have some well-placed concerns about the project — specifically the bar aspect and the fact it is located on a separate floor from the restaurant. These are neighbors who suffered through the notorious “Rocco’s years” in which the nightclub with that name wreaked havoc on quiet streets late at night, wrecking sleep and quality of life. Neighbors are concerned the bar could grow to be a raucous destination itself and it is not an unreasonable assumption.

Fortunately, Cape Advisors, which is developing the space with plans to buy and operate it, have stepped forward with some pretty remarkable deed restrictions to allay fears. We’re pretty impressed with what they are conceding. These restrictions specify the time at which bar service will stop in the evening both outdoors and indoors and restrict bar service to restaurant hours. And these restrictions would be tied not only to the businesses, but the land. So even if Cape Advisors were to sell the property, new buyers would be required to keep them in place.

It’s a huge and unusual concession for a property owner to make and we feel it shows Cape Advisors’ intentions to be a good neighbor by operating a low-key inn.

But that doesn’t mean the neighbors still don’t have a right to express their concerns, and that’s where we have a problem with what happened on Tuesday night.

After hearing from the village planner and the applicant and then talking about their own views on the project, the planning board appeared poised to adopt the negative declaration of SEQRA without even acknowledging the dozen or so residents in the room who had taken the time to turn out to offer their opinions.

It was clear they wanted to speak, but it took literal hand waving by one audience member and the protests of others before they were allowed to weigh in with their concerns … which they had to do from their seats as their was no formal invitation to the podium.

And we think that was wrong.

We understand that one of the major arguments neighbors were making – that the bar was not in fact accessory to the restaurant but a new primary use because of its location and potential size – is not an issue the planning board could take on as that falls solely in the jurisdiction of building inspector Tim Platt who has not ruled the proposed bar space illegal.

That being said, residents who want to speak at a public meeting about their concerns, especially when it involves a big project in their neighborhood, shouldn’t have to demand it.

Sag Harbor Village board meetings should be run in a way that’s uniform. There should always be a moment where the chair gives the public the right to speak — even if what the public has to say is repetitive or takes too long. And especially, even if the board likes the project and has pretty much decided the course of action they will take.

The ZBA, for example, operates in a very formalized way with specific points in the proceedings where the public is invited to speak.

We think all of Sag Harbor’s boards should adopt a similar public input policy at their meetings as well, and for the most part they do; but it should be a code of conduct followed uniformly at every meeting so residents know they will have the opportunity to be heard.

Sometimes, particularly when a large development project is involved, residents can be repetitive or long-winded in their arguments, but sometimes they raise important issues or questions that board members themselves may have not even considered.

It should be the village’s policy for every application that the pubic has an active role and be encouraged to speak. They’ve taken the time to show up. Give them some respect and let them get involved.