Marsden Street Challenge: Make Houses Look Smaller

HPARB chair Jeanne Kane (left) and board member Bethany Deyermond as they appeared on Zoom during the November 18 hearing on Pat Trunzo’s Marsden Street development for up to five large houses.

Builder Pat Trunzo ran into a wall of opposition on November 18 when Sag Harbor’s Historic Preservation and Architectural Review Board opened its public hearing on Trunzo’s controversial plan to build up to five large houses on Marsden Street in the Sag Harbor Historic District.

After the hour-long hearing, which was conducted on Zoom, Trunzo’s architect seemed headed back to the drawing board for the second time, with the hearing tabled until the board’s next meeting on December 9.

Two years ago, the board, during an informal public discussion with Trunzo and his architect, rejected an initial plan calling for houses that included typical elements of historic structures in the village. Board members said then that they preferred to see contemporary houses, each with different designs, not imitation historic houses.

Trunzo said at last week’s hearing that he had done what board members had asked. But the board’s chair and its historic preservation consultant told him the plan still would not pass muster, because its proposed houses were out of scale with the neighborhood and so do not meet the requirements of the Sag Harbor Historic District.

In an old village packed with small lots, almost all of which were laid out and developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Marsden Street project is unprecedented in recent Sag Harbor history. Instead of shoehorning a new or renovated and expanded old house into a single parcel, it calls for a multi-house development on five large, vacant lots, each covering more than three-quarters of an acre.

With the HPARB as ground zero for the inevitable clash, the project sets up a collision course between the developer’s right under zoning to build large houses and the rules of the historic district, which require any new construction to maintain a visual harmony with its environment.

Soon after Mr. Trunzo’s attorney, Brian Locascio of the Adam Miller Group, began his defense of the project, asserting that three other properties in the neighborhood “have higher mass and scale and density,” the board’s chair, Jeanne Kane, stopped him, calling his comparison “a misleading way to look at it.”

Most of the parcels in the neighborhood cover less than a third of an acre, and the 13 properties Locascio was using for his comparisons contain houses with an average floor area of 2,856 square feet, she said. She added that the proposal was for houses of “over 6,000” square feet, “more than double the average.”

In weighing whether or not to grant a certificate of appropriateness for the project, the board must consider the “view anyone going down that street will have” if it were to be built, she said.

Ms. Keane stressed that she wasn’t suggesting that the board will limit the houses to 2,800 square feet, but added, “TYou’re not entitled to build 6,000 … From the ZBA, you are, but not from us,” because “the project’s scale and mass” are “not in line and not harmonious” with the character of the historic district.

The board’s consultant, Zachary Studenroth, told Trunzo’s architect, Namita Modi, that she faced “an oversize challenge” designing houses for such large parcels that will fit in a neighborhood dominated by smaller properties.

“I say the challenge to you is to address, primarily, the scale,” Studenroth said, “and to try to find a way to build as large as you like within the permissible zone and yet [comply with] the equally important provisions of the historic preservation code, which deals with the visual impact.”

“We did go back and try to break the volumes up” after informal discussions with the HPARB in 2019, Modi said. “Those houses had much bigger massings … I’m just trying to understand,” she added. “When you refer to scale, you’re saying try to design these same homes in a different way so they look smaller?”

“What we’re talking about here,” Studenroth said, “is basically scale and/or size and the way you address that to make it seem less than it is … by using creative massing.” Modi had achieved that “to a certain extent,” he added, “but you have approached this with the idea that … you are permitted to build houses in excess of 6,000 square feet for each of the lots.”

The HPARB’s requirement for visual harmony “is equal” in importance to the zoning code’s standards, Studenroth said, so “you have to be extremely creative to make a 6,000-square-foot house look considerably smaller from the street.”

Trunzo, a well-known regional builder whose family has owned the property for almost 50 years and subdivided it in the 1980s, told the board he could have built 13,000-square-foot houses on the lots, so “6,000 is relative. The house should be appropriate to the lot that it has — it shouldn’t be artificially small.” He said that the proposal “meets all the rules,” including setback, height and pyramid law requirements.

Keane praised Trunzo, whom she noted had attended Pierson High School, for the “appropriate beautiful homes” his company had built in the region. “But they are not in an historical district,” where “it would feel very strange to take a turn on Marsden and see five homes of this size,” because they would be “very, very different and out of character.”

“We’d like to work with you,” she said. “It is your property and we wish you all the best. We do ask that you rethink how it would fit in.”

She told Trunzo he needed to rethink the project so the development will not seem like “a neighborhood that has just been plopped down” into the community.

“I will give that a good deal of thought,” he replied.

Eight members of the public spoke against the proposal, which Trunzo submitted as an application for certificates of appropriateness for three of the first five houses he plans to build. For the purposes of the hearing, which lasted about an hour, the HPARB treated them as one case.

The hearing will be continued on December 9.

Among the speakers, Kathryn Levy said the project would make the neighborhood “feel suburban.” Lauren Friedman questioned the common driveway planned for four of the houses, those on the north side of Marsden Street: “Essentially, they’re building a new road,” she said. A fifth house will be on the south side of the street.

Elizabeth Gilbert of Save Sag Harbor read a letter to the board in which she called the proposed houses “inappropriate and dissimilar” to those in the neighborhood. Janis Donnaud said the project “will utterly destroy our neighborhood.”

Carol Williams brought up flooding concerns that Keane said were not relevant to the board’s aesthetic review and instead up to the building inspector.

Leah Oppenheimer commented that “massive houses are not what we need on this block,” and Mare Dianora called for a full environmental review of the low-lying property, which she said was a likely habitat for the endangered eastern tiger salamander.