By Kathryn G. Menu
The four South Fork village mayors gathered at Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton on Monday night for a conversation organized by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons. Though the dialogue was focused on issues like affordable housing and wastewater treatment, on several occasions it circled back to the potential changing face of the Sag Harbor Village business district.
Sag Harbor Mayor Brian Gilbride, who attended the forum along with East Hampton Village Mayor Paul Rickenbach, Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley and Westhampton Beach Village Mayor Conrad Teller, opened by addressing just that — a changing village with a number of development projects in the pipeline trying to maintain its sense of self.
“Sag Harbor, the last few years, has had a lot of activity,” he said.
At the forefront is Cape Advisors development of the former Bulova Watchcase Factory on Division Street. Currently a year into what is expected to be a two-year construction process, the project will transform the long abandoned property into The Watchcase, a group of luxury condominiums.
The John Jermain Memorial Library (JJML) is also in the middle of a two-year expansion and restoration of its historic building, added Gilbride.
While Gilbride said both of those projects were positive changes in Sag Harbor, trading a smirk with Epley, he noted that the village came close to loosing a treasure in the Bay Street Theatre, which would have been a devastating blow.
One of Southampton Village’s primary focuses is trying to find appropriate uses for the vacant Parish Art Museum space on Jobs Lane after the museum officially opens its doors. Epley has created the not-for-profit Southampton Center for the Arts and attempted to woo Bay Street Theatre into that space. However, Bay Street’s landlord Patrick Malloy III ultimately offered the theater a 10 year lease for their current space in an effort to keep them in Sag Harbor while they look for a long term home.
Epley said he was proud how the South Fork mayors are able to work together, noting the Village of Sag Harbor has recently allowed Southampton Village and Suffolk County to beta test a septic system his board is considering. Southampton Village, noted Epley, unlike Sag Harbor, has a downtown that uses septic systems for wastewater treatment instead of a facility, largely preventing it from growing and posing a threat to the environment.
“Sag Harbor has a waste treatment plant and it is one of the reasons it can have a lot of restaurants and a lot of density,” said Epley.
He added that as his village explores its options for wastewater treatment, being able to partner with Sag Harbor is enabling Southampton to move towards a more economically and environmentally friendly way of dealing with its downtown septic waste.
Sag Harbor resident Nada Barry noted that in Sag Harbor Village, the 2009 zoning code revision called for preserving second floor apartments in the village business district instead of allowing offices to take those spaces. She wondered what municipalities were doing to promote affordable housing.
Rickenbach said that in East Hampton Village it was difficult, primarily because of the high cost of land, to provide real affordable housing. Teller said about four years ago, Westhampton Beach began tracking towards its own affordable housing project, but that it stalled as the economy faltered. Teller noted it is a program that should be revived.
In Southampton, Epley said the village has taken three properties from Suffolk County for the development of affordable housing and is in the process of contracting with the not-for-profit Southampton Housing Authority to manage those properties.
“We don’t view them as affordable housing, but as second generation housing,” said Epley, noting the East End must care to ensure its volunteers and children are able to actually live here.
Gilbride later added that the village has tried to increase natural affordable housing stock through legalization of accessory apartments, but only one has officially been approved and only two others have applied.
“I would dare to say there are far more than the one legal one,” he said.
In terms of other affordable housing initiatives, once the condo units at The Watchcase are sold, the village will have approximately $2.5 million paid into its Sag Harbor Community Housing Trust, a not for profit created by former Mayor Greg Ferraris to help finance affordable housing.
As part of their approval process, Cape Advisors was required by the village to make the payment in lieu of providing on-site affordable housing.
Robert Riskin, a resident of Sag Harbor for 41 years, said he was concerned that the “sleepy, working man’s town” with local stores would change even more than it already has once the condominiums have been finished.
“I remember when you knew every family because they owned the building,” said Gilbride, a lifelong Sag Harbor resident. “It was Barry’s hardware store, Marty’s barbershop, Schiavoni’s market, Mel Jackson’s photo. I think why Sag Harbor has survived is because a lot of families have owned those buildings.”
Despite the evolution of the village, and Gilbride agreed there have been a lot of changes, he said he did not believe the Bulova project would alter Sag Harbor in a significant way.
“I hope you are right,” said Riskin.