Posted on 16 February 2012

By Karl Grossman

Sag Harbor Express editor Bryan Boyhan asked me to write a piece, because of my island-wide experience as a journalist, about whether there are other communities on Long Island which might provide pointers for Sag Harbor as the village faces a future that could change it from being the beautiful and diverse place it is and has been.

There are things that might be learned from Sea Cliff, the best preserved village in Nassau County, where intense development pressure has been ongoing for decades. And, there’s Greenport which has undergone a renaissance in recent years from being a somewhat down-in-the-dumps village to, as Forbes magazine described it last year, one of 11 “prettiest towns in America.”

The issues for Sag Harbor — due to it being in such close proximity to the luxury housing and business markets of the Hamptons — make for a complicated situation. One need only look a few miles down the road at what’s happened to East Hampton to see the threat. A place once heralded as being not just one of 11 prettiest communities but the most beautiful village in America is now a monument to gentrification. Its vacation-time scene, a version of a busy night on the Upper East Side, combines with high-end stores one after another: Ralph Lauren, Coach , Tiffany & Co., etc.

Assemblyman Fred Thiele, Sag Harbor village’s attorney, believes it’s been Sag Harbor that’s been — and needs to continue to be — “the model” for preservation on Long Island. The keys, he says, have been “citizen activism” and “public and private sector” efforts. Critical, too, has been having much of the village in a federally-recognized historic district, village boards including a “very strong Architectural Review Board,” and laws and regulations (such as limits on footprints of new businesses) aimed at Sag Harbor retaining its “unique character.”

There are parallels to this in Sea Cliff and Greenport.

Sea Cliff emerged from what was a Methodist campground in the 1870s. The faithful pitched tents on close-together sites surrounding a tabernacle. Those sites became the building lots on which Victorian and Gothic homes rose. This “small-lot, narrow road lay-out didn’t lend itself well to typical development,” Eric Swenson, executive director of the Hempstead Harbor Protection Committee, explained last week. Further, Sea Cliff was an “out-of-the-way place when post-World War II development” began in Nasau.

And, crucially, there’s been “civic activism” including through groups such as a Beautification Committee and a Landmarks Association. Governmental panels including an Architectural Review Board, too, have kept Sea Cliff as “a waterfront community of older homes with many artists and writers like Sag Harbor.”

In Greenport, Village Clerk Sylvia Pirillo also cited “civic activism and political leadership” for the village’s rebirth. Much credit for the “huge changes” that have come about is owed, she said, to former Mayor David Kapell and the “follow-through” by the current mayor, David Nyce. A renovated marina and attractive waterfront park — featuring an antique carousel — have become the centerpiece of Greenport.

Businesses are locally owned. And Greenport, too, has a federally-recognized historic district and a mobilized citizenry including those working through an Historic Preservation Committee. “We’ve done all that and kept our quaint aura,” said Ms. Pirillo.

The threats to Sag Harbor have been building for years. I recall Arthur Spitz, a former village trustee related to my family, telling me in the 1970s that Sag Harbor was “off-the-beaten path” and this provided protection. No longer. The “Un-Hampton?” So far but…

“Saving Sag Harbor” was the title of a 2008 hour-long TV program I did for WVVH-TV. I open it standing on Main Street saying the Suffolk Planning Department had in the ‘70s issued a report noting that Sag Harbor “is as much a part of the national scene as the French Quarter in New Orleans or Greenwich Village in New York City.” Now threats to the nature of the village “have been getting so serious,” I go on. The program can be viewed online on youtube.com. Just Google my name and Saving Saving Harbor or go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=daeKlZV5MEo

I interview Stephen Longmire whose book, Keeping Time in Sag Harbor, had just been published, along with leaders of the then newly-formed organization Save Sag Harbor, as well as people at a gathering at Bay Street Theatre it organized. The meeting featured representatives of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Folks interviewed emphasize, among other things, the importance of patronizing local businesses to keep them healthy.

What’s the future for Sag Harbor? The prospects can be good but needed will be the continuation of what seems to be the common successful Long Island recipe for preservation — civic activism and initiatives by the village government and business community — and this being done ever more intensely to meet the yet heightened threat.

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