By Stan Eckstut
The Village of Sag Harbor stands a critical juncture in planning its future development. Recent efforts to revise the Village’s zoning code have highlighted a number of pressing, long-term goals. These include preserving Main Street and the Business District’s unique historic character; maintaining an affordable environment for local residents and businesses; creating new parking and affordable housing; and developing a new business district within Sag Harbor.
But while the Village has expressed a common commitment to realizing these goals, what’s still missing are the proper tools to achieve them. What the community needs in order to move forward is not a new set of zoning rules, or an inventory of problems as contained in the recent Planning Strategies Report. Rather, Sag Harbor needs a comprehensive and visionary plan. Only once a strategic plan is in place can the Village use the conventional planning tools, including zoning, to carry out its larger vision.
Take the Main Street Business District. Everyone clearly wants to preserve the Village’s historic main street. But to do so, the Village must look beyond zoning. Zoning is not a plan; it is simply a tool for implementing one. And the proposed zoning code does harm by seeking to restrict the uses of Main Street’s historic buildings. By creating rules that make it difficult to lease the ground floors for active and paying tenants, zoning could easily jeopardize the ability of Main Street’s buildings to remain financially viable. And if buildings aren’t viable, they may not be properly maintained – or even preserved.
By contrast, establishing a historic district in downtown Sag Harbor – creating a comprehensive preservation plan – would mean that guidelines, not laws, would guide both applicants and reviewers on what can be changed and what cannot. Historic preservation is the best way to protect the Main Street’s lively and eclectic mix of storefronts and uses. Since it is concerned only with the exteriors of buildings, it preserves maximum flexibility for owners and residents. And preserving Main Street’s buildings in this way would also automatically control the scale and character of new businesses: since Main Street’s historic buildings were originally designed to accommodate ground-level businesses, proper preservation of their exteriors will set the tone far better than any set of new zoning rules.
If the Village uses zoning to restrict certain retail uses on Main Street (for instance, banks or real estate offices), it will surely shoot itself in the foot. Zoning can control land use, but it cannot guarantee that the allowed uses will survive, especially in today’s economy. Times change. Markets change. None of us can predict the future, but we have to plan our communities’ growth for the next 50 years, not just the next three to five.
Sustaining a healthy mix of uses is the goal of every good downtown and historic district plan. A mixture of uses not only ensures activity day and night, weekdays and weekends; it also makes maximum use of the existing infrastructure, encourages shared use of valuable parking, and discourages sprawl. Main Street already has a built-in density and architecture that encourages a more sustainable approach to development.
The recent Planning Strategies Report underlines the need to keep the Village affordable. But again, rigid rules – such as those controlling sizes of shops – can easily backfire and produce rents that can only be paid by expensive shops that do not cater to residents of Sag Harbor. Do we really want to preclude Main Street from having the type of convenience shopping and services it was historically developed to provide? Preservation guidelines could be crafted to include the type of shopping and services that serve the year-round residents.
A comprehensive plan would also address other pressing issues in Sag Harbor, such as parking and affordable housing. If Main Street’s businesses are to survive, they must have convenient, safe, and easy to find parking that doesn’t detract from the historic atmosphere. This is a real challenge in any built-up area and especially in Sag Harbor. Only long-range planning can meet all these concerns. The same is true for affordable housing: creating more requires more tools than zoning. The land, the financing, the financial incentives and more all have to be considered together.
Likewise, the idea of establishing a new Village Business District is an excellent one. But this also needs to be considered within the framework of a larger plan, so that its needs can be comprehensively addressed.
In sum, going forward with the current zoning changes without a plan may actually preclude achieving what everyone wants to see in the future. Sag Harbor should consider a preservation district for Main Street, and at the same time devise a larger plan for the entire village. Have it satisfy the goals stated in the completed Planning Strategies Report. Zoning changes will follow the plan, along with a host of other tools available to the Village.
Sag Harbor is very fortunate to have consensus about its basic goals. Now is the time to take the next step and incorporate those goals into a visionary but pragmatic Village plan, one that will guide the community’s physical and economic growth for many decades to come.
Stan Eckstut is a partner in Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn Architects, a firm hired by the Sag Harbor Business Association to evaluate the proposed new Sag Harbor Village code.