The Sag Harbor Village Board is considering imposing a six-month moratorium across much of its waterfront, including the Main Street business district, while it undertakes a long-term planning study to provide a blueprint for future development.
Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy said this week that addressing commercial planning issues, including protecting the waterfront, was crucial to the village’s future.
“We want to have a village that celebrates its waterfront, not turns its back on it,” she said, suggesting that any code changes would aim at achieving a longstanding goal of providing better pedestrian access along the village waterfront. The importance of that goal was brought home, she added, by the recent renovation of Long Wharf.
The proposal also comes as village planners have expressed dissatisfaction with the current zoning code and an over-reliance on simple dimensional tables and parking requirements as zoning tools
Village officials say they want to move quickly to avoid the kind of rancor that ensued five years ago when a moratorium was put in place while the village developed new laws aimed at limiting the size of houses to a ratio based on the size of the lot.
They also concede that with both the village and the state tightening their belts, the prospect of obtaining grant money through normal channels to pay for a planning study may prove difficult and are open to the idea of soliciting funds from private donors, including local nonprofits.
Kathy Eiseman, who leads the environmental and community planning division of Nelson, Pope & Voorhis, the village’s environmental consultants, estimated that a study could cost as much as $50,000 to $75,000 for “the initial phase.”
She said the village would most likely be looking for a firm that would not only propose size regulations — a process she said that “just designs the box” — but be able to articulate a design vision through a process called a form-based code that seeks to steer development toward a harmonious relationship between private and public spaces.
“How do we get good design that is respectful of the great character that exists in Sag Harbor?” she asked. Part of that process, she said, would be the creation of what’s called a “pattern book” of various design elements that reflect the values and wishes of the community.
Ms. Eiseman said the village’s timetable was an ambitious one, but one that could be met.
Kay Lawson, the chairwoman of the village Planning Board, has recently brought her concerns about the futility of using parking requirements as a zoning tool to the Village Board.
“Parking as a planning tool is just not a good way to plan a village, a city, or anything,” she said, while offering her support for a more visual approach that relies on design standards.
Ms. Lawson said now is as good a time to act as any. “A lot of these properties are going to change hands in the next decade,” she said of the business district, “so it’s a good time to lay the groundwork for what the village is going to be like.”
While developers often complain that moratoriums unfairly restrict their effort to realize a return on their investment, she suggested that in the long run, revamping the code could help them because they would not “get pinged around from board to board” with different visions of how they want the village to look. “At the end of the day, it about getting the best village we can have,” she said.
Board members, who discussed the proposed study at a work session on July 22 agreed with the idea of a planning update but expressed reservations about the moratorium.
“I don’t need to be convinced that we need to protect and keep a sharp eye on those properties along the waterfront,” said Trustee Thomas Gardella, “but I have to have it explained to me exactly what the moratorium is going to affect. There is too much at stake here.”
Mr. Gardella said moratoriums have a tendency to run beyond their initial deadlines and that could have a serious financial impact on property owners. He agreed to the mayor’s request that he work with village attorney Denise Schoen to craft a tightly worded moratorium proposal that could be ready as soon as August 11 to be scheduled for a public hearing.
Trustee James Larocca also expressed reservations about imposing a moratorium. “What’s the nexus between doing comprehensive planning and a moratorium?” he asked, while adding that he fully supported the idea of “a fundamental update of waterfront policy and some intelligent, long-range planning.”
The village’s last moratorium imposed during the house-size debate “was not our finest hour,” said Trustee Aidan Corish, who added that “a lot of collateral damage” was done because the process dragged on.
“But anything is possible in six months,” he said. “If we put our minds to it, I think we can get there.”
Like other board members, Mr. Corish said it was important for village leaders to take a fresh look at the waterfront. He said federal and state flood regulations require that buildings in the flood zone be raised, and suggested if the village simply retained its existing code, it could be one day looking at “a Wall Street canyon of buildings on Water Street.”
“It would be nice to have a waterfront that is consistent,” he added. “Imagine if you could walk from Steinbeck Park to Marine Park and on to Havens Beach along a pedestrian way.”
Trustee Bob Plumb said he believed the village was taking the right approach this time around. “It’s six months. It’s close ended,” he said of the moratorium. “It’s not open ended and us saying, ‘Let’s kick this around.’”
He agreed that the last moratorium had unintended consequences. “It affected a lot of people with projects in the works,” he said, “more so than I think they realized it would.”
Mr. Plumb said the idea of moving toward a form-based code was “not to tell people what to do, but to tell them here are some guidelines we want you to follow.”