By Emily J Weitz
On a frigid Sunday afternoon, members of the community gathered in the basement of the Old Whalers’ Church to debate the pros and cons of legalizing detached buildings as apartments. The forum was sponsored by CONPOSH (Coalition of Neighborhoods for the Preservation of Sag Harbor), and moderated by Stacey Pennybaker.
Proponents hail this as an opportunity to create more affordable housing, to help seniors stay in their homes and young people find places for themselves in the village, and to ensure health and safety in buildings that are otherwise unmonitored.
But opponents fear that if this proposal becomes law, the identity of the residential community will be compromised and the quality of life undermined. The panel consisted of State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, Richard Hand of MicroEarth Moving, and local residents and taxpayers Ted Jeremenko and Alex Matthiesson.
The exact issue at hand is one that’s been on the table again and again since it was first introduced as a means of creating Moderate Income Residency (MIR) in 1984. Specifically, the legislation would allow homeowners to legally rent their out-buildings.
Two years ago, a law was passed that stated homeowners could apply to legally rent out apartments within their homes. This law would take it a step further to legalize the renting of the out-building as well. A host of new concerns, as well as some old ones, arise when an accessory structure can be rented. Issues of privacy and congestion are at the top of people’s lists.
However, Alex Matthiesson, who was born and raised in Sagaponack and now lives in Sag Harbor village, believes this proposal would “make it easier for people who have been here for a long time to stay.” Since there are already many illegal rentals, Matthiesson believes the village should “make them up to code and safe.”
Ted Jeremenko, who bought his first home in East Hampton in 1976 and has been on the East End ever since, disagrees.
“I strongly believe,” he said, “that legalization will decrease the number of affordable housing options… A new owner may make it available for affordable housing at first, but eventually it could be used as a more expensive thing.”
A few of the major points brought up against the proposal include saturation – will this create too high a population density in the village of Sag Harbor? Depreciation is another concern levied – Will the value of a property go down if a neighboring property suddenly has two residences on it instead of one? And the commercialization of Sag Harbor is another perpetual fear.
To these concerns, Matthiesson responded. “We can address [the concern of saturation] with other laws to protect privacy and to limit the number of permits granted… [In regards to depreciation], the idea that the value of the property would go down is a theoretical argument. If my out building is allowed to be legal, my property value would go up a lot. A rising tide raises all boats.”
The comment was greeted with groans of disagreement, but Matthiesson continued.
“And what is the difference between renting an out-building and renting an apartment in-house? How is one commercializing the neighborhood and the other is not?”
But after he gave his arguments, Matthiesson emphasized that “we really need to work together as a community to find a balance.” He suggested editing the proposal to create specific regulations that addressed opponents’ concerns of population density by limiting these accessory buildings to one-bedroom dwellings. Or to only allow a small number at first, to see how it goes.
“The real question,” says Thiele, “is similar to when a landowner asks for a building variance. Does the benefit to the landowner getting the variance outweigh the cost to the community?”
When the floor was opened to the community, their voices were loud and clear.
“I will have to sell my home because I am getting too old to sustain it,” said Julia Adams, a longtime resident. “I am going to be at the mercy of this town. People worry about raucous people and drugs and rock and roll for letting some senior citizens stay in their homes?”
In response to the fear of increased density, Mia Grosjean spoke up.
“My street is empty in the winter time,” she said. “I’d very much prefer to have neighbors.”
“The reason you have a village is to have density,” echoed Bill Chaleff, an architect based in Water Mill. “This is how you bump into people on the street and form relationships… This is where the public realm exists. People’s problems with this proposal are rooted in fear: The fear that the quality of life will decay or the cost of living will go up.”
It’s these fears that will need to be addressed in the next version of the proposal, because according to Thiele, “this proposal is probably not going to pass.” But he adds that that doesn’t mean we can’t work together to create a better proposal that will address the concerns and desires of the community as a whole.