Planners Push for More On-Site Parking at Schiavoni Office-Retail Project

Site of the proposed VACS office-retail building on Long Island Avenue. Peter Boody photo

Citing the parking squeeze in downtown Sag Harbor and the likelihood it will only get worse, the chair of Sag Harbor’s Planning Board on December 16 pressed the attorney for the family of Gabe and Diane Schiavoni to find a way to cut their request for 10 offstreet parking variances for their proposed two-story, office-retail building on Long Island Avenue next to the post office.

The logjam appeared to give a little only after the board’s planning consultant suggested there might be a way to double the amount of parking on the site from 5 to 10 stalls. With an agreement that the family’s attorney would work directly with the consultant to explore the options, the board tabled the application until its next meeting on January 28, 2020.

Known as the VACS Enterprises project for the initials of the Schiavonis’ grandchildren — Valerie, Andrea, Candace and Stephanie — the application for site plan approval has been pending in its current incarnation before the Planning Board since early 2017 but dates back to 2011 in an earlier one-story version.

The board’s chair, Kay P. Lawson, announced at the start of the December 16 meeting that the planners had been asked to prepare an advisory report on the variance application, which is pending before the Zoning Board of Appeals — something that attorney Dennis E. Downes said “should have happened four years ago when we started.”

The report will require the planners to comment on the proposal in the context of the village’s overall need for parking now and in the future. Noting that the ZBA “has concerns” about the 10 requested parking variances, Mr. Downes pointed out that the Planning Board has already issued a “neg dec” or negative declaration under the state’s Environmental Quality Review Act for the project. The finding means no environmental impact study will be required.

Frustrated by the pressure to further shrink their project and the new red-tape delay, Diane and Gabe Schiavoni walked out of the meeting early in the discussion. “All we’re asking for is a parking variance and we’re getting nowhere,” Mrs. Schiavoni said in a phone interview the next day, “so I got up and left. We’re upset and frustrated.”

“We’ve given our entire lives to this village,” Mr. Schiavoni said. “We’re just asking for a few parking spaces.”

At the meeting, Mr. Downes resisted polite yet relentless pressure from Ms. Lawson asking that the family reduce the size of the project further than they already have to fit more offstreet parking on the confined parcel.

“I can’t go below that,” Mr. Downes said of the latest plan for a building containing 6,855 square feet of floor area on two floors, divided among four retail stores on the ground floor and four offices upstairs. “It makes no sense economically.”

Mostly because it has a second floor, the planned building contains 2,555 more square feet of floor area than the aging single-story retail structure dating to the 1930s that the family had on the site until 2008. National Grid leased the parcel that year and tore the building down in order to clean up underground pollution from a coal tar plant that once stood on an adjacent property.

At the time, then-village attorney Fred W. Thiele Jr. drafted an opinion letter that the family could replace the structure with a new building of the same size without having to obtain variances or special approvals from the village. The property has since been rezoned from village business to an office district.

Mr. Downes has said that erecting a new building no larger than the original one would make no sense economically because the property needs to produce more rental revenue than a building the size of the old one could yield.

The discussion prompted Mr. Downes, who served as Sag Harbor’s village attorney about four decades ago, to recall his support for building a municipal parking garage at the public parking field west of Main Street.

Noting that the board was being asked by the ZBA to report “how you feel about parking” in general, Mr. Downes said, “There is not much we can do. The parking ordinance doesn’t work in the village” and the former parking trust fund it established has been abandoned. “I won’t go into it because there’d be people with red faces,” he said.

The fund, to be supported by fees for parking variances, was supposed to provide the money to expand municipal parking facilities.

“Everybody wants parking relief to intensify their uses,” commented board member Larry Perrine. “I have to shop at King Kullen in the summer because I can’t park” at the IGA, which is owned by another branch of the Schiavoni family.

“As planners, when are we going to address the big picture?” he asked.

“In 1977, I said it as village attorney: Build a parking lot behind the Apple Bank,” Mr. Downes said, referring to a proposal for an elevated parking garage that drew widespread opposition. If there were a garage to handle summer parking demand, Mr. Downes said, storage space could be rented out over the winter to raise all the revenue needed to cover its capital and maintenance costs.

After explaining that businesses must always expand to generate more revenue to meet ever rising expenses, Mr. Downes said his clients couldn’t cut out another “several hundred square feet” of the project to make more room for on-site parking because they’d wind up with a building no bigger than the one they had.

He also complained that the planners had made their “neg dec” three years ago. “If there were a parking issue, you would have raised it then,” he said. “You’re doing it now only because the ZBA failed to send a referral to you three years ago.”

“I’ve got to build up a record because I don’t know where this is going to,” he warned.

Ms. Lawson again pressed for a reduction in the building’s floor area beyond the 30-percent cut Mr. Downes said the Schiavonis already had made.

“There are two ways to go,” she said. “Keep spinning our wheels or talk to the applicants” about a compromise. “Or try to go full steam ahead knowing the Planning Board will make comments to the Zoning Board of Appeals” opposing the request for 10 offstreet parking variances.

“I can’t make any more concessions. It’s not fair to the owner,” Mr. Downes said. He argued that he could come up with a “laundry list” of greater parking variances the board has granted over the years as “the Trustees have ignored” the issue “for 40 years and dumped it in your lap.”