By Stephen J. Kotz
Teresa Romanelli stood before the Sag Harbor Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review on Monday, trying to explain that the house she owned at 51 Palmer Terrace had had been demolished because of a miscommunication between her architect and contractor.
“We’re kind of seeing a rash of this happening in the village,” said Cee Scott Brown, the board’s chairman. “People come in to discuss a renovation and lo and behold, a month or two later we drive by and it’s been demolished.”
“We’re using you as an example,” Mr. Brown said to Ms. Romanelli, “because it’s the umpteenth time it has happened.”
The discussion dovetailed perfectly with a request from members of Save Sag Harbor, addressed later in the meeting, for the ARB to take a stronger stand against teardowns.
Jayne Young, a member of Save Sag Harbor’s board, read a letter to the board that said her organization was becoming “increasingly alarmed at the number and frequency of historic houses being demolished in the village over the past two years.” The ARB, she continued, “is the advocate for the preservation of these important village houses. It is certainly not the board’s role to make it easier—or less expensive—for the builders or owners to tear down and reconstruct these historic houses.”
Two examples were cited, the Sleightte House on Division Street, across the from the Watchase condominium development, which was essentially replaced piece by piece this summer, and the former Abelman residence on Madison Street, which is known as the “bottle house” for its display of colorful bottles in its front windows. The ARB gave permission for that house to be moved across the lot, but after an extensive renovation project, little remains of the original structure.
Mr. Brown said Save Sag Harbor was essentially preaching to the choir and said the board recognizes “there are costs involved in living in a historic district in Sag Harbor that won’t be incurred living in a potato field in Bridgehampton.”
Save Sag Harbor urged the ARB to make more frequent use of historic preservation consultants, whose services would be billed to the applicant, a practice that is already allowed by the code and suggested the board would be better served if an architect with knowledge of local buildings were a member.
Mr. Brown urged the Save Sag Harbor to recommend architects who might be willing to serve and agreed that compiling a list of historic preservation consultants the board could tap for difficult applications had merit. He added that the board has relied on outside consultants from time to time.
But most agreed that fines need to be increased and applicants who illegally demolish a house should be required to wait a period of up to two years before they are allowed to proceed with a project.
“Otherwise you get your hand slapped and you go back before the board,” said Mr. Brown, who said Save Sag Harbor would be doing the village a service if worked “toward the goal of increasing the amount of the penalty” for someone who blatantly ignores the law.
“If they know it is only $2,500 or $10,000, that is going to be built into the cost of the house,” offered Bob Weinstein, a resident of Jefferson Street. ”I’m wondering if there is not something preemptive, so that anyone who comes into the village knows there are dire consequences: If you tear down an historic house without the proper permits, you will be punished.”
“I’d like to see their fine be the assessed valuation of the house,” said longtime board member Tom Horn.
“If you increase the penalty, but don’t increase the power of enforcement, you’ve got half the equation,” said Mr. Brown.
In the case of Ms. Roman Elli’s house, the board said it would not proceed until her architect, Anthony Vermandois, appeared before it to address the situation.
Now that the house is gone—with only an excavated pit remaining where it once stood, Mr. Brown lamented that an Arts and Crafts portion of the building could not be preserved. “The soul of the house is gone,” he said.
Ms. Romanelli, who was seeking retroactive approval for the demolition, said she did not know how it had happened, adding that she assumed Mr. Vermandois had given instructions to the contractor to not tear down the entire house.
“That’s why I hired him,” she said. “I’m the one suffering here.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Vermandois, who was unable to attend the meeting, acknowledged that a mistake had been made when the contractor demolished the entire house, for which Ms. Romanelli had received permission to undertake a substantial renovation.
But, he insisted, the house had absolutely no historic value. “It was originally a little cottage that was built in the 1920s,” he said. “It was heavily renovated in the 1960s. That’s when the bulk of the structure dated from. There was basically nothing original to the ‘20s building that was preserved.”