State Preservation Office Needs to Hear from SANS Residents

Renee Simons, right, rallies support for SANS landmarking efforts after Jennifer Betsworth, a state historic preservation specialist, left, told the audience the state needs to hear from the residents themselves. Christine Sampson photo

New York State is inching closer to adding Sag Harbor’s traditionally African-American neighborhoods to its Register of Historic Places, and recommending them for consideration on the National Register of Historic Places. But before it makes its final decision, the State Historic Preservation Office needs to hear from residents of those neighborhoods themselves.

A final evaluation and decision are expected on March 21.

Jennifer Betsworth, an historic preservation specialist with New York State, on Thursday said letters of support are welcome, but the state also needs to hear from anyone who opposes the landmarking status before it adds the neighborhoods — Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest and Ninevah subdivisions, which collectively go by the name “SANS” — to the State Register of Historic Places.

“The way that the law is written, if you don’t say anything, it’s assumed that you approve,” Ms. Betsworth told an audience including many SANS residents who had gathered at the John Jermain Memorial Library for her presentation on Thursday night.

The law she was referring to is the 1980 New York State Historic Preservation Act, which mirrored the national preservation act signed into law in 1966 by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. In the case of a community attempting to gain landmark status, Ms. Betsworth said, more than 50 percent of the homeowners in the community would have to object to it in order to halt the effort.

“This district seems pretty excited,” she said.

Renee Simons, a Sag Harbor Hills resident who has been leading the landmarking process, told the group she is confident at least 51 percent of SANS homeowners — but really a much greater percentage — supports the effort to gain recognition.

“We collected over 51 percent of the owners saying they were in favor. We actually hit 51 percent, which was required, and then stopped and kept moving” on the rest of the state application, Ms. Simons said.

Some in the audience asked Ms. Betsworth whether being named to the national and state registers of historic places automatically means a place is also named a historic district locally. She said that is not the case, and explained the difference.

“Really the main goal of the state and national program is that honorary piece,” she said, noting that communities or property owners can often gain access to grants or tax credits for preservation or restoration projects through that status. She continued, “Local landmarking is stronger. It comes with more restrictions. That’s that double-edged sword. You have that power to protect your community but you have those restrictions yourself.”

Much of Sag Harbor is considered an historic district under rules for what New York State calls a “certified local government,” which gives the village’s Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review the decision-making authority to regulate changes to historic buildings within that district. The board also votes on changes to structures in the rest of the village, but is less restrictive for properties that are not considered historic.

Ms. Betsworth said her office only gets involved in the review of projects when state or federal funding is involved and it has the potential to significantly affect a landmarked area.

“Say there was a project to widen the road throughout the entire neighborhood,” she said as an example. “We would be looking at that pretty seriously to say how is this going to impact the neighborhood and can it be done in a way that’s not negative, or does it even need to be done. It’s similar to environmental reviews in that way.”

The process so far has involved SANS organizers’ extensive, self-funded, self-completed cultural and historic survey that even drew support from the National Organization of Minority Architects late last year when the organizers needed help cataloging the more than 300 houses in the three neighborhoods.

It has also drawn recognition from the Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees. In response to a letter from Ms. Simons asking whether the mayor might send a letter supporting the landmarking effort, the board passed a resolution last week authorizing Mayor Sandra Schroeder to send the State Historic Preservation Office such a letter.

“We are aware of how much hard work this wonderful woman put into this, and how worthwhile we think this would be for these neighborhoods,” Ms. Schroeder told The Express on Friday. “If someone is worried about finances because of the state of their home, if this designation will give them access to a grant or cheap money that will allow them to stay, then we keep another resident, and that’s important to me. We keep another family in their home. It gives us an opportunity to keep our neighborhoods.”

On Wednesday, a visibly excited Ms. Simons told the group the process has been ongoing for about three years now.

“When I started this with the subdivisions, I asked the questions, ‘If not us, who? If not now, when?’” she said. “Those were the questions that are important. People would ask, ‘”Why are you doing this?’ I said, ‘Do you want to be a footnote somewhere in a history book, or do you want to be a chapter or a book?’ I didn’t want it to be a footnote.”

SANS homeowners may send letters by March 20 to the State Historic Preservation Office to Ms. Betsworth’s attention at NYS OPRHP, Division for Historic Preservation, Peebles Island, P.O. Box 189, Waterford NY 12188.

Letters of objection, in particular, must be notarized to verify that the homeowner does own the property in question. According to state rules, “Each private property owner has one vote, regardless of how many properties or what portion of a single property that party owns.”