By Bryan Boyhan
At its height, CONPOSH — the Coalition of Neighborhoods for the Preservation of Sag Harbor — was such an influential organization that prospective developers would come before them to see if the group — with representatives from nearly two dozen neighborhoods — planned to fight their application.
In the end, there was not even a handful left on the operating committee and after 18 years of hosting public forums and lobbying village officials, CONPOSH called it quits earlier this month.
“We voted to give the remaining $6,500 in our budget to the library,” said Valerie Justin, one of the last four members.
CONPOSH started in 1993, as development pressure in the village began to heat up and was imagined as an organization that could bring otherwise disparate groups together.
“The thing I noticed were there were various scattered neighborhood movements, fighting such things as a proposed nursing home and an apartment house,” said founding member Peter Davies in an interview this week.
“As soon as one group of neighbors started raising the roof, they were immediately labeled troublemakers, and shouted down,” said Davies. “I thought if we could form an alliance, we could make an issue everybody’s issue; we could all speak with one voice.”
Indeed, the first big challenge the group took on was a proposed nursing home at the 10 acre site of the former Cilli Farm at the end of Glover Street. Instead of letting the neighbors in the immediate vicinity fight the proposal alone, CONPOSH galvanized residents across the village to show up at planning meetings to press for more challenging reviews. The developer eventually relented and ultimately the property was preserved using, in part, money from the nascent Community Preservation Fund.
Davies said he drew the idea for identifying the different neighborhoods in Sag Harbor loosely on the old and new neighborhoods of Manhattan, including historical neighborhoods like Hells Kitchen, and relatively new incarnations like SoHo. In Sag Harbor there were long-established neighborhoods like Eastville, Redwood and Murray Hill; but Davies added places like Churches, in the area around Division and Union streets, and School, defining the neighborhood around Pierson High School and Sag Harbor Elementary School.
In the beginning there were about a dozen-and-a-half neighborhoods identified, but as the organization’s influence grew, it expanded to include 23, including one, Lily Pond, which was actually outside the village limits.
As organized, each neighborhood had a representative who brought issues before an organizational committee. From discussions about an issue, a facilitator would emerge — the organization never had an acting president or chairman, relying instead on the issue’s facilitator to move it forward.
Frequently that led to one of the group’s many public forums, which usually included a representative from local government, a member or two from CONPOSH versed on the issue and community members with specific expertise. These forums, which addressed subjects such as water quality, waste management, village budgets and candidates for village board, regularly attracted dozens of residents, elected officials and project developers — several with their attorneys in tow — to a half-dozen or more venues: the basement of the Old Whalers Church, the sanctuary of the Methodist Church, Bay Street Theatre.
“We were peripatetic,” said Davies. “We wanted to make sure we held meetings throughout the village as an attempt to bring the community together.”
Residents were kept abreast of CONPOSH news via a monthly newsletter, The Neighborhood Voice, edited — until their move out of the area several years ago — by Davies’ partner, Mark Scherzer. The newsletter updated its readers on action the organization or the village was taking and where the next forum was scheduled. The September 2002 issue, for example declared in a headline “ACTION NOW ON ROCCO’S, referencing a notorious nightclub on West Water Street. A forum (“Rocco’s — Neighbors Look for Relief”) was scheduled for Christ Episcopal Church with Mia Grosjean and Valerie Justin as facilitators. After years of pressure from CONPOSH, residents and village officials, the building that housed the nightclub was sold and approved for condominiums which, at this writing, remain unfinished.
But the last issue of The Neighborhood Voice went in the mail in 2006, and forums became less frequent. Membership dwindled and there were fewer hands to organize.
“Honestly, there was nobody who was willing to do anything,” said Justin. “You can’t have the same three people doing everything.”
Justin, who observed the entire arc of CONPOSH from the inside, said the organization had accomplished much in its nearly two decades, including pushing for filtration at Havens Beach, preserving the Cilli Farm and educating the public about traffic calming.
“Even if what we did didn’t solve the problem,” said Justin, “it made the authorities aware of public opinion.”