Sag Harbor Launches Waterfront Zoning Study

With new condominiums under construction, the West Water Street Shops on the market, and plans taking shape to develop John Steinbeck Waterfront Park, the Sag Harbor Village Board is planning a moratorium while it reworks the zoning code along a major swathe of village waterfront. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

As expected, the Sag Harbor Village Board on September 23 voted to move forward with a six-month moratorium on major projects in its central waterfront district to give a team of planning consultants time to craft guidelines to guide future development.

A formal vote will not be taken until the board’s October 13 meeting, according to Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy, because the proposed moratorium must first be approved by the Suffolk County Planning Commission, which meets the week before. The mayor said the village would press ahead with its planning study even in the unlikely event the planning commission denies its request for the moratorium.

Village officials, including members of its regulatory boards, have quietly expressed their concerns that the current code, which is based primarily on dimensional restrictions applied to individual lots in each zoning district, often falls short in preserving a sense of the village’s character and identity.

Instead, the goal is to prepare what is called a form-based code for that slice of the village’s waterfront, bounded by the Sag Harbor Yacht Yard to the east and the Sag Harbor Cove Yacht Club to the west, that would, among other things, preserve views of the water and public access to it. Consultants say a form-based code allows planners greater flexibility in giving developers a range of design options that would fit into a unified whole.

Ms. Mulcahy said the idea arose out of a series of brainstorming sessions the village undertook last year. “We talked about what we loved about Sag Harbor and what we feared losing about Sag Harbor,” she said.

Although the board has discussed revisiting its master plan, the coronavirus pandemic intervened. “Our world changed dramatically,” she said, and the village had to shift its focus to keeping residents safe and businesses open. Although many major initiatives had to be put on the back burner, she said the village planned to keep pressing ahead with more bite-sized initiatives.

Nonetheless, Valerie Monastra, the principal planner with Nelson, Pope & Voorhis, the village’s environmental consultant, said meeting the village’s self-imposed January deadline to have code changes ready for a hearing would require a fast pace.

Over the next three months, she said consultants would confirm the village’s goals and objectives, examine the current code to see how it must be updated, and finally what she called “the meat of what you are looking to have delivered to the village,” a list of recommended code changes.

Daunting though that may seem, Marta Goldsmith, the director of the Form Based Code Institute in Washington, D.C., who is also working on the project, told the board the consultants would not be working from square-one. “You have a pretty good zoning ordinance. It’s clear, it’s understandable, it regulates a lot of things,” she said. “What it doesn’t currently have is provisions that talk about viewsheds, or streetscapes, or other form-related things. So what we are going to be doing is looking at your code from that perspective and making recommendations about things you could add or substitute in the waterfront area.”

“Our main goal is to add things that deal with the exterior of buildings in the public realm,” added Ms. Monastra.

Trustee Thomas Gardella said one of his main concerns with the effect of waterfront development on water quality, and he asked that any final plans have provisions requiring developers to pay for necessary infrastructure upgrades and connections the village sewage treatment plant.

Trustee James Larocca said he would like to see the village devise a mechanism by which regulatory boards might be able to listen to a proposal and have some provision by which they could direct the plan to be undertaken on another parcel in a better location.

“In a village of our size, trying to achieve something like that could really run up against the idea of spot zoning very quickly,” responded Trustee Aidan Cornish.

And Ms. Goldsmith said one advantage of a form-based plan is it would provide guidance to anyone wishing to develop their property. “Before the proposals come in, it is very clear to the property owner or developer that these are the design standards that we expect you to follow in order to fit into our overall plan, based on what we want our community to be,” she said.