Tag Archive | "preservation"

Editorial 1/26/11: Protecting Preservation


When financial times are good, elected officials take their jobs seriously. They work hard and utilize public money to improve the lives of their constituency through projects that are not only responsible, but forward thinking.

From the building of roads and museums to improved transportation systems or the cleaning of polluted waterways, when there’s enough to go around, no one bats an eyelash at these expenditures.

And when financial times are tough, elected officials still take their jobs seriously. But in this economic climate, more often than not legislators are facing down an angry and questioning constituency that’s backed them into a corner, demanding to know why so much money is being spent on projects they don’t understand and don’t feel they need. History has shown that in times like this, any and all expenditures are fair game for the legislative chopping block.

This is exactly what seems to be happening at the county level right now. In a recent meeting of the Suffolk County Legislature, the focus of debate was the county’s purchase of just over 57 acres of farmland development rights at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island for just under $5 million. The purchase is a partnership between Shelter Island and the county (which will kick in $3,277,000) and represents phase II of a total 241 acre acquisition at the manor. At the session, several legislators also took issue with the county’s planned acquisition of a parcel of farmland in Riverhead

Though the contracts have been drawn up and the purchases were approved through a public referendum back in 2007 that gave county legislators the power to preserve open space, several legislators balked at the spending of such large sums in the face of such dire financial circumstances. So while the session should have, in essence, been the equivalent of the closings for the properties, instead, county and town partnerships for the preservation of open space are now under fire.

Diverse Suffolk County bears little, if any, resemblance to counties in upstate New York that are fairly homogeneous. Suffolk is densely populated in its western portion — and has all the conveniences and problems that go along with such urban and suburban sprawl — while the rural eastern portion of the county is less populated and derives much of its economic power from it’s ability to preserve its farmland and open spaces for tourism and commerce.

For legislators to the west whose constituents are struggling — and in many cases failing — to make ends meet, it can be difficult to see the value in preserving open space on the East End — a place they see as simply a playground for the wealthy. Saving vistas that most of them will never visit seems like a huge waste of money — and they are willing to go back to the public to ask whether we should continue to spend millions of dollars to preserve what has long made the East End special.

Which is why it’s important that East End residents pay attention to this debate – and weigh in heavily on it. With land purchases in both Shelter Island and Riverhead now being questioned, we can only assume it will be a matter of time before sites are set on land acquisition efforts in Southampton and East Hampton as well.

So get involved, make a call, and remind the Suffolk County Legislature of what we’re fighting to preserve.

Preserving Library’s Past For the Future

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By Kathryn G. Menu

Sag Harbor’s John Jermain Memorial Library has received a grant for almost $6,000 to aid its efforts towards historic preservation. This comes as the library embarks on an expansion that will allow the 100-year-old institution to expand its archives for researchers and residents alike.

During the John Jermain Memorial Library (JJML) Board of Trustees meeting on December 15, JJML director Catherine Creedon announced that history librarian Jessica Frankel was awarded a Preservation Assistance Grant for Smaller Institutions by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The organization funds small to mid-level institutions, such as libraries, museums, historical societies, archival repositories, municipal records offices and cultural organizations, as well as colleges and universities.

The foundation grant was specifically geared towards institutions and organizations looking to enhance the preservation of their humanities collections. The NEH provides grants up to $6,000 through the program and in her application, Frankel secured the full $5,9777 she requested.

“It is worth noting that in an age of reduced governmental funding for the humanities, the John Jermain project and local history collection has attracted this level of federal support,” said Creedon to the board last Wednesday.

The grant will enable the library to hire Rolf Kat, the director of planning and development at the Conservation Center for Arts and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia.

According to Creedon, the grant Frankel secured will bring Kat to JJML for a study on the library’s current historical collection. It includes photography, works once owned by William Wallace Tooker, a collection of Bibles, historical records from the village, county and state, material on the whaling industry, personal history and artifacts from some of Sag Harbor’s celebrated families, as well as some items yet to be specifically identified, like a child size cap from the Civil War.

“Artifacts like that are so wonderful because they allow us to imagine,” said Creedon. “We don’t have documentation about why this is in our collection, so we begin to ask ourselves, was this a young child piper? Was it passed from generation to generation? How did it wind up here?”

