By Douglas Feiden
It’s hard to believe, said the Reverend Karen Ann Campbell, the rector of Christ Episcopal Church, but when the church’s Parish Hall was built on East Union Street in 1912, it was the “largest gathering place in Sag Harbor.”
In the century that followed, the hall’s lower level was used as a gymnasium, smoking room and USO dance hall where dozens of villagers met their spouses during World War II. More recently, it’s housed the Goat on a Boat Puppet Theater, and today, it is home to the Peaceful Planet Yoga Studio.
But the future of the studio’s tenancy is now in doubt. And the church, which operates at a deficit, says it relies on the rental income to help underwrite operations and keep its doors open.
At issue is a letter written by senior village building inspector Tom Preiato finding that the yoga studio, which is classified as a “fitness center” for zoning purposes, is a “prohibited use” at the church in the residential zoning area where it’s located.
Church officials appeared before the Zoning Board of Appeals at its Tuesday, June 21, meeting to appeal that determination, arguing that a yoga program teaching health and wellness to kids and assisting disabled adults falls within a church’s permitted accessory uses.
Church attorney Christopher Kelley, who also serves as treasurer and vestry member, said providing instructional yoga was consistent with the mission of the church and part of its spiritual ministry.
“The tenant is not a commercial enterprise selling soap and ice cream cones and t-shirts,” Mr. Kelley said. “They’re providing services consistent with the services that we as a church provide to the community.”
But the ZBA backed Mr. Preiato’s findings, concluding that a for-profit studio at the non-profit religious institution wasn’t a “customary or permitted secondary use” of the church.
“We have a real hesitancy when there’s so much concern about over-commercialization in Sag Harbor,” said ZBA Chairman Tim McGuire.
The board said the studio’s presence on church property would require a use variance, placing the burden on Christ Episcopal to apply for one. Mr. Kelley said that was one option. Another would be to file a suit, seeking to reverse the decision.
“This building has been an essential piece of Sag Harbor since it was constructed in 1912, and we’re hoping it will continue to be used in essential ways,” said the Reverend Campbell.