By Stephen J. Kotz
Bruce Tait, the chairman of the Sag Harbor Harbor Committee, his arm in a brace from a recent work accident, was in a feisty mood on Monday.
Citing a growing workload and an increase in applications in areas close to fragile wetlands and bluffs, Mr. Tait called on the Sag Harbor Village Board to revisit its wetlands law and put an end to the confusion that he said his committee and the Zoning Board of Appeals have in enforcing it.
“I’m very close to making a recommendation to the trustees that we have a moratorium on wetlands permits until this conflict is resolved,” Mr. Tait said, shortly after announcing at the top of the meeting that he wanted to dispense with the regular agenda until his board had an opportunity to discuss his concerns.
The committee agreed, passing unanimously a resolution asking the village board to act. Because the turnaround time could be slow, Mr. Tait said he was prepared to ask his committee to request a moratorium when it meets next month.
“The right way to go is a moratorium so everyone is on the right page,” he said.
Denise Schoen, the committee’s attorney, agreed that the wetlands law needs to be revisited.
“We should make sure the ZBA gets input from the Harbor Committee before it grants any wetlands variances,” she said. In some cases, the ZBA has acted unilaterally, she said, because it “did not want to hold up an applicant.”
She added that perhaps any applications requiring a wetlands permit should be the sole purview of the Harbor Committee.
“I don’t know that we need two layers of review,” she said. “But if we are going to keep it that way, the zoning board needs to get on the same page as the harbor committee.”
“There is a whole bunch of stuff that needs to be firmed up, that doesn’t read smoothly, doesn’t set up a procedure,” she said of the current wetlands law. “If we repealed the whole thing and started fresh, we might get a better product.”
Anton Hagen, the chairman of the ZBA, said he would welcome a meeting of the minds. “There clearly is a need to define a procedure,” he said.
There are times, he said, when the ZBA is asked to act on an application that has already been before the harbor committee, but the ZBA will not know how the harbor committee responded because it has not received a written report.
“Sometimes attorneys for the applicants will tell us that the harbor committee signed off on something and we have no way of really knowing if that is true or not,” he said.
Mr. Tait said ever since the zoning code was revised five years ago, and the Harbor Committee tasked with weighing in on wetlands applications that also go before the ZBA, confusion has reigned. In some cases, he said, the ZBA has approved wetland setback variances before the harbor committee gets an opportunity to weigh in. At other times, the harbor committee’s permit conditions are ignored by applicants, he said. And he groused that the village does not pursue violators.
“We have no enforcement side to the code,” Mr. Tait said. “We have been told flat out that there is nobody who is enforcing it.”
If the village would not enforce its code, he said, the harbor committee would take matters into its own hands.
“I want to have an agenda item, at the start of every meeting, a discussion item when we have in front of us wetland applications that have been in front of us before that have violations of the permit we have granted them,” Mr. Tait added.
“I’m looking at Google Earth and I’m seeing it right there in real time applications that we have approved that are being ignored in terms of buffers,” he said. “There’s no code enforcement, absolutely no code enforcement.”
Committee member Jeff Peters volunteered to visit properties that have had applications before the committee.
“We have to start somewhere. Why not start today?” he said.
Committee member Stephen Clarke said many applicants know they have a constrained lot and try to push the committee to approve more than it should. If the ZBA acts without harbor committee input, “our hands are tied,” he said. “I don’t want to sit here and make a decision on something for which a variance has already been granted.”
“What we are seeing now is an influx of very aggressive applications with lots of accessory structures and more and more pressure to move faster and faster,” said Mr. Tait. “I’m not opposed to making the process more efficient, but we have to be careful.”
The mood carried over to the meeting’s main agenda. In reviewing a decision it approved last month, allowing Herbert Sambol to expand a 970-square-foot one-story cottage at 22 Cove Road into a 2,585-square-foot two-story house, Mr. Tait said it was an example of the problems facing the board.
“This was a particularly difficult application to come to us because of the preexisting variances” that were approved by the ZBA, he said. The committee’s approval carried with it 17 conditions.
“This is an application that we are going to look at very, very carefully and see that they are followed,” he said.
Mr. Peters who abstained last month, voted no on Monday, arguing that a plan to replant the bluff in front of the house was doomed to failure because of ongoing erosion. He said the bluff should be terraced instead.
The committee balked at making referrals on two other properties. In the first case, Marius Fortelni sought permission to quadruple the size of a one-story 1,218-square-foot house by building in its place a 2,914-square-foot, two-story house at 14 Bluff Point Road. But the board said it should be scaled back because there was no compelling reason given as to why the applicant could not build a smaller house farther from the cove.