Over the last year, interest in expanding an accessory apartment law in the Village of Sag Harbor has waned amid criticism with a majority of the board of trustees stating during Tuesday night’s village board meeting that the legislation no longer had their support.
On Tuesday, October 12 members of the village board held what has been one of several public hearings on the proposed legislation, which would expand a current accessory apartment law to allow some existing outbuildings, such as barns or cottages, to be legalized as accessory apartments.
The current law mandates an accessory unit must be within a principal structure, among other restrictions.
While the original legislation placed a cap at 50 new, legal accessory apartments, the program has been less than popular, with only three applications filed since the law was adopted in 2009.
That was one of several reasons board members began talking seriously about the law’s expansion into outbuildings, where a majority of illegal accessory units are believed to be.
Under the most recent draft of the legislation, an accessory apartment is permitted in a legally pre-existing accessory structure, provided it has a valid certificate of occupancy and that the owner of the property resides within the principal dwelling.
If it is an illegally detached structure, the owner of the property must prove, via affidavit, that the apartment has been used continuously as housing over a five-year period. Six months after the law is enacted there will be no amnesty for those in the village that have been operating illegal accessory units.
Other restrictions include the units must be between 300 and 800 square-feet with a maximum of two bedrooms, and that the units comply with state and local building, fire and sanitary codes.
Parking is not required, but can be levied as a stipulation in any approval given by the village Accessory Apartment Review Board, which is made up of members of the Sag Harbor Planning Board. That board may also deny an application based on the “saturation” of any one neighborhood by approved accessory units.
One of the last stipulations — that the building department and code enforcement have the right to inspect an apartment in the approval process — is the latest wrench in the legislation’s success.
According to Sag Harbor Village Attorney Fred W. Thiele, Jr., a case out of the Town of Huntington has raised red flags about Sag Harbor’s own proposed legislation. Namely, the town was fought on a requirement for inspections for the issuance of a permit, losing both in New York State Supreme Court and in the appellate division.
Thiele said the courts found the jurisdiction for inspections should have been with a court and not an administrative board, which is how Sag Harbor’s draft law reads now.
Village trustee Tim Culver said this was a concern for him, but also said he had trouble supporting a law that granted amnesty to people operating illegal units.
Ted Jeremenko, a Jefferson Street resident and frequent critic of the proposed law, said he would like the law to be more precise in language, calling it too “subjective.”
Jeremenko has also long argued that, in the village’s historic district, the proposed law will down-zone neighborhoods and speculators will take advantage of the proposed law as opposed to the measure having an impact on affordable housing needs.
“I would appreciate it if you would totally tighten this thing or totally eliminate it,” said Jeremenko.
“It either has to move forward or it has to be abandoned,” said Sag Harbor Mayor Brian Gilbride, who said he was leaning towards the latter. “And if abandoned the plan will still be this winter that if there are illegal accessory apartments they should get a visit by code enforcement and they should get a ticket.”
Former Mayor Pierce Hance, another critic, said in his research he was only able to turn up one enforcement action regarding illegal accessory apartments, wondering, if that was the real case, why the village would need to create this law at all.
Hance also agreed with Jeremenko that if seriously considered the law needed to be re-drafted with more concrete terms, unlike the word “saturation,” meant to prevent too many units in one neighborhood, but a word Hance noted is not quantifiable.
He also asked that off-street parking be a requirement for any approved unit.
Jane Holden, a real estate broker and resident argued that there is a need in the village for these units, for both those who work here and find it increasingly difficult to find an affordable unit, as well as for those on fixed incomes unable to make ends meet without the extra income.
“You have to realize people are leaving this village because that income has been what has allowed them to afford their home,” she said.
Board member Robby Stein, one of the first supporters of the expansion of the law, said that not affordability, but safety, was at the heart of the law, and now that the village would be precluded from inspecting an apartment he was “uncomfortable” with the idea.
Stacey Pennebaker reminded the board that prior to the code, Sag Harbor was a village dominated by multi-family residences, creating a sense of community also cherished by Susan Sprott, another supporter of the law.
“I think those quiet rentals are more often than not, not people coming from Manhattan,” Sprott said, “but the people who are living and working here. I don’t know how else Sag Harbor addresses affordable housing.”
Alex Matthiessen, another supporter and admitted operator of an illegal accessory apartment, argued there were as many people in favor of the law as there are against it. Those in favor, however, are afraid of being persecuted should they make their situations known, he said. He questioned what the negative impact would be by the legalization of accessory apartments that is not protected by the village codes.
Gilbride noted that septic systems, specifically those not properly installed or overrun by multi-family residences, can have a negative effect on the Peconic Estuary, although if legalized by the village the law would require Suffolk County Health Department certification.
However, at the heart of the matter, said Gilbride, is the fact these will be income-producing apartments, which was not the intent he had when first agreeing to look at the expansion of the law.
Trustee Bruce Stafford, who said he did support the measure, said he was concerned about the ability of homeowners like Matthiessen to be able to keep rent affordable in the face of the $20,000 to $30,000 it could cost to bring the units into compliance with local, county and state codes.
“My feeling, number one, is I don’t think we should have any more accessory apartments,” said board member Ed Gregory. “Two, if it is not broke, don’t mess with it, but the problem with that is now we have health and safety issues and God forbid something happens and we have a fire, and someone now says, they knew there were accessory apartments in the village.”
The hearing will be taken up again at the board’s November 9 meeting.