By Kathryn G. Menu
In a 3-2 vote, the Sag Harbor Zoning Board of Appeals approved a front yard setback variance for William Egan to construct front steps to a proposed renovation at his 59 Garden Street property on Tuesday night. However, according to neighbors, the overall project planned for the Egan property — dating back to 2005 — will create an even larger drainage problem for neighboring residents in a portion of the village already plagued with flooding.
After close to an hour of testimony from Egan’s attorney, Dennis Downes, and neighboring residents — as well as Noyac resident and former East Hampton Town Natural Resources Director Larry Penny — ZBA members Michael Bromberg, Brendan Skislock and Benedetta Duebel approved a variance that will allow Egan to construct steps to the house seven feet from the front property line where 35 feet is required under the village code.
The variance is needed to accomplish a larger project, a four-bedroom addition that involves raising the house to comply with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood regulations and was the subject of a ZBA application several years ago for a pyramid variance. Because the house will be moved 10 feet from its original location, it will not need that variance but still does need the variance for the steps.
At that time, a pool was also proposed for the property, which is off the table right now, said Downes, but could be proposed in the future.
Tuesday night’s decision came after the board was repeatedly reminded, by Downes and village attorney Denise Schoen, that the only aspect of Egan’s plan it could base its decision on was the steps — not the fact he intends to raise the residence, re-grade the property and install a retaining wall, aspects of the plan neighbors believe will destroy the historic character of the neighborhood and increase flooding.
Duebel hesitated with her vote, faced with a 2-2 decision with board chairman Anton Hagen and board member Tim McGuire against granting the variance, but when reminded by Schoen she could not consider the whole of the project, just the steps, ultimately sided in favor of the variance.
The project will still need approval from the Sag Harbor Historic Preservation and Architectural Review Board (ARB), as well as from the village’s Harbor Committee.
“The affect of putting in the stairs will greatly increase flooding in their neighborhood,” said McGuire during the hearing. “The ultimate impact, including why the stairs are being put in, is this water has to go somewhere.”
Downes charged McGuire had no data on which he could make that determination.
“I was hoping we would be able to approach the village in an effort to ameliorate the drainage problems down there,” said McGuire referring to the village board of trustees, the only board with the legislative power to tackle drainage issues.
“The village has done nothing to address drainage in this area since John Ward, God bless his soul, raised West Water Street and created a lake in this neighborhood,” said Downes.
During the meeting, resident Angela Scott presented a photograph of Egan’s property after a typical rainfall. Egan’s backyard is a virtual lake.
Scott read a letter from architect and Spring Street resident Mazair Behrooz, who has spent the past year studying the architectural and environmental conditions of this neighborhood while designing a new house.
Behrooz noted after Superstorm Sandy, he literally had to put on waders to walk in and around his house.
“The water had no place to go,” he writes, noting climate change is a reality that will only make this neighborhood’s situation worse.
Behrooz argues as a low lying neighborhood susceptible to flooding, it should be treated differently than other neighborhoods, with retaining walls, swimming pools or anything that makes flooding a larger problem throughout the neighborhood avoided.
“The less contact between buildings and the ground, the better the neighborhood can handle storm surge,” writes Behrooz, adding this application, with its retaining walls, removes the property from handling its fair share of water damage.
“This is a bigger issue than just the steps and it is a ripple effect,” said Scott, noting the extensive addition requires an above ground septic system which requires the topography of the home to be raised “significantly.” Building up that property, she added, will push all of the drainage issues from that property into the neighborhood.
“This is a condition we cannot live with,” she said, asking who has jurisdiction to deal with this in a comprehensive fashion.
Bromberg noted the trustees are the legislative body, with Schoen adding the Harbor Committee and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation could also have jurisdiction.
Downes said the Egan property has been the collection site for runoff from Howard and Garden Street for years and that when Egan completes the residence, he plans to talk to trustees about drainage in the neighborhood.
Chris Hegedus, a Garden Street resident, brought in Penny to discuss the wetland aspect of this application.
Penny said the sea level rise coincides with a rise in the freshwater aquifer. Penny said he considers the area commonly flooded on the Egan property as a wetland area. Ducks, he noted, are regularly seen enjoying a swim on the property.
“No matter what you do here you are going to affect the entire shape of the aquifer if anyone puts fill in there,” said Penny.
“This board is not looking at wetlands,” said Skislock. “That is the Harbor Committee.”
Penny countered the ZBA should have the ability to take into account any major changes that would change the hydraulic nature of a neighborhood.
“The variance they are asking for is in regards to the number of feet from the steps to the street,” said Schoen. “We cannot change the elevation of the house.”
In other ZBA news, the board approved a variance requested by Sag Harbor Naturally, otherwise known as Provisions Natural Foods Market & Organic Café, on Main Street. The variance allows the store to expand into the full 700 square-foot adjacent, former Style Bar space on Bay Street without having to complete a market study or comply with affordable housing provisions in the village code.
The store was originally approved by the village planning board to expand into 500 square-feet of the space, but prohibited from using an additional 200 square-feet without triggering those extra requirements under the village code (which kick in for stores over 3,000 square feet). In 2009, the village implemented this requirement for larger stores in an effort to maintain a diversity of uses on Main and Bay streets in Sag Harbor.
A proposed new residence on Terry Drive was also granted a variance to construct a new residence which will protrude 5,846 cubic feet above the skyplane with the provision that an outdoor deck would be screened on one side to protect neighbor’s privacy.
Hagen and Bromberg voted against the application.
Lastly, the ZBA approved a side yard and front yard setback variances to allow for the construction of a residence on Amity Street.