After nearly a year-and-a-half of debate that was at times rancorous and which contributed to the tone of last year’s bitterly contested mayoral race, the Sag Harbor Village Board on Tuesday adopted a streamlined version of a Waterfront Overlay District that is intended to rein in development along the village’s most valuable asset.
Along with adopting the new zoning tool, the board ended a moratorium on most Planning Board waterfront applications that had been in place since September 2020.
And in an acknowledgment that the zoning code will likely require continued tweaking, the board also approved a planning study that will take up many of the issues that were not addressed in the final version of the new waterfront district — from limiting the height of buildings in the Village Business zoning district on the south side of Bay Street to allowing some retail uses with size restrictions in the Office District.
In a sign that the public is perhaps ready to move on from the zoning debate that has occupied center stage since before anyone knew what COVID-19 was, more people offered comment on the Village Board’s pledge to tackle the affordable housing crisis even though a formal unveiling of proposed policies to deal with that problem will not take place until next month at the earliest.
In its final version, the waterfront overlay district limits the height of most buildings along the waterfront to two stories while requiring open vistas to the water between them. Three-story buildings would be allowed in most areas if a developer provided a number of public benefits, including access to the waterfront.
A major change to the overlay district since its inception is that the Village Board itself will now weigh in on proposals for buildings exceeding 3,500 square feet. Developers will not only have to obtain approval from the Planning Board, the Zoning Board, the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review, and the Harbor Committee, but also obtain a special exception permit from the elected board.
“It has been a struggle, but we now have the tools we need to preserve, protect and nourish our waterfront for generations to come,” Mayor Jim Larocca said on Wednesday morning.
The height of three condominiums at 2 West Water Street erected by the developer Jay Bialsky that tower over John Steinbeck Waterfront Park played a major role in spurring the Village Board to undertake the zoning review that culminated with the adoption of the overlay district Tuesday.
But as it has done at two previous hearings on the overlay district, the advocacy group Save Sag Harbor urged the board to impose a two-story, or 25-foot, height restriction on a row of commercial buildings extending from the Dime Bank drive-up on the south side of Long Island Avenue to the American Legion on Bay Street. As adopted, the code would allow third stories on those buildings, provided there was a 10-foot setback for the third story.
Peter Ginna, a member of Save Sag Harbor’s board of directors, in a written statement, urged the board to take a roll call vote on that issue “so if the public finds itself a few years from now looking at a row of tall buildings along this artery and asking ‘How did this happen?’ the record of this meeting will provide an answer.”
Ginna pointed out that the new code limits buildings directly on the waterfront or abutting a waterfront park to two stories and suggested it was an oversight to exclude the buildings in question because they were separated from parkland or the waterfront by a street.
“They’re the first thing you see arriving in Sag Harbor and the last physical barrier between the village and water,” he said.
David Berridge, an architect who formerly served on the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review, urged the board to delay adoption until it tightened up definitions of what constituted a story and how the height of buildings are to be measured.
“Nobody’s really looking at the games people can play to create a two-and-a-half to three-story building on the waterfront,” he said. “I think people are missing the boat about what the waterfront looks like from the water or Bay Street.”
After adopting the zoning revisions, the board also signed off on a pair of planning studies that will review some of the issues that remain open, including whether or not stricter height restrictions should be imposed along the south side of Bay Street, whether retail uses should be permitted in the Office District, as proposed in an early version of the code changes, and if so, what size limits should be imposed on such units.
The board also agreed to undertake a separate study of the waterfront Cormaria Retreat property on Bay Street. Although it has been used for “institutional” purposes for decades, the property is zoned for half-acre residential lots and could conceivably be converted to that use some time in the future.
Trustee Ed Haye, who is working with Trustee Bob Plumb on the matter, gave a short report on the status of the village’s effort to address the affordable housing problem facing it and every other community on the East End.
Haye said the board plans to enact a zoning amendment that would create an affordable housing overlay district covering the entire village, would seek to collaborate with neighboring municipalities on housing projects, and would work on establishing a way to administer any housing programs that it creates.
Although Haye was short on details and said a full proposal would not be released until next February’s meeting at the earliest, that was good enough for the members of YIMBY, a housing advocacy group that stands for “Yes In My Back Yard.” About 10 members of the group, many of whom described the struggles they faced finding or keeping a place to live on the East End, voiced their enthusiastic for the effort and pledged their support.
Mead Appointed To ZBA
In other action, the board formally accepted the resignation from the Zoning Board of Appeals of Val Florio, who had served as chairman since last summer. In his place, the board appointed Susan Mead, a retired land-use attorney and former ZBA chairwoman. Board members expressed their confidence in Mead’s abilities and lamented the resignation of Florio, who they said had faced unwarranted criticism in the media and from the public over his six-month term as chairman.