State Says Village Has No Power Over Docks at Yacht Yard

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The docks at the Sag Harbor Yacht Yard. Peter Boody photo

Village officials were startled to learn this week that the State of New York believes they have no authority to regulate dock work at the Sag Harbor Yacht Yard that was begun last month without village approval.

Sag Harbor Building Inspector Thomas Preiato slapped a stop-work order on the project last month because the yacht yard, located on Bay Street, never had applied for a permit under the village wetlands code. In December 2017, it was confirmed that the yacht yard, long owned by Lou Girgnon, had been sold to Howard Lorber, the chairman of Douglas Elliman Real Estate, and Herman Goldsmith, a Long Island car dealer, in October of that year.

After the stop work order was issued earlier this spring, the yacht yard’s attorney went before the village’s Harbor Committee in May to initiate and expedite the application process. The committee agreed then to have the stop work order lifted for any work that was limited to replacing what was already there.

This week, the attorney, former Village Trustee Tiffany Scarlato, handed the village a surprise counterpunch.

She forwarded a letter to her dated May 31 from Thomas A. Pohl, the deputy counsel of the New York State Office of General Services, in which he asserts that the dock work is authorized by the state and not subject to village review.

He wrote that the work involved bottom land owned by the state and leased to the yacht yard and is a “reconfiguration of an existing dock system licensed by the State of New York.”

The letter was “a shock to us,” said Village Attorney Denise Schoen on Tuesday, who handles Harbor Committee matters. The village’s “jurisdiction is very straightforward” under the terms of the wetlands code, she added. “You need a wetlands permit to put anything in the water,” said Ms. Schoen.

She said the village’s response to the state’s position was “evolving.”

Ms. Schoen discussed the letter with the Harbor Committee at its regular meeting on Monday, after member Jeff Peters raised the issue. He brought it up after the board agreed by a unanimous vote to urge the Village Board of Trustees to update the village’s Harbor Management Chart, which shows where a 5-mph boating speed limit applies under the village code’s waterways chapter. Two versions of the chart disagree, which could cause enforcement problems.

After the vote, Mr. Peters asked village environmental consultant Charles Voorhis “what about the so-called illegal extending of the dock at the Sag Harbor Yacht Yard? What’s going on there with this? Because it’s really going out further and the channel is getting really small.”

He later added “there is no channel. These big yachts coming out of the Sag Harbor Yacht Club can’t back out of there with the new dock.”

The Breakwater Yacht Club was also concerned, according to committee member Mary Ann Eddy. She said a club member had called her to ask “what’s going on here.” The Breakwater is adjacent to the Yacht Yard.

Mr. Voorhis said the committee had reviewed the application submitted last month and determined it was not complete. There was concern, he said, “that some of the boats” to be moored at the yard’s newly reconfigured docks “might extend beyond the lease line.”

In forwarding the state’s legal opinion to the committee, Ms. Scarlato said in a cover letter that she was withdrawing the application for a wetlands permit and asked that any part of the $5,000 application deposit for consulting fees “be returned immediately.”

She said in an interview on Tuesday that the yacht yard had removed docks and pilings because it had to make room for a dredging project in the area over the winter. When the Building Inspector issued the stop-work order last month, the yard was in the process of reinstalling and reconfiguring its docks.

Under the terms of the yard’s license from the state for the bottom land, she said, “We can put back what we take out.” Her client also wanted to reconfigure the outer perimeter to accommodate its expected tenants for the 2018 season. The total number of slips would remain 30, she said, but their configuration would be adjusted.

All marinas must reconfigure their slips to accommodate their expected tenants each season, added Ms. Scarlato. “You might have 20 slips for a 35-foot boat and 10 slips for a 50-foot boat and another year the exact opposite,” she said. A marina “shouldn’t have to go back to the village every time” it reconfigures its slips, she argued.

The state’s opinion is specific only to the yacht yard property, she said, because it involves “an underwater land license with New York State dating to the 1960s pursuant to a patent from the 1920s.” There are few if any other similar properties along the village waterfront, she said, adding she had no idea how the state came to be the proprietor of property so close to the waterfront.

As Ms. Schoen explained the issue to the Harbor Committee on Monday, the village will have to decide if “they want to spend the money to challenge” the state’s position. She noted that Mr. Pohl argues in his letter that the lease predates the village’s 2005 Harbor Management Plan but his letter makes no mention of the village’s LWRP (Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan), which dates back to 1986.

“It’s sounding like they’re saying we didn’t have jurisdiction until 2005,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “I would have felt much better if they said the lease pre-dated the LWRP,” she said.

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PETER BOODY was the editor of the Southampton Press for many years and also edited several other papers, including the Shelter Island Reporter and the East Hampton Press, of which he was founding editor. He was a regular correspondent for the New York Times Long Island section and wrote the novel “Thomas Jefferson, Rachel & Me.”