For the last two months, the Sag Harbor Village Harbor Committee has not been following its own village code when granting wetlands permits. This has allowed some applicants to maintain a smaller buffer of natural vegetation to wetlands than the law requires — a law drafted in an effort to protect what some consider to be Sag Harbor’s most valuable asset, it’s waterfront.
According to both Sag Harbor Village environmental planning consultant Rich Warren and village attorney Denise Schoen, the Sag Harbor Village law demands that when improving their properties, waterfront homeowners preserve all natural vegetation within 75-feet of the mean high water mark, or to the maximum extent practicable.
However, the code states that “in no event” should the committee allow a natural, vegetative buffer to the wetlands that is less than 25-feet, and if that area is already lawn, owners are tasked with replanting the land with native vegetation. On a handful of applications for wetlands permits this summer, the board did just that — allowed homeowners smaller buffers than the law requires. All the while, chairman Bruce Tait said he believed his committee was on “a slippery slope.”
On Monday night, the committee took a renewed hard stance on wetland buffers. They tabled several applications, including one by committee member John Christopher, as consultants were sent back to the drawing board and asked to try and meet the minimum 25-foot buffer requirement.
Christopher has proposed a 668-square-foot one-story addition upland of his home at 92 Redwood Road. Given that the family has maintained a section of natural vegetation on the wetlands, his consultant Matt Ivans asked the board waive the buffer requirement altogether.
However, Warren noted that while there are native plants bordering the wetlands on the Christopher property, the existing buffer ranges from 15-feet to just a few feet on some portions of the property.
On Monday night, Warren said he had talked with village attorney Schoen and was told it was her understanding that if an applicant does not have at least 25-feet of native plants buffering the wetlands, he or she must at least to attempt to achieve that goal. Otherwise a property owner needs to show the village why it would be a hardship to comply with the law.
“In most East End communities, the buffers are larger than this,” said Warren. “When we were looking at the code, we considered the fact that the lots in Sag Harbor were smaller, but the 25-foot minimum requirement has been in the village’s wetlands regulations for many years.”
“We may be able to get another 25-feet, but then we have no lawn,” argued Kim Christopher, who charged that her neighbors actually removed native plants from their waterfront before applying for a permit with the village so that they would be able to keep a larger lawn.
“So he is able to keep his lawn because they pulled out all the natural vegetation,” said Christopher. “I am not a lawyer, but that is not just.”
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation will investigate any complaints of the removal of wetlands. Their fines can be as large as $10,000 per day, plus the cost of re-vegetation.
Dr. Tom Halton, who along with the whole committee was sympathetic that the Christophers appeared good stewards of their property, asked if the committee has any other recourse.
Tait suggested the Christophers’ look at a plan that creates large sections of natural buffer where the lawn is least important to them in order to reach an average 25-foot buffer across their waterfront. He added the Christophers had “substantial yardage” to work with and that he did not view it as a hardship for them to come up with a workable plan.
“There is a consensus on the East End of Long Island that in order to maintain water quality we need to establish a 75-foot buffer zone to the wetlands,” said Tait. “If you are in Southampton or East Hampton, you would have a much harder time with this. Now we are down to 25-feet and we as a committee are trying to establish a 25-foot buffer to the wetlands within the entire area covered in the Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan.”
For similar reasons, the board also tabled David Sokolin’s application for a permit to construct a swimming pool at his 176 Redwood Road residence, after his consultant said the project did not meet the required buffer to the wetlands.
Another waterfront homeowner, Richard Pantina, applied to the board to demolish an existing house at 12 Notre Dame Road and build a two-story house with a 2,934 footprint, as well as a pool, hot tub, stone patio, new drainage features and a new septic system.
Tait said he was pleased to see the improvements on the property, but given the scale of the project would like to see more than 25-feet of natural plants buffering the wetlands.
“This is a maxed out development,” said Warren.
Ivans, also representing Pantina, said he would ask his client if they can increase the buffer zone.
“In the spirit of this evening, let’s have some more,” said Tait.