By Stephen J. Kotz
A petition drive launched by the civic organization, Save Sag Harbor, which decries over-development in the village and demands local government take steps to control it and protect the village’s historic character, has already been signed by more than 750 people, according to organizers.
And they say they are heartened by the fact that approximately one-third of those signing on have taken the extra step to add their own comments to the petition, which appears on the group’s website, savesagharbor.com.
“It is going exceedingly well. We are amazed and encouraged by the outpouring,” said Jayne Young, a member of Save Sag Harbor’s board. “And the attention to this is not flagging at all. People are staying with it.”
The response, added Randy Croxton, another board member, indicates that the changes that have been occurring in the village, especially its historic district, have “really struck a nerve.”
The petition drive, which was launched in February, describes the village as at risk and cites “an unprecedented and damaging flood of development” that has resulted in the demolition of historic houses and the construction of oversized ones in their place.
It calls for village regulatory boards to take three steps to help stem the tide. The first is for the village Zoning Board of Appeals to stop granting variances “for houses which are excessively large and are incongruous in character to existing house in our historic neighborhoods.”
The petition also calls for the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review to stop approving “over-sized construction and additions that are out of context in scale and placement with the neighboring environment.”
Finally, it urges the ZBA to consult with the ARB before ruling on applications to ensure that they are appropriate for the historic district.
Although the petition drive clearly seeks changes to the way business is conducted in the village, Ms. Young said she was not prepared to talk about additional steps the organization believes will need to be taken to protect the village.
Mr. Croxton said the Save Sag Harbor board would meet regularly in the coming months to work on more formal recommendations to the village, which would likely begin with asking it to hire a historic preservation consultant, as once was the case, to help the boards navigate the process.
He said the effort was not meant as an attack on the volunteer members who now serve on the village’s various review boards, who, he said are doing the best they can. But he added the changes occurring across the village are “showing where there are weaknesses in the interpretation of the code.”
He added that he hoped people who have signed the petition would take a leadership role in helping the village come up with solutions. “What we are assuming and hoping for going forward is a kind of passionate outpouring from the people who really have an interest,” he said.
Anton Hagen, the chairman of the village Zoning Board of Appeals, agreed with at least one aspect of the petition. “It really is incumbent upon us to have better communication,” he said of the ZBA and the ARB.
But he added that it is difficult for the ZBA to turn down applications for bigger houses, especially after it has previously issued variances for similar sized houses and noted that real estate investors have learned how to effectively game the system by seeking approval for the largest possible house. “You can say it kind of snuck up on Sag Harbor, this maxing out of lots,” he said. “We have to get ahead of the curve.”
He added he would like to see the village changing its code to adopt a maximum gross floor area ratio provision, as other neighboring communities, including North Haven, have already done. Such a code would limit the size of a house to the size of the given lot, as opposed to allowing a set size.
Mayor Brian Gilbride said village officials have begun looking into the possibility of adopting a floor area ratio amendment to the code, but said it was part of an ongoing process on the part of the village to correct problems in its code.
“Tonight we’ll extend the wetlands permit moratorium” he said on Tuesday, referring to that evening’s village board meeting. “Hopefully we’ll get that revised law done and we can move on. These are not quick fixes.”
The mayor suggested that Save Sag Harbor members may want to take a more active role, by appearing before the ZBA, ARB or planning board to voice their concerns.
Sag Harbor, he said, is facing the same kinds of pressures other East End communities have experienced. “It’s not a factory town anymore, it’s not a blue collar town anymore,” he said. “People are buying houses for a million dollars, knocking them down and building bigger houses.”
Mr. Croxton said there were still “a lot of people who have held on in a multi-generational way, who insist on passing down the houses they have and the community that they have.”
And Ms. Young said the village still had a vibrant future in front of it. “More people are raising their families here, more people are coming out for longer weekends, and there is a corps of people from the surrounding area who rely on it.”