Scaled-Down West Water Street Condos Still Problematic for Zoning Board

Developer Jay Bialsky makes his case to the Zoning Board of Appeals as attorney Brian DeSesa looks on. Christine Sampson photo

Since the Sag Harbor Zoning Board of Appeals last saw the application for a proposed condominium development at 2 West Water Street, the project has been scaled back by about 1,660 square feet, down to 26,077 square feet. It has been set back three feet instead of on the roadside, and it has been lowered in height by 18 inches, down to 44 feet, 6 inches.

However, those changes weren’t enough to inspire members of the ZBA to sign off immediately on at least nine variances needed to move the project forward, and indeed, the board continued Tuesday to press representatives of developer Jay Bialsky to go even further in their attempts to negotiate approvals.

The board also struggled to evaluate the project separately from the prospect of a park next door. Most notable was a request from board member Susan Mead to wrap up the promise of parkland on the neighboring Ferry Road parcel into a covenant that would mean open public space “no matter what.” However, attorney Brian DeSesa said that would compromise the developer’s ability to close on the property transfer with Southampton Town, which a village trustee confirmed last week is not a done deal yet.

Interim board chairman Robby Stein, a former village board trustee, reminded the board it would have to consider the application independently of the park and evaluate it upon the basic principles of zoning, one of which is public benefit.

“There is potential benefit but not guaranteed benefit because there is the need to separate the two,” Mr. Stein said.

The Sag Harbor Planning Board will hold a public hearing Tuesday on the lot line modification that is a required step in the parkland property deal.

During a public work session and regular ZBA meeting Tuesday that yielded more than two straight hours of discussion on 2 West Water Street, Mr. Bialsky agreed to planting mature, 25-foot-tall street-front trees. He conceded to a little more width in the “breezeway” between the two sections of the proposed building — specifically, 12 feet instead of 11 feet — and to set back the third floor structure from the building’s edge a little bit more to decrease the visual impact. But he stopped short of acceding to what board member Bob Plumb called “Tim McGuire’s parting words.” That was a suggestion by the board’s former chairman, who has since resigned for health reasons, to get rid of the third floor.

Mr. DeSesa said Mr. Bialsky was “not willing to do that.” Indeed, the developer has the right to rebuild what is already there at 2 West Water Street —a three-story, 11,000-square-foot building.

Mr. Bialsky also has the right to collectively build as much as 40,000 square feet of commercial space and seven additional residential units on the properties he owns — including the Ferry Road property that most in the village hope will become the John Steinbeck Waterfront Park. Board member Jennifer Ponzini made sure the public knew that Mr. Bialsky’s “as of right” development potential would likely weigh into the ultimate decision.

“I think you can figure out legally we’re under a lot of pressure right now, and the attorneys, too,” Ms. Ponzini said.

But Mr. Bialsky himself told the board he doesn’t want to build that commercial space. He just wants the park and the condos as proposed.

“The whole point of this is for the public to have open space,” he said. “I think where we got stuck is the legal back-and-forth figuring out where the chicken and the egg comes. The difference between me and Greystone,” the developer that sold the property to Mr. Bialsky, “is that I want to live here.”

Mr. Bialsky’s team had supplied the ZBA with a chart comparing the current proposal to his previous proposal as well as to the Greystone Development proposal that had preceded his application. Greystone had proposed a 13-unit, 36,564-square-foot complex, whereas Mr. Bialsky is proposing three units in a footprint about 30 percent smaller in size.

But Mr. Plumb ripped into this comparison chart.

“I’ve never seen a ZBA application that didn’t start with the existing conditions and work on from there,” he said. “How is it possible to do this as a continuation of what was essentially a discussion item last year?” He added the board has always used whatever exists on the property as its starting point and “the goal is the proposed and the differences” between them “are what we talk about. In this case you’re talking about 300 and 400 percent variances. This is significant.”

ZBA attorney Denise Schoen said it is, in fact, a new application and that its representatives had chosen to put forth a variety of forms of evidence, which he could choose to dismiss if he didn’t find helpful.

Mr. Plumb also demanded some sort of public visual aid be posted at the site that would allow passersby to understand where the proposed building will sit in relation to where the park is proposed.

“The fact of the matter is you’re not going to have this great vista,” he said. “I think in fairness to the public what you need to do is put a six-foot opaque chain link fence up where your property line actually is and give everyone a sense of what you’re talking about,” he said.

Mr. DeSesa said they would need permission from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for a fence, but would discuss “posts” or “story sticks” with his client.

Members of the public were divided on the project, with some urging the ZBA to support Mr. Bialsky’s plan and others calling for the board to stick to the letter of village code.

“The plans that I have seen thus far are consistent with the thoughtfulness and good taste that Jay Bialsky is known for,” said Roxanne Briggs, a local resident and real estate agent.

“I feel ‘blackmail’ is the wrong word, but that’s what comes to mind when you are being asked to approve apartment sizes that are enormous,” said resident Victoria Sharpe.

The board ultimately voted 4-1 to close the public hearing, with Mr. Plumb voting no and Mr. Stein telling Mr. Bialsky’s team that “anything that can visually enhance the public’s understanding [of the project] would be appreciated.” Closing the public hearing sets the stage for a decision on the variances within the next 62 days.