Three candidates for two seats on the Village Board of Trustees agreed Sag Harbor should begin work on a long-term comprehensive plan and also improve lines of communication between village government and the public when they appeared at a candidate forum sponsored by The Sag Harbor Express and Save Sag Harbor at the John Jermain Memorial Library on Saturday, June 1.
The only thing the three candidates who attended the forum strongly disagreed on was the idea of hiring a village manager, which Jennifer Ponzini, a lawyer, real estate broker and former member of the Zoning Board of Appeals questioned.
“To hire a manager is going to be very costly,” she said. “I think I want to be the manager. I’m the trustee … That’s why we’re here. Why are you going to pay people?”
“If we hire a manager,” she added, “are they hearing your voice? Where are they? …If I’m a trustee, I want to manage it. If you’re going to give us this election and make one of us in charge, basically, to hear your voice, why do you need to hire a manager?”
Candidate Robert Plumb, a builder and current member of the Zoning Board of Appeals, said “in the long run” a village manager would be “a financial plus for the village because there are some big grants out there that are not being picked up.” He added that “there seems to be a weak link in the mayor’s office, and I’m not specifically referring to the mayor; I just mean that branch of government.”
“Do we need a village manager?” said Trustee Aidan Corish, who is seeking a second two-year term and is the only incumbent in the race. “Boy — do we ever.”
A fourth declared candidate, Silas Marder, did not attend the forum due to a family matter, Save Sag Harbor board member Bob Weinstein told the audience Saturday.
“There are so many aspects of this village that need to be wrangled,” Mr. Corish explained. “We’re about to enter into a period when we’re going to have the Long Wharf rehabilitation, we’re going to have the Steinbeck Park, we’re going to have the sewage treatment plant,” which Mr. Corish is looking to see upgraded to allow for an expansion of the village’s sewer district. “These are huge projects,” he said, that will require oversight and coordination.
Answering the first question from moderator Kathryn Menu, the editor of The Sag Harbor Express, the candidates all agreed on the need for long-term planning.
“Absolutely it needs a comprehensive plan,” said Mr. Plumb of Sag Harbor government. “There is virtually no coordination between the various” boards … “It’s non-existent.”
“Long-term plan. Boy, it’s a long time ago that we should have started this,” said Aidan Corish, who is seeking a second term as trustee and is the only incumbent in the race. “We get this scattershot approach to everything. We’re sort of putting fires out here and we’re building something there. We’re considering the impact of something over here but at no time in my two years have we ever sat down and discussed … the long-term plan.”
“I believe we do need a long-term plan,” said Ms. Ponzini. “We do need to start with the community … We do need to organize the boards and the order of the boards” as they review applications. “I do agree with Bob when we were on the ZBA together there were many issues with the organization of the people that did come in with their applications …”
During the forum, Mr. Corish again touched on the problem of managerial coordination in the village after a question about Havens Beach, which Mr. Corish said he wanted to see a specific trustee designated to oversee.
“It comes back to a scatter shot approach,” he said. “It’s like kids playing soccer. Everybody runs after the ball. All our attention is on this project this week and this project next week. We don’t achieve anything [running government] like that. We don’t make progress. There’s a lot of churn. A lot of heat and no light. If we had a plan and we knew how to assign our resources in a way that was methodical, we could gain ground on this.”
Answering a question about improving communications between the Village Board and the public, Mr. Plumb also touched on how the village government functions. After saying the Village Board “absolutely” should reinstate a public comment portion at the begging of its meeting in addition to one held at the end of each session, he added, “I personally feel … if the impound lot had been aired, discussed, brought up, I don’t know where it would have wound up but I do think it would have been less controversial and a lot fewer hard feelings about it … Somebody else could have had a better idea, frankly, but we don’t know because we didn’t ask anybody.”
Also touching on village government’s operational issues, Mr. Plumb said during his introductory remarks, “I’ve been a member of the ZBA for four years. In this time, we passed on many suggestions to the [village] board for code clarification and possible changes. Not a single one has even gotten to the discussion stage. I’ve heard this same complaint from members of other village boards. That’s one reason I’m running for the board” of trustees.
Ms. Ponzini did not specifically address the question of reinstating the public participation portion back to the beginning of the monthly board meeting. “When I started doing this, so many people came up to me and said, ‘How can I get involved?’ … I was like, oh, I’ll help you. I think we need to get these people on the boards and I see the boards need people,” she said.
She suggested having board sessions at “different times, once a month or every two months,” and said public participation is “very important” but speakers “do need to be timed.” She added, “All of us need to go out there and tell everybody they can participate in the community. Some people do not know how to do it or who to talk to, so I’m here and I’ll talk to whoever needs to volunteer.”
Here is an abbreviated summary of some of the rest of the candidates’ positions and comments in the order in which the candidates were introduced at the forum:
“If I’m on the board of trustees I want you to come up to me and I want you to talk to me. I want to hear your voices. I’m here for you,” Ms. Ponzini said. “This is not for me. This is for you.” She said she was “committed to solving quality of life issues, preserving our historic integrity. I want to safeguard our natural resources for the residents, for the visitors and for my children and everyone else’s children, for the generations that are to come to the community.”
Asked about possible zoning changes, she said regulation should be enacted to protect the historic SANS community’s culture, calling for greater regulations to protect that community.
Using one of three rebuttal cards, she questioned Mr. Plumb’s assertion that the village has failed to win grants for water quality projects from the Town of Southampton Community Preservation Fund because the application paperwork was never filed. “I don’t think that’s true,” she said.
On pollution and runoff affecting Havens Beach, she said, “I know Havens Beach is an issue but there were 63 beaches closed with regards to, they say, rainfall, which is probably not true, but I know the trustees have something in place, a new plan they’re acting on,” she said. Also there is “intense testing” of water quality underway.
