As a member of the Sag Harbor Citizens Advisory Committee and John Jermain Memorial Library technical coordinator, Eric Cohen has expressed continued disappointment in Sag Harbor Village’s review of a proposed expansion of the library’s Main Street facility. However, this week, in speaking to other concerned members of the CAC, Cohen said the issue was not so clear cut, and encouraged members to write letters of support to move that project along more quickly.
On Friday, August 6, CAC Chairman John Linder raised the issue of the library, which has been in front of the village’s planning board for the better part of a year, in hopes of doubling the size of the library. Linder said he, and other members of the community, were concerned how long the process was taking and the financial impact such a lengthy review was taking on the library.
“Two months ago, I might have felt a little more antagonistic,” said Cohen. “But it’s actually more grey than black and white.”
Cohen said one thing he has come to terms with is, if this was another proposed project in a residential neighborhood, the CAC would likely support the village board taking its time with the review process and asking for more information each step of the way.
Linder wondered why the library would not be exempt from environmental review under the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), but Cohen said, while the SEQRA handbook allows institutions such as public libraries a pass, the actual SEQRA law does not include that exemption. He added that the law also gives local municipalities the right to override any exemption if they choose to.
Linder asked if the board had publicly stated they would not allow the exemption, which they have not.
“On the other hand, they are doing what they are supposed to do,” said Cohen, noting the library and the village are faced with the conundrum of both being public entities dedicated to public good, and in this case accomplishing that on both sides has been difficult at best.
Linder said he believes the village planning board is concerned with lawsuits, and in that sense, in reviewing this project, is not serving the best public interest.
The village, several board members, consultants and attorneys have been named in a $30 million lawsuit filed with East End Ventures, which hoped to develop luxury condominiums on Sag Harbor’s waterfront. That suit, in part, states the village was not consistent in its SEQRA review for that project compared with how it handled other projects. That suit was filed just a month before the library submitted plans for their expansion to the village boards.
“I agree,” said Cohen. “And I even wrote about that and didn’t put it in my blog, but this still goes back to, and this is really important, are we going to jump up and down and criticize the planning board for doing what they are supposed to do?”
Cohen did add one regrettable part of the review is simply how long it is taking, although he added the library may be able to begin the restoration of its aging library building if the village agrees to look at, and approve, a temporary library space on West Water Street, separate from their larger request for the expansion.
“Funding is another huge issue because we have gone through virtually all of our capital fund, paying for lawyers and consultants and things to get us through the process, so there is no money left and we can’t get money from [the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York, a lending agency often used for public projects] until the village review is completed,” said Cohen.
He added that donors are largely unwilling to donate to the library project because of uncertainty surrounding its ultimate approval.
“The real threat to us is we could run out of money,” he said. “That is the major problem we have.”
Linder said he believed donors should view this as an opportunity to ensure the project’s success rather than shy away from it.
“I spent most of the afternoon there today,” said Linder. “It is a wonderful resource and there is trepidation about your safety while you are there. It is such a wonderful facility and it needs so much work.”
The next meeting of the Sag Harbor CAC will be held on Friday, September 10 at 4:30 p.m. The next Sag Harbor Village Planning Board, during which the library’s application will be on that board’s agenda, will be held on Tuesday, August 24 at 5:30 p.m.