Creedon said the expansion will include a dedicated room for historic artifacts that encompasses the kinds of temperature, humidity and light controls the current collection lacks.

“Going forward, one of the things I want to do is craft a mission statement about what the nature of what our collection is all about,” she said, noting the library might ultimately decide focusing on village history, rather than state and county records is its priority.

“Even in out new space, we will have a finite amount of room,” she said.
Creedon said she would like to see JJML expand its holdings of whaling related materials, as well as oral histories of current residents with stories about Sag Harbor’s culture and history, as well as relics pertinent to village history.

“I am also interested in collecting materials to the history we are making now,” said Creedon. “A lot of our history is wrapped up in whaling or the Custom House, but what we don’t think about is the history we are making now. We have this amazing sustainable food movement taking place on the East End. Our vineyards are accomplishing so much, Mecox Bay Dairy is looking at traditional ways of life. That reinvention of classical material is ripe for our archive.”

Creedon would also like to document the wave of immigrants, both past and present, that have descended on the East End. For Sag Harbor, she noted, immigration has been a constant and continues today.
“What is fascinating is 100 years from now people will want to know what was the culture of Sag Harbor in 2010,” said Creedon. “And we will be able to show them.”

Double or Nothing

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By Stephen Longmire

This week marks the first time in 35 years that Sag Harbor’s village board has designated an individual structure—the Art Deco sign on the Sag Harbor Cinema—a local landmark. The reasons why make one wonder if those in charge of the village’s architectural history remember its political history. The sign is already protected to the full extent of the law, as the scuffle over its replacement four years ago attested. A little history may help.

In 1973, when Sag Harbor’s historic district was listed with the National Register of Historic Places, the village had no architectural review board to protect its newly landmarked building. The Historic Preservation Commission, formed a year earlier to create the historic district, became part of village government, but in an advisory capacity.

“You could still knock a house down,” Dorothy Sherry, a member of the Commission, told me a few years ago. “The legislation did not have teeth.”

So the village designated 14 local landmarks, including most of the churches and cultural institutions, the factory, and two private homes (with the consent of their owners), vowing these buildings would not be changed without civic approval. When the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review (ARB) was formed in 1985, it was given the authority to review the “appropriateness” of “any exterior alteration” to buildings throughout the village, paying particular attention to the historic district. This made the list of local landmarks redundant, since all structures in the historic district were protected in the same way. Yet this list has survived in the code—even in the revision proposed this year—giving some people the notion that an additional layer of landmark protection is available.

Village attorneys have found some fine points of Sag Harbor’s code in which individually named landmarks are treated slightly differently from other structures in the historic district, but these are anomalies, probably worth addressing. According to Julian Adams, coordinator of the Certified Local Government (CLG) program in the State Historic Preservation Office, “The cinema and its sign already have all the protection the local law provides, as contributing elements of the local landmark district.”

When Sag Harbor joined the CLG program in 1989, bringing its preservation program under the oversight of New York State, the state insisted that the ARB be given the authority to create new landmarks and landmark districts. (Unlike many CLGs, Sag Harbor’s ARB needs village board approval to do this.) The ARB has only flexed this muscle once before, when the historic district was expanded to include the majority of the village in 1994. Who would have guessed that its next use of this power would be on behalf of a structure in the historic district?! And why single out a feature of a building whose exterior is protected? Because the cinema is for sale, and fears abound about the prospect of its red, white, and blue “SAG HARBOR” sign presiding over a shopping mall—a fate no landmark status can prevent. The debate has caused some confusion as to whether the cinema had any landmark protection before. Even its owner of 30 years, Gerald Mallow, seems unclear, protesting any encroachment on his property rights.

