Neil Slevin

Posted on 09 October 2008

The Sag Harbor resident and new chairman of the planning board discusses a village in flux and the challenges facing government during times of great change.

Sag Harbor has been in the midst of a great deal of change, including a number of development projects in the heart of the village. Understanding that as a planning board chairman you view each application individually and on its own merits, what is your personal take on development in the village?

Well, I think, aside from the fact that development is an inevitability, I suppose, in general, development can be a good thing. In Sag Harbor’s case, which is different, I think what we have seen is a lot of redevelopment and redevelopment can be good when you are talking about derelict properties like the Bulova building. Development becomes a bit more of a question mark when you are talking about losing open space, for example. So I guess, the only the only thing I can say about development right now is it is clear that as a result of this incredible boom, the pressure on Sag Harbor became very intense. It will be very interesting to see whether that pressure lessens somewhat now, and I suspect it will.

That is an interesting point. With the economy where it is currently, there have been two condo projects the planning board has already approved in the Bulova Factory and at West Water Street and you are in the midst of an environmental review on a third. How many condos does one village need and should that be considered?

I think absolutely. In fact, at the scoping session for the development of Ferry Road, [Sag Harbor Inn co-owner Nathiel] Egosi mentioned something that I had actually raised to the applicant’s attorney at an earlier meeting, which is, what if this fails? What will it be like for the Village of Sag Harbor if we have a substantially larger building than has ever been there before sitting empty? And I don’t think that question is idle speculation … the Bulova building did go derelict, so I actually think this is a valid question – not just a valid question, but the key question in front of all the boards as we go through this process. What is it that we need? What is more than we need? What should we have in any place whether it be the waterfront or the heart of downtown in the business district?

The village’s revamp of its zoning code should help dictate just that. Sag Harbor is in the midst of this zoning code re-write, which you were actually a pretty big part of, working with village attorney Anthony Tohill, village planner Richard Warren, mayor Greg Ferraris and trustee Tiffany Scarlato. What was, in your mind, the most important thing that needed to be protected in the re-write of the zoning code?

I think Greg Ferraris stated it very well early on in the process. As you know, Tiffany Scarlato was the one who was really urging that the code be looked at in a comprehensive way and changed as necessary because it really has been 20 years. In the early meetings, Greg was able to articulate what, at the end of the day, we are actually trying to accomplish. It was really a very simple statement, but kind of an astounding challenge to everyone, and particularly in light of the fact that I think Greg realizes that development and redevelopment are necessary. What he said was that what we now have in Sag Harbor is a pretty nice place. People are coming out of every corner of the community, of late, and basically in their own way, and in different ways, saying this place is terrific. We want it to remain terrific. And what Greg was saying was that we need to, on one hand, maintain that wonderful ambiance we now have and, on other hand, we have to construct a code that allows for appropriate development, appropriate change. The key is, we have a gem – it’s a cliché, but it really is true. I have a friend, who lives in a really nice golf community in North Carolina. He came up two summers ago and we went to lunch at The Dockside with his wife and he turned to me and said, why would you ever think about leaving this place? And I said, I don’t … I know everyone feels that way, but we can get caught up in everything that we are doing, like starting a family, where we forget, we are pretty lucky. When I walk to the village, or walk down West Water Street, I stop and think, whoa, this is two blocks from where I live. This is pretty nice.

One issue that has come up, and you certainly are familiar with the Bulova application, is the need for affordable housing in Sag Harbor. It was an application that did have a lot of support from a number of members of the community, but there were also a number of members of the community who really wanted to see on-site affordable housing. Now that the application has been approved, how do you feel about the planning board’s decision and is there anything different you wish the board had done?

Oh no. I know it was the right decision for me, and the community. Having said that — and I tried to say this during this whole conversation about this issue — the people who highlighted the affordable housing issue did a tremendous job. They might have been accused of beating a dead horse, but they really, really did a tremendous job. I can remember attending one of the early meetings where the developer came and spoke to community groups to talk about what they wanted to do, and one person, maybe two brought up the issue of affordable housing. I can remember when they brought that issue up to the developer, thinking to myself, you have to be crazy. At that point, without having seen the numbers, I knew the cost of developing that property was going to be so high, no one would ever think about putting affordable housing in, nor did I think it was possible to force them to put it in.

What I realized throughout the next two years was, nothing happens that isn’t forced. The status quo is a hard thing to push against and you need people like those affordable housing advocates to push against things because they make you take a step back and ask, why can’t we do this? I think, largely as a result of their efforts, we now have $2.5 million in seed money for the village housing trust. I don’t know that without their efforts the community would have understood that we do have a right to say to a developer, you cannot just come in and make money off a community without the community having the opportunity to get some advantage back.

One of the biggest arguments the affordable housing advocates had was you cannot have a village of empty houses. I mean, weekenders are wonderful and a valid part of our community, but they cannot serve on the boards. And some are not even weekenders – they only come a few times a year. That is not good, it’s not healthy. And when Greg Ferraris said we want to keep the village as much like it is now, going into the future, I would say the same about the people we have here. We need regular people, because it is the regular people that will be the contributing members of the community.

How do you think village government has been handling this flux in the village?

It’s been great the way [the board of trustees] have handled things. In comparison to what we have had in the past, village government has been so much more open and competent in the face of challenges. Everyone thinks it is so easy …

Speaking of, you have served the village for some time now. Would you ever consider running for an elected position in village government?

I don’t. I am retired and I would like to be able to get away more than I have in the last two years. I would like to be away from here, as most people would, in the really cold months. The cold weather tends to keep you indoors, unless you are George Pharaoh and enjoy slogging around in cold water, which I don’t. So, I don’t think it’s in the cards; but what I have been doing is racking my brains thinking about who I can suggest to run for office or serve on one of these boards.

What do you see as future issues the village will face?

I think there is going to be an acknowledgment that the housing issue is an important issue for the simple reason that otherwise we will have an empty village – it will be hollow, there will be no one here. We will have to hope the people who decorate their lights at Christmas use timers because otherwise when I take my walks through the village during the holidays there will not be any Christmas trees or lights. And I don’t want that, nor does anyone else, including the people who aren’t here. I think what those people want to buy into and are spending all this money for, is they want a place that is like you want it to be. That is what they are paying for – the nice thing the long time members of the community have created and so we are protecting all our interests. Part of that is: how many high end condos do we need? Is that a further contribution to the community or is it an exacerbation of a problem we all recognize?

I think the zoning code that is being finally worked out now will contain some important changes that will protect the character of the downtown … Ralph Lauren, I walked by it the other day, and it’s a nice window. Hey, I like those clothes, I wear his clothes, but I can go to Vero Beach and go to Ralph Lauren. Again, it’s another cliché, but what we have here, it works and we would like to keep it.   

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