“I think we need to better inform the homeowners about the septic systems and the rebates that are happening right now,” she added.
“I don’t know if we’re going to totally solve Havens Beach. I do like Aidan’s idea of making a trustee in charge of it. That might be a good idea.”
On protecting Main Street’s local business and vitality, Ms. Ponzini said, “I work in the village and I’m part of the businesses in the community so I’m here for you.” She opposed “pop-up” stores. “I know the rents are high but there’s nothing we can do about that … I think we all need to sit around as a community just like this and we need to talk about this.”
On the issue of traffic calming, she said she liked “the idea of the flashing [speed] sign over by [Route] 114.” On trying to regulate Airbnb short-term rentals, “Something needs to be done,” she said. “This is affecting our community.” She suggested requiring rental permits and adopting regulations “to make it easier to cite people.”
Like the other candidates, she favored allowing accessory apartments in owner-occupied homes as a way to provide affordable housing and rental income, with “maybe tax incentives” for those who create them.
“If I’m a trustee, I want anybody to call me at any time. I want you to talk to me, tell me what issues arise,” she said in her closing remarks.
Over his 40 years living in Sag Harbor, “we’ve all watched Sag Harbor change dramatically,” Mr. Plumb said, “and I believe we’re at a critical point” because of “environmental stresses” and “the demands of development.”
“My goals for the board are cohesive environmental water quality, open government, a willingness to discuss long-term planning,” he said.
He complained that “developers are not using architects,” leading to code violations in finished projects that wind up before the ZBA. He said the board recently has been “much stricter” with variance applications and called for higher application fees.
“I think many people were shocked to see the dredge alongside Long Wharf” in 2017, he said when the topic turned to Havens Beach. There was no public notice about it, he said, and “no discussion,” and after the spoil was piped onto the beach, “All you can do is to use the machine” recently acquired by the village that “essentially just rakes the rocks and the old shards of pottery …” In terms of Havens Beach, he said, “you would have to address that on a macro scale rather than just that one ditch.”
On preparing for rising sea levels, “First of all, I think it’s important to say climate change is real,” he said, adding that government data shows a rise in sea level near Montauk Point of .8 feet over the past century. He said adaptions to existing structures will be insurance-driven and when a house is raised “it’s not necessarily a problem” but at 23 Bridge Street, a commercial property, “it’s contiguous with 15 other properties. I mean how do you do that?”
He said it’s unrealistic for drivers to expect a parking spot “in front of or near where you want to go all the time,” and suggested a digital metering system associated with an app that could show drivers where parking spots are available.
“You need to make what is accessible and what is available feel more like downtown,” he said, in order to encourage drivers to park farther away from Main Street. “They always find a place to park,” he said. “Nobody’s ever gone home from the fireworks because they couldn’t find a place to park.”
He favored setting a two-week minimum rental limited to twice a year on private homes and a shorter term in an owner-occupied residence if the fire codes are met. “I don’t really see a lot of room for … accessory structures” to provide affordable rental spaces. “I just feel like that’s the case in an old village with small lots and small streets.” He favored “a contribution” from the village to fund affordable housing beyond village limits in the unincorporated town areas to the east and west.
“Debate and dissent go to the very core of our politics and I think it’s a strength of our system,” Mr. Corish said, noting he had opposed the village board majority’s decision to build a police impound lot adjacent to the Long Pond Greenbelt. “However, …it is incumbent upon us to disagree agreeably.”
The declining full-time population of the village and lack of volunteers for emergency services is “a huge issue,” he said, that needs to be addressed by comprehensive planning. On zoning issues, he drew applause when he said, “The one thing I would do that I think would make a big difference is absolutely deny forgiveness” for violations. “When you get a permit to build something that’s what you build. That’s it. There’s going to be no ‘I forget’ or ‘we did this and my builder did that.’ Too bad. It’s your responsibility. And nobody else is going to pick up the pieces for you.”
“There’s a monstrosity living in Ninevah right now that needs to be hauled down,” he added. “It’s just not right … I do think we’re being taken advantage of and it has to stop.”
He defended his oversight of the village’s grant application efforts. “I’m a pretty smart fellah. I’ve been around. This is one of the most opaque entities, to go after grants,” which, he said, “we are applying for continuously.”
Calling for a trustee to be named as the overseer of Havens Beach, if not all the village’s natural resources, he said that “one of the great frustrations found of people living in the village [is] they don’t know who to reach out to [in order] to answer questions.”
He said the village will be adding “microbial source tracking” to its water quality program so the source of coliform bacterial pollution can be identified and that “a major $100,000 engineering survey of the village” will soon be underway to identify “those areas which will give you the most bang for the buck in the reduction of coliform and nitrogen into the waterways” to guide decisions about where to expand sewer district mains.
On sea level rise and FEMA regulations, he said, “Raising houses is something that will have to be done … in a sympathetic way that’s in keeping with the historic nature of the village as much as possible, whether that’s screening, vegetation, but something that we should probably develop some guidelines on.”
“I reiterate everything Bob just said about village parking,” Mr. Corish said when the topic turned to the business district.
“Traffic calming and traffic volume are two separate things,” he noted. “Traffic volume leads to traffic calming because you just can’t drive anywhere.”
He favored allowing short-term rentals if a property is owner-occupied and conforms to codes. “If not in residence, I would make the shortest rental period be two weeks …”
Affordable housing is “not an issue I believe we can resolve in the village,” Mr. Corish said. He said the concept of “preservation” may have to be redefined to refer to a community’s culture and demographics, not just land. “Land isn’t a community really. A community is people.”
He said he had opposed the removal of public comments from the start of village board meetings. “We need a broader dialogue,” he said. “We need to open up the issues. We need to get input from people and we need to find out what people really want.”