“Look how well protected it was before,” ARB Chairman Cee Scott Brown remarked, when I asked how the new landmark designation would affect the board’s treatment of the sign. “It was on the street about to be thrown out.” But surely this was a problem of enforcing the law, when maintenance—which the board approved in 2004—turned into replacement. After residents raised the funds to replace the sign, it’s hard to believe any future board or building inspector would fail to recognize the importance of this neon nametag, our coat of arms

Should every structure we’re worried about in the village be made a local landmark? One doesn’t have to go far to find other examples of protected structures that have come close to being lost in Sag Harbor’s recent construction boom. There have also been many cases where buildings were modified with sensitivity to their surroundings. The preservation process isn’t designed to preclude change, only to manage it, protecting the community’s historic resources and proportions. But compromises happen. To cite just one, there is a house on Main Street, right across from the Historical Society, that used to be small and that is now quite large. It was a shock to many, not long after the drama of the movie house sign, that the ARB approved this highly visible expansion of one of the last small houses on lower Main Street. “That one got away from us,” Tom Horn, Sr., who was Chairman at the time, acknowledged when I asked about it in 2005. Across the lawn sits another small house that used to be its twin, where a much-loved local lady lived until this past year, dying in her 90s. Her house is now for sale. Should it be given local landmark status because its neighbor got away? Or should we hope the law works better next time? If we feel safer with extra protection, why stop with the sign?

Sure enough, I gather the ARB hopes to commission an annotated map of the historic district, noting which properties are preservation priorities and which might be modified with appropriate plans. Such a tool could become a shopping list for developers, highlighting the properties where they’d face least resistance. This hardly seems consistent with the goal of preserving a landmark district, or a neighborhood, as opposed to a list of structures. In communities with preserved districts, individual landmark status is usually reserved for properties outside the district boundaries. Interestingly, the ARB proposed designating John Steinbeck’s former home a local landmark when it first raised the issue of the cinema sign last summer, but dropped this idea noting that Steinbeck’s house is outside the historic district.

It’s heartening to see the ARB looking ahead to future challenges, but unfortunate that it feels the need of extra layers of landmark protection to bolster the current law. There are other ways to improve Sag Harbor’s preservation code. The village might consider adopting the model law provided by New York State as the basis for its new preservation code, freeing itself from such anomalies; it could drop or minimize the residency requirement for ARB membership, enlarging the pool of potential board members (residency isn’t a CLG requirement); and, perhaps most important, it could hire a skilled preservation consultant, as both East Hampton and Southampton Villages do, and as Sag Harbor used to, so preservation priorities could be set on a case-by-case basis. These steps might help to clarify the workings of the East End’s largest historic district.


Stephen Longmire’s book Keeping Time in Sag Harbor (2007) contains a history of the village’s historic preservation program. An exhibition of photographs from the book is on display at South Street Seaport Museum in New York through January 4, 2009.

Remain Visionary

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It’s unfortunate that the debacle concerning the Community Preservation Fund’s mismanagement in East Hampton Town is now distracting our lawmakers from a glaring truth: land is disappearing.

As much as we would like land to be able to reproduce and never ever be completely gobbled up by development, it’s simply not the case. The same thought process must be applied in noticing that land is also being preserved at a mind-boggling rate. While we’re aware that none of the East End towns have said “we’ve preserved all the land that’s out there,” the truth of the matter is that one day soon they will; perhaps not in Riverhead and Southold, but without a doubt in the two South Fork towns.

Last year we interviewed Fred Thiele and as one of the forefathers of CPF, he excited us by entering into discourse about moving in a new direction, about one day focusing more on, for example, historic preservation as a result of the fact that open space is indeed an endangered commodity. There was much talk in public by many parties on perhaps one day altering the course of CPF. We feel that talk is now overshadowed by the CPF Task Force’s recommendations to hold steadfast to the true intent of the law as they see it: preserving land.

Open space is only one aspect of preserving a community.

There is the opportunity to not recoil and not overreact to the recent fiasco concerning the law and to continue to be visionary. Being visionary, by the way, is what got us here in the first place.

What about purchasing land and restoring it to its natural state? How about purchasing lots with looming, dilapidated buildings and turning the space into a park? How about not preserving every parcel of open space so as to hinder the possibility of one day having real, affordable housing east of the canal so people, young and old, can remain in the community they have always cherished or have grown to cherish?

The phrase “community character” appears very high up in the original legislation and part of our community’s character, part of Sag Harbor’s charm, is its historic appeal. Quite frankly, there isn’t a lot of open space to be had in this village — but we all know that doesn’t mean there is nothing in Sag Harbor worth preserving. We sincerely ask all the players in this re-drafting of one of the most successful community preservation programs in the country to remember that, as they have their round-table discussions and as the amendments make their way to the legislature floor in Albany, to keep Sag Harbor in mind.