ZBA Turns Down Billy Joel Variance Request

The current home of musician Billy Joel on Bay Street. Christine Sampson photo
The current home of musician Billy Joel on Bay Street. Christine Sampson photo

By Stephen J. Kotz

It’s not every day that a Billy Joel song gets reworked into a zoning board of appeals decision. But Tim McGuire, the chairman of the Sag Harbor ZBA, on Tuesday paraphrased a line from the pop star’s “Downeaster Alexa” to describe the feelings of the community over his proposal to renovate his property at 20 Bay Street.

“There’s no Sag Harbor left for Sag Harborites like me,” Mr. McGuire said in trying to describe the sentiment community members have shared with him over the singer’s plans to raise and rotate the house.

Although the proposal only required a single backyard variance, Mr. McGuire and two other ZBA members voted against the request — and against the advice of their attorney, Denise Schoen.

Before voting, Mr. McGuire asked Mr. Joel’s attorney, Jon Tarbet, if his client would be willing to rethink his project. “There seems to be a community sense that it’s the wrong project,” he said, citing the opposition to the plan, which neighbors say will block their views and overwhelm the character of the neighborhood of Rector and Rysam streets. Perhaps Mr. Joel might “want to reconsider this and just withdraw the whole application and not do anything that remotely resembles what he wants to do now,” he said.

“With all due respect, Billy Joel has spent a long time thinking about this project and he actually believes he is beautifying this village,” responded Mr. Tarbet. “He’s not looking to withdraw his application — that’s why I’m here.”

Mr. Joel’s plans, submitted under the name Maritime Properties, LLC, have been before the board since April and have undergone some modifications. In June, Mr. Tarbet presented the board with an interpretation from village building inspector Tom Preiato that a property owner can combine multiple uses in a building in the village business district without the need to go before the ZBA or other village regulatory board if those uses to not exceed the total floor area allowed in the existing certificate of occupancy.
Although Mr. Preiato’s determination has been challenged by neighbors, the ZBA has not yet heard testimony in that case. While Mr. Tarbet asked the board to act on the application before it for a sole variance and return to the interpretation issue at a later date, Jeff Bragman, an attorney representing Save Sag Harbor, urged the board to adjourn the matter.

“This statute was never designed to let somebody walk into the village with a pre-existing, nonconforming house and say, ‘I can expand it however much I want,’” Mr. Bragman said.

Ms. Schoen sided with Mr. Tarbet and said the board should only weigh the variance at hand. “If you want me to write a decision that can be supported in a court of law, we need to write a decision that is based on the variances they are seeking,” she told the board. “Otherwise, it will get overturned.”

Board members Bob Plumb and Karl Kaiser joined Mr. McGuire in opposing the application. “Couching this building the way you are with a tiny variance is like describing the Washington Monument as a piece of stone,” Mr. Plumb told Mr. Tarbet. “It doesn’t reflect the reality, It doesn’t make real sense in terms of the impact it will have on the street.”

“I see this as more of a detriment to the community,” said Mr. Kaiser. “I can’t imagine walking down the sidewalk and only seeng roof. It just doesn’t seem to be the character of the neighborhood.”

Susan Mead, a board alternate who had no voting power Tuesday night, did say she would recuse herself from voting on the application at a previous meeting, according to Mr. McGuire. Ms. Mead is a member of Save Sag Harbor and the Sag Harbor Partnership, the latter which was gifted $500,000 by Mr. Joel for the purchase and reconstruction of the Sag Harbor Cinema on Main Street.

Several neighbors also weighed in. “The one variance stands between whether we have a hitoric district or not,” said Tom Matthews of Rector Street.

Myrna Davis, whose house on Rector Street adjoins Mr. Joel’s property, read from a village planning study for its business district which charges the ZBA “to protect against changes to the character of the commercial district which would threaten the local identity of this area, including unexpected changes in the types and size of uses present.”

The 3-2 vote Tuesday was a straw poll the village attorney will use to draw up a formal decision for next month’s October 17 meeting.

Dopo La Spiaggia

The application of Bay Street Partners to build an addition behind the restaurant Dopo La Spiaggia also brought out neighbors in opposition. Although the addition would require a slew of variances, from the rear and side yards, as well as from lot and building coverage limits, attorney Brian DeSesa said the new construction would actually result in a decrease in coverage because a shed and brick patio would be removed.

The plans would not result in an increase in requested seating, Mr. DeSesa said, but board members expressed concern over a proposed second-floor balcony and deck overlooking the harbor. Mr. McGuire questioned whether people would be allowed to sit on the balcony and have a drink.

Ed Mulderrig, who lives on Cross Street, said although Mr. DeSesa was downplaying the addition, it would crowd the property and have a negative impact on his property.

Another neighbor, James Sabloski, also of Cross Street, said he already has to put up with the noise and odors from the restaurant. “It’s a historic building,” he said. “It’s an old saltbox. It doesn’t need a big square box attached to it.”

The board tabled the matter pending more information on the rooftop kitchen ventilation system and how it could be better configured to screen odors and noise from the neighbors.


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Gavin Menu is the sports editor, advertising director and co-publisher of The Sag Harbor Express and Express Magazine. Reach him at gmenu@sagharborexpress.com.