Zoning Code Outdated And Ineffective, Consultant Tells Sag Harbor Village Board

Sag Harbor Village continues to work its way through a proposed rezoning of the village waterfront. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

If developers wanted to replicate a historic building along Sag Harbor’s waterfront, they would not be allowed to do so under the village’s current zoning ordinance. That was the message Chris Hawley, a city planner with Chuck Banas Design of Buffalo, gave the Sag Harbor Village Board on November 23.

Mr. Hawley is one of several consultants hired to create what is called a form-based code for the village’s waterfront — and to do so quickly. The Village Board imposed a six-month moratorium on major development along the waterfront in October, and wants to have proposed zone changes prepared for a public hearing by its end in March.

Before analyzing a community’s code, Mr. Hawley said he liked to look at vintage postcards to get a sense of a place’s historic character. “One of the questions I typically ask when looking at a zoning ordinance and these historic postcards is whether the beautiful postcard image could be replicated with current development under the zoning ordinances in place,” he said. “Everything you see in this historic Sag Harbor view is essentially illegal or nonconforming under the current zoning ordinance.”

That poses a problem, he continued, because Sag Harbor “has a very particular character and form that is the basis for its longstanding appeal —“It’s a small place people all over Long Island want to go to.”

The village’s current zoning code, based on dimensional restrictions, requires minimum lot widths of 50 feet, while some existing commercial lots are as narrow as 16 feet, he said. Similarly, the code calls for a minimum of 800 square feet in floor area for a business, while some occupy spaces as tiny as 280 square feet.

What we are moving toward is a much simpler code that is designed to be understood by laymen,” he said. “It will be full of helpful tables and illustrations and will be written in plain English.”

The current code, he said, is “essentially misaligned with Sag Harbor’s historic and desired character, adding that it failed to protect and enhance waterfront access or encourage a wide variety of transportation choices in the village.

When the code changes are finalized, they will likely include minimum requirements for public water views, required setbacks for third stories to reduce massing along the waterfront, requirements for shared parking, where possible, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, and similar proposals.

But as there has been throughout the process, there was some pushback, especially concerning its rapid pace.

Susan Mead, a member of the village Zoning Board of Appeals, said she was “concerned about unintended consequences because of our rush” to adopt the new waterfront code, adding that the village should not undermine the oversight responsibilities of its regulatory boards in overseeing things like height variances.

Trustee James Larocca also reiterated his concern that the village was moving too quickly.

“It’s no secret I’ve had some caution about this process from the beginning,” he said. “I think the complexity of the issues at stake is such that the pace may be moving too fast for a really thoughtful examination of what I find in today’s report.”

He again called for broader participation. “I think we need to think about this schedule and broaden the base of constituencies and voices that are in it, so we don’t make matters worse,” he said.

But Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy, in introducing the discussion, said that many in the village were concerned that the pace of development, especially along the waterfront, would outstrip the village’s ability to regulate. “I don’t think there is anyone out there who wouldn’t say we need more strength” in the code, she said.

She also stressed that the proposed zoning changes are not the be all, end all. “We are moving fast. We are not going to necessarily get it 100-percent right,” she said, “but this is going to be a living code and we will adapt it and change it as we go along.”