By Christine Sampson
Village officials’ call to streamline building department operations versus community members’ cries for transparency was the crux of the conflict during Tuesday’s Sag Harbor Village Board meeting, during a public hearing on changes to the zoning code governing the village’s Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review.
Specifically, residents clashed with village trustees over a proposal to eliminate the requirement that all projects that come before the ARB have a physical posting at the property advertising the change, whether large, small or somewhere in-between, at the site where the change is to take place.
Village officials — including Mayor Sandra Schroeder and ARB chairman Anthony Brandt — insisted the change would only apply to “minor” improvements to properties, meaning those that do not require a public ARB hearing, such as changing the paint color of a house’s front door. Village officials said every application would continue to be noticed in advance, in the form of a meeting agenda listing, for example, and postings would be done at the discretion of Mr. Brandt and his colleagues on the ARB.
However, residents pointed out there did not appear to be anything in the proposal specifying it would only apply to minor changes. Indeed, the code revision the village outlined would simply “delete the provision requiring a notice of posting for every application.”
“I think it needs to be more specific,” said Renee Simons, a resident of the Sag Harbor Hills neighborhood, on whose behalf the Sag Harbor Hills Improvement Association sent a letter opposing the changes. She said many times, postings are the way she finds out about building projects.
“I understand the changing of the door color, but right now the way it reads is very general and there’s a lot of discretion,” she said. “We have not necessarily been on the winning side of that discretion.”
Village attorney David Gilmartin Jr. said the community needs to put faith in the ARB to do the right thing with regard to its discretion.
“What this does is it takes away what has become a significant burden on the resources,” he said. “You need to trust the people that are being appointed. If you’re not happy with them, then you can make your unhappiness known to this board.”
The Sag Harbor Hills letter calls the proposed code changes “unconscionable and unconstitutional as a violation of due process.” Referencing building projects in the village’s historically African American neighborhoods of Azurest, Ninevah and Sag Harbor Hills, “…the proposed code changes will prevent property owners from having a voice to confirm village compliance, and will eliminate transparency in the municipality’s decision making on proposed development.”
Save Sag Harbor also opposed the changes, and submitted a letter from attorney Jeff Bragman, who represents the group and who formerly served as an ARB attorney in a neighboring village. “Frankly, I find the proposal somewhat alarming and a step backward for local government,” Mr. Bragman said in his letter. “…a prominent sign on the property is the best way to convey timely notice of impending action to the community. Local governments should encourage, not discourage, clear and adequate advance notice and public participation.”
Village resident Bob Weinstein also spoke up to say he thought the language of the changes needed to be clearer.
“There’s a difference between people’s understanding of noticing and posting,” he said.
Mr. Brandt said he supports the change in posting requirements, and also supports a second change included in the proposal, which is to eliminate the requirement that every decision be formally documented in writing. The meeting minutes, he said, already serve that purpose. Mr. Brandt said he supports the changes because the building department is overloaded with work.
“It really will help the building department,” he said. “[Clerk to the boards] Doris Alvarez is tremendously overworked and [building inspector] Tom Preiato is, too. There’s no help in sight.”
A third proposed change, which is to add a two-year expiration date for ARB approvals, did not garner much opposition, though Mr. Brandt said he would have preferred a one-year expiration date.
Deputy mayor Ken O’Donnell suggested tabling the changes. “It’s in no way, shape or form an attempt to cloud the situation, but if there needs to be clarity, I have no problem tabling it,” he said.
Village trustee Aidan Corish agreed. “Even if nothing changes, at least we can clarify this issue. I feel the emotion in the room and I feel it is our responsibility to represent our people,” he said.
The village board ultimately voted 4-1 to table the law so residents could submit suggestions for how the language of the proposed changes should be edited. Ms. Schroeder cast the lone dissenting vote after saying she was ready to vote “yes” to approve the changes that night.