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New Code Sparks Praise and Scorn

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By Marissa Maier

When Jeff Sander started visiting Sag Harbor as a child in the 1940s and 1950s, the village was far from the destination it is today. Sander recalls a village with boarded up storefronts, closed factories, and a dilapidated wharf.

In those desperate times, who would have guessed that nearly 40 years later the village would be economically thriving, and a beacon of Hampton’s architectural and historical character. A few years ago, the village was doing so well that CVS Pharmacy was interested in leasing a Long Island Avenue space.

Barry Marcus, co-owner of the Sag Harbor Pharmacy, remembers the day in the summer of 2007 when a CVS representative visited the shop and offered to buy out the smaller pharmacy before CVS moved in.

“I told him ‘You can’t offer me enough to make me leave this business. I am not going to abandon Sag Harbor,’” said Marcus. For many local residents, the potential for CVS to gobble up the local “mom-and-pop” pharmacy was a symbol of how the village was vulnerable to encroaching commercial development. The pharmacy was a particularly poignant example because it has operated out of the same Sag Harbor building since the 19th century.

Even before CVS, village trustee Tiffany Scarlato and mayor Greg Ferraris were aware that Sag Harbor’s patchwork zoning code needed to be updated and streamlined, and also address public outcry over big box stores. The code hadn’t been fully revised since the early 1980s and Ferraris said it was filled with “contradictions and loopholes.”

It wasn’t until spring 2008 that a new village code was proposed, and by mid-summer a comprehensive plan was available for the public to review.

With the current draft of the new code, village officials hope to maintain the tenuous balance between protecting the character of Main Street, with its lack of formula stores and small-town feel, while also promoting the village’s development and economic viability.

The new code seeks to redefine the village’s several districts, including a residential district, a resort motel district, a waterfront district, a village business (VB) district and an office business (OB) district. Of these districts, the ones that have received the most public scrutiny have been the VB and OB. The VB is mainly located on Main Street and includes all of the peripheral business sites around the village. The OB is also located in areas on the periphery of Main Street, specifically on Long Island Avenue and Division and Meadow streets.

All of the types of businesses found on Main Street today will still be permitted to operate in the VB district, except for professional offices and business, like banks and real estate agencies. Should a new bank or real estate agency seek to open in the village, these businesses would need to operate in the OB district.

Under New York State Law, the village cannot explicitly ban big box or formula stores. The new code, however, discourages big box and formula stores from setting up shop in the village by limiting the size of stores and restricting formula signage.

The size of a retail space is capped at 3,000 square feet in the new code. If a business 3,000 square feet or less wanted to change their store from one permitted use, like a clothing store, to another permitted use, like a music store, they wouldn’t need site plan approval from the village boards. Instead, the owner would simply visit the building department to change to another permitted use.

There is also a square footage exception for supermarkets, hardware stores and furniture stores which are given a maximum 8,000 square feet.

“We made some exceptions for the things that already exist like the hardware store, Schiavoni’s and Fishers [Antiques], so these would not be made pre-existing non-conforming [under the new code] if someone wanted to buy those spaces,” said Scarlato.

One provision under the code also states that any office on the second floor of a VB building must be an accessory office to the ground floor business, and not used for a separate business.

These provisions of the new code have received both praise and criticism from local organizations.

The Sag Harbor Business Association applauds the village for trying to stave off big box stores, but worries that the other size restrictions and the VB and OB usage restrictions will hurt local business.

“In an economic downturn, business owners try to get any tenants that they can, but they are limited in the types of business they can operate in their retail space,” said Sander, a North Haven Village Trustee and member of the Sag Harbor Business Association who fears that the code goes to an extreme in determining how local businesses operate.

“I think economics are going to dictate how Sag Harbor evolves,” he said. “If people want the five-and-ten they will shop there, but if people want an upscale chain store then that is the kind of establishment that will survive.”

In a letter written to the Sag Harbor Board of Trustees on December 8, 2008, Robert Evjen, President of the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce, and Robert Fisher, director of the Sag Harbor Business Association, asked the board to “only address the actions effecting superstores” and shelve the other code changes until “we all see where the economy is headed.”

Another group, the Save Sag Harbor organization, however, feels it is imperative to have a new code enacted as soon as possible.

“It is our single best shot to keep big stores out,” said Mia Grosjean, president of Save Sag Harbor.

“This is not a radical code,” added Jeffrey Bragman, the lawyer for Save Sag Harbor. “For people who deal with zoning codes, it’s pretty much down the middle. It supplies the kind of detail and clarity in procedure that is long overdue.”

Save Sag Harbor would also like to see stores under 3,000 square feet changing from one permitted use to another still go before the planning board.

“It would be an administrative site plan review,” said Bragman. “We want it to go through some kind of process so that the village has a record of it.”

“The code is a longtime overdue,” said pharmacist Marcus, who said other merchants share some of his views. He concedes, however, that “you are going to have pluses and minuses.”

Members from local organizations are likely to appear at the January 29 public hearing on the new zoning code, which will be held at the Sag Harbor Municipal Building at 5 p.m. The code is available for review at www.sagharborny.gov.