Bulova Hurdles Slipping Away

Posted on 17 July 2008

Barring a dramatic turn of events, after several critical votes were made by the zoning board of appeals in favor of the condo project at the former Bulova Watchcase Factory, it appears that development is scant steps away from being approved in the Village of Sag Harbor.

On Tuesday, July 15 four members of that board, without their chairman, voted in favor of overturning a Suffolk County Planning Commission recommendation for 20 percent on-site housing in the 65-unit luxury development. In return Sag Development Partners has promised a $2.524 million contribution to the proposed Sag Harbor Community Housing Trust.

The vote was conducted in an unofficial straw poll, although it was meant to reflect the board’s ultimate decision and provide village attorney Anthony Tohill the tools to draft a formal resolution for next month’s meeting.

This brings to an end months of debate in front of both the planning and zoning boards on the affordable housing front. Both boards needed to vote via a supermajority, or four members, in order to overrule the county. While the planning board voted in favor of overruling the county this spring, it was unclear until Tuesday which way the zoning board would sway, although its chairman Michael Bromberg has expressed his concern about the proposed housing trust and its ability to actually provide affordable housing.

It was the most vocal member of this board that would ultimately not have a voice in the issue, as Bromberg recused himself from the Bulova application Tuesday night.

Last week Bromberg received a letter from attorney William Esseks of Esseks, Hefter & Angel, one of a number of firms representing Sag Development Partners, demanding his recusal. Esseks took issue with statements Bromberg made during the June zoning board of appeals hearing on the application, specifically when he referred to a “backroom deal” between an unnamed village source and the developers regarding the village affordable housing trust. Esseks charged Bromberg’s statements showed bias against the project and defamed both his clients and village officials, although he failed to specify whom.

While Bromberg confirmed last week he would in fact recuse himself, he explained the reasoning at Tuesday night’s meeting, noting he was recusing himself not at Esseks’ request.

After reading the letter, said Bromberg, he researched some of the case law Esseks cited. He said it was specific to people who made decisions on matters that had yet to come before them — not the case here. 

“The law is pretty simple, unless there is a reason for judicial disqualification, disqualification a matter of personal discretion,” said Bromberg. He added he did not believe he had defamed anyone in his comments, but even if he had, it would not require his recusal.

Bromberg added he objected to the notion that he would recuse himself based on a threat, therefore setting a precedent for those who sit on the zoning board. He denied Esseks’ request and then announced he would recuse himself for his own reasons.

“I don’t see a win in this situation,” said Bromberg, adding he did not want to see the project fail, but had issues with a housing trust that spends money outside of the village. The village’s housing trust is proposed to serve the Sag Harbor School District.

 “I know strongly, in order to save Sag Harbor, you have to make it affordable for the people to serve Sag Harbor,” said Bromberg.

He then left the room after turning the reins over to board member Anton Hagen.

On the housing front, board member Kathy Radziewicz noted that last month she had asked if anyone would come forward at Tuesday’s meeting to express their wish to have an affordable unit in the historic factory building.

“Is there anyone here who would like to make this case,” she asked the crowd of roughly 30 people.

Real estate agent Jane Holden, a staunch supporter of the Bulova condo project, began to speak, but Radziewicz stopped her.

“I know the realtors’ side of this argument,” she said. “I want to hear from someone else.”

Jeremy Samuelson, with Group for the East End, said he had spoken with several people, none who could be at the meeting, as he noted long commutes and second jobs can get in the way of attending a zoning board meeting. Those people, he said, would be interested in an affordable unit.

“I would ask if you have 13 units, is that balanced out by $2.5 million on the other side of the scale,” he said.

“I have spoken to many people this month as well,” said Radziewicz. “For the most part, they feel how I feel. If they have a few children they would rather live in a house with a yard.”

Hagen later agreed, adding he had confidence the trust would be able to provide affordable housing in Sag Harbor.

 “This is a little repetitious, but this has been a very difficult decision for me,” said board member Benedetta Deubel. “I came to the conclusion that there is not a perfect decision, but the best decision for Sag Harbor, which is why I am voting for the override.”

“I think it’s the best thing for Sag Harbor, so I am voting for the override,” ended board member Gayle Pickering, prompting a round of applause from the crowd.

The board also approved four height variances for historic structures on the building, including a brick octagonal tower, a brick water tower and wooden water tank, a brick chimney and a brick tower at the corner of Church and Sage streets. They also approved a variance to allow for a brick tower to screen mechanical equipment and for a special exception permit to allow the residential facility in the village business district.

“The decision was not unexpected,” said Samuelson on Wednesday. “Obviously we don’t think it is a good idea. It is no surprise the village is moving along as quickly as they can. We still think they could have and should have done better.”

“It’s obviously a huge step forward for the project,” said Sag Development Partners spokesman David Kronman on Wednesday. “We still have to get through the rest of the site plan approval process, but at this point we have relatively minor issues to resolve.”

The Bulova project has already received historic preservation and architectural review board approval, as well as harbor committee approval. The project will be in front of the planning board on Tuesday, July 22. The zoning board of appeals will officially adopt its decision on the project on August 19. 

Top: An artists rendering of the condo project at former Bulova Watchcase Factory as seen from Church Street. Middle: Members of the zoning board of appeals following Tuesday’s meeting. Bottom: Project spokesman David Kronman is congratulated by village residents and business owners following Tuesday’s meeting. (k menu photos)

 

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