By Kathryn G. Menu; Photography by Laurie Barone-Schaffer
Close to three hours was devoted to an application before the Sag Harbor Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) at a meeting which ended just after 10 p.m. Tuesday. It was a harbinger of meetings to come on what has emerged as one of the more controversial development applications in recent years.
Tuesday night marked the first public hearing on John Leonard’s proposal to demolish the Harbor Heights Service Station and redevelop the property to include a convenience store.
The project has been in front of the planning board for over two years. On Tuesday Leonard’s attorney, Dennis Downes, and two engineers made their first pitch to the ZBA on why they believe Leonard should be granted relief from the village code to construct the project.
The meeting was cut short by the board and tabled until next month’s meeting on February 19, but not before a handful of residents spoke in protest of the application, including Rev. Kenneth Nelson of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Conference of New York which oversees the nearby church.
He said not only were church officials opposed to the project, but also say they were never informed of the proposal.
Nelson, from Oyster Bay, noted he is a descendent of Lewis Cuffee, who built the Sag Harbor AME Zion Church in 1840. He questioned why the church conference was not notified about this application.
Village attorney Denise Schoen noted that because it is a religious institution, there was no way for the applicant to track down an address for the church on tax rolls.
“I am not saying that is right or wrong,” noted board member Michael Bromberg.
“We will be protesting our feelings of the sale of alcohol so close to the church,” said Rev. Nelson, adding the village should also anticipate issues associated with a store so close to the schools drawing children down a heavily traveled road.
“And they will go there because a convenience store is where they can get a hold of everything they want,” said Rev. Nelson. “It will be a hang out for youth that have nothing else to do and we are against that environment.”
Rev. Nelson spoke after a presentation that lasted over two hours by Leonard’s team.
In his opening, Downes noted while the property is zoned residential, it has operated in a commercial fashion for over a century, starting in the 1900s when Jim McMahon operated a sand mine at the site.
“This is an antiquated and out of date facility that needs to be upgraded to remain a viable business,” said engineer Chris Tartaglia.
Leonard is proposing a 1,842 square-foot building, with a 972 square-foot convenience store within it. Several areas, where goods are not visible, including the bathroom, are not counted towards the square-footage.
The service station building will also be expanded slightly. Four pump islands with eight fueling positions is proposed under a canopy, as are two new curb cuts into the property, 32 parking spaces and new landscaping.
Tartaglia said the reasoning for this kind of development is tied to the evolution of the gas station business. He blamed increased fuel economy standards for vehicles for bringing down profits, as well as the increase in leased cars in decreasing the demand for small service stations.
Convenience stores, he added, are a way to bridge the gap.
Average profit on fuel is $0.04 per gallon, said Tartaglia, quoting a report from planning board member Larry Perrine, as opposed to $0.40 for a can of soda.
Tartaglia noted he believes the code, which details the setback, landscaping and size requirements for a convenience store as accessory to a fueling station, was not written in a way that would allow Leonard to develop the property.
For example, Tartaglia noted the code requires a limited height on accessory structures of 15 feet, when the bottom of the canopy measures 14 feet to accommodate fuel delivery trucks. There is no way, he said, to include the necessary fire suppression equipment in less than a foot.
Leonard needs a variance from the ZBA for the 23.75 foot canopy and its height.
Tartaglia also said the 600 square-foot limitation on store size was unique on the East End and an arbitrary figure.
The proposal needs a variance for a front yard setback of 50 feet for the store building, where 27.2 feet are proposed and also a setback variance for the canopy, which is proposed at 23.2 feet.
It also needs a variance for its landscape buffer, proposed between nine and 20 feet as opposed to the 30 feet required on all sides of the property under the code.
Tartaglia said this would significantly reduce what is possible on the property and noted they plan to use dense evergreen trees.
They also need a variance for overall landscape, which is proposed at 30 percent as opposed to the 35 percent required by code.
Tartaglia said achieving 35 percent is not possible. He added just one-percent of the property is currently landscaped.
They also need a variance for a freestanding sign just two feet from Route 114 where 20 feet is normally required.
“I am not certain how many of you would pull into a station if there was not a sign telling people how much they are charging for gas,” said Tartaglia.
He declined to give further details about how the sign would be illuminated, but Schoen said the board would need that information to make a decision.
Likely the most critical variance Leonard needs is for the size of the store, which is capped under the code at 600 square-feet.
Tartaglia argued without “a complete product offering” at the store, Leonard could not make a reasonable return on his investment.
He said the economic impact of reducing the store to 600 square feet would result in nine coolers for beverages, as opposed to 11; 26 linear feet of retail counter space, as opposed to 80 linear feet and 18.7 feet of equipment counter length as opposed to 35.2 feet.
Bromberg questioned the 972 square-foot size of the store, noting wall-to-wall the building is upwards of 1600-square-feet.
“I guess it is up to us to make that interpretation,” said Bromberg.
Traffic engineer Charles Olivio said he has never worked on a project involving a gas station where cars fuel in the right of way, as is currently the setup at Harbor Heights.
“Its atypical and dangerous,” he said.
Based on his studies, Olivio says he believes a large amount of new traffic will come from existing traffic on the roadway, with one new vehicle every four to six minutes expected as a result of the project.
That could amount to a 40 percent overall increase, argued chairman Anton Hagen.
“What is important to us — and of course that is different than what is important to you — is to look at the impact on that increase to the community,” said Hagen.
“The goal is to provide a modern site, products and amenities,” said Olivio, adding he believes it will increase the safety of the site and that a new car every four to six minutes at peak hours is not a significant increase.
Anita Rainford, president of the Azurest Homeowners Association, which has been joined by a number of homeowner associations off Route 114 in opposing the project, said studies should also include allowances for bikers, joggers and walkers.
She also questioned the noise study, wondering how it was possible such an expansion would not result in an increase in noise. A lighted canopy, she added, would certainly increase the light emanating from the property.
Save Sag Harbor, which has also opposed the project, was represented by attorney Jeff Bragman, who said that group would speak at length at the February 19 meeting.
When over 40 people stood in response to who in the room was opposed to the project, Downes snapped, “Zoning is not about numbers. You could have 1,000 people in here and it wouldn’t matter.”