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Bromberg Out on Bulova

Posted on 11 July 2008

Sag Harbor Zoning Board of Appeals Chairman Michael Bromberg will recuse himself from Sag Development Partners application for luxury condominium units at the former Bulova Watchcase Factory, he said on Tuesday.

“I don’t think I have to recuse myself,” he said. “I choose to.”

Bromberg said he would explain why he was choosing to do so at the next zoning board of appeals meeting on Tuesday, July 15 at 6:30 p.m.

Bromberg revealed the decision following the receipt of a letter from attorney William Esseks of Esseks, Hefter & Angel — one of many legal representatives Sag Development Partners has employed during the village’s review of their proposal. In the letter, Esseks is critical of statements Bromberg made at last month’s zoning board of appeals meeting that Esseks said show bias on his part and defamed both Sag Development Partners and village officials, although none specific.

In particular, Esseks said comments alleged by Bromberg about a “backroom” deal between an unnamed source and the developers regarding a village affordable housing trust were “disturbing and quite serious” and showed a bias against the developers.

On Tuesday, Bromberg said he disagreed with Esseks’ assertions.

This is the latest in a number of unexpected turns in the review of the project, which has been going on for almost two years now. Sag Development Partners is seeking to restore, rehabilitate and reuse the historic Division Street factory building in a luxury condo project, which includes an underground parking garage and an indoor pool facility. The project now represents 65 units between the factory building and nine newly constructed townhouses.

Affordable housing has been the most hotly debated aspect of the project for over a year, particularly after the Suffolk County Planning Commission mandated the project include 20 percent on-site affordable units last spring, the equivalent of 13 units under the current plan. The developers, in turn, offered a contribution to the proposed Sag Harbor Community Housing Trust Fund — a concept the Sag Harbor Board of Trustees announced last summer, which uses funding, in part, to provide down payments and loan assistance for affordable housing. It would also be able to expend monies on affordable housing projects throughout the Sag Harbor School District and will be run by an appointed board.

Sag Development Partners has most recently committed to $2.524 million dollars in lieu of providing the on-site housing. In order to overrule the county, however, the zoning board of appeals must rule via a supermajority, or four votes, to accept the money instead. The planning board, which has led the review of the project, has already done so.

Last month, after two months of speculation following the developers’ decision to take a hiatus from the project in order to reevaluate financing, they returned to the zoning board of appeals to once more argue their case on the housing front.

It was that meeting, and the transcript that followed, that led Esseks to pen his letter to Bromberg demanding his recusal.

At the meeting, attorney Dennis Downes, representing Sag Development Partners, outlined pending state law on affordable housing for Nassau and Suffolk Counties, which offers an option for developers to provide affordable housing funding in turn for a density bonus in a housing project. The program is only for developers seeking a density bonus, noted Downes, which Sag Development Partners is not. The density of the project has actually been reduced twice now — once to accommodate both larger apartment spaces and to appease Bromberg’s hope for two parking spaces per unit.

Following the presentation, board members — who did not vote on the housing issue, as board member Anton Hagen was absent for medical reasons — briefly discussed their initial thoughts, although it was Bromberg who was the most vocal of the four.

Bromberg has made no secret that he would like to see on-site housing, or “brick and mortar” instead of money — likening the housing trust to the village’s parking fund, a fund that has provided little actual parking.

But Esseks took issue with a number of Bromberg’s comments, in particular reference to a “back room deal,” alluded to in the minutes of the meeting twice in Bromberg’s discussion of his thoughts on the housing issue.

Esseks charges that the statements “defame our clients.”

“Essentially, in a public pronouncement, you concluded that our client and unnamed Village officials engaged in improper conduct,” writes Esseks to Bromberg.

Esseks points to two statements Bromberg made during the meeting, including: “Secondly, there was some sort of an agreement made in some room somewhere for this in lieu of payment.”

“What I am concerned about is I don’t think there is a willingness on the part of the applicant to stretch,” Bromberg later stated in a portion of the transcript also referenced by Esseks. “Because it’s been my musing that they think that this is a done deal because of whatever backroom deal they made for this trust down the road.”

Esseks counters that the notion of a backroom deal ignores the fact that the trustees have discussed the trust at public meetings.

“It was no secret that the trustees were considering this issue, and were considering it in context of the Bulova Factory project, as well as other potential developments in the village,” states Esseks.

“Your declaration that our client engaged in some ‘backroom deal’ on this issue is not only contrary to the public nature of the trustee’s proceedings but is unsupported by any evidence,” continues Esseks. “Moreover, your use of the pejorative term ‘backroom deal’ plainly reveals your bias and your privately held and unfounded belief that our client was engaged in wrongdoing and improper conduct.”

Esseks asks for Bromberg’s written recusal before next week’s zoning board of appeals meeting.

However, shortly after receiving the letter on Tuesday, Bromberg said he would recuse himself, although he asserted he did not believe he has done or said anything that would legally require him to do so — it is a matter of choice that he said he would explain publicly during Tuesday’s meeting.

Bulova will also be on the planning board agenda this month, on Tuesday, July 22, for site plan review.

Above: The historic Bulova Watchcase Factory on Division Street in Sag Harbor. (r shapiro photo)

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