Southampton Town Planning Board member Robin Long said she was “feeling a little uncomfortable,” during the May 13 public hearing on plans to convert an old farmstand into a “museum” for antique firetrucks in Bridgehampton.
The Sag Harbor Antique Fire Truck Museum is looking to use an existing 2,400-square-foot metal building on the 35,711-square-foot triangle bordered by Scuttlehole, Millstone, and Guyer roads in Bridgehampton as a facility to store and maintain antique fire trucks — but critics are have taken issue with it being called a museum, which would allow it to circumvent current zoning.
Southampton Town’s previous building inspector, Michael Benincasa, said when it was first proposed that it could qualify for a museum zoning designation as proposed. But the town’s new chief building inspector, Dennis O’Rourke, felt more needed to be done to qualify as a museum — and now a gallery of historic photographs is proposed to be included in the building.
Noting the group mostly wants to restore and repair its antique firetrucks, Ms. Long asked its representative, Ed Deyermond, “Can you use the site the way you want if you don’t call it a museum?”
Emphasizing that he’s not an attorney, Mr. Deyermond said the organization would probably have to go to the Zoning Board of Appeals for approval, since a storage facility would not be included in the current zoning.
“We’re calling it one thing to be able to use the property, but don’t intend to use it for what you’re calling it, and we’re using it for a purpose that it’s not zoned for … I’m feeling uncomfortable right now, continuing with this,” Ms. Long said. Board member Glorian Berk said she, too, felt uncomfortable.
A museum use also includes archiving and storage, Assistant Town Planning Director Clare Shea explained. “Not everything’s on display,” she said. Deputy Town Attorney Kathleen Murray noted that the building inspector asked the applicant for further accommodations, and they provided them.
Articulating plans for the building, Mr. Deyermond explained that the organization has four antique trucks it needs to find a home for. They’re not looking to have a lot of visitors to the site and would mostly show the trucks off-site at parades and funerals. The interior of the building would be repurposed, but the exterior would remain mostly the same, he said.
Museum officials will close off the busy access to Scuttlehole Road and are amenable to restricting visitors. Mr. Deyermond stressed that museum officials have been looking, unsuccessfully, for sites in Sag Harbor. The group of 11 firefighters and a team of people willing to work on the trucks formed about 10 years ago. They learned that if they set up as a museum, they could move their truck storage into any of the town’s zoning districts.
“A museum is not our biggest thrust,” Mr. Deyermond said. “We don’t want to open for daily, or even weekly, participation. Our main thrust is the storage and repair of the trucks … we don’t want to be running something that is in any shape or form causing trouble for the neighbors. You won’t really see anything unless the doors are open.”
Planning Board Chairwoman Jacqui Lofaro asked whether the group didn’t own land elsewhere, in Sag Harbor, where they could build?
The group owns property on Ligonee Creek, but, Mr. Deyermond said, it’s difficult to develop. Rather, they’re hoping the town might acquire it as open space, since he said, “We call it the gateway to Sag Harbor.”
The museum started out attempting to create a space on the land it owns in Sag Harbor. It received all the requisite approvals, Mr. Deyermond said, but officials felt it was too close to the creek and would ultimately be too expensive to build.
“Our position from the beginning is you should find a place in Sag Harbor to store your Sag Harbor fire trucks,” Pamela Harwood, chairwoman of the Bridgehampton Citizens Advisory Committee, offered.
Adding a few photographs to the wall is not a museum, she continued, emphasizing that she was speaking for the entire CAC. “You’re just doing that so you can say you’re a museum.”
That the museum would result in less traffic than the previous use, Ms. Harwood opined, is not a benefit. “The site was formerly a much loved and vital part of the community,” she reminded. Her committee would rather see the town purchase the property and continue an agricultural use there.
“This whole application is inappropriate,” she concluded, “It’s inappropriate for Bridgehampton, it’s inappropriate for this site. Just saying it’s going to be a museum when it’s really a storage shed … it’s all smoke and mirrors.”
Ms. Lofaro pointed out that the Bridgehampton Fire Department is opposed to the proposal. In a May 3 letter, Commissioner Bruce Dombkowski said the department was concerned Bridgehampton Fire District residents will be confused by the presence of a Sag Harbor Fire Department annex in the Bridgehampton jurisdiction. “This could easily lead to a diminution of the Bridgehampton Fire Department’s fund-raising efforts, or even to the possibility of someone calling in an emergency to the wrong responder, thereby delaying the response, ” he wrote.
Mr. Deyermond said the museum would absolutely support a prohibition of fundraising on the site as a condition of approval.
The board voted to leave the hearing open for written comment for 30 days.