Sag Harbor's Long Wharf

In the past year, outraged residents of the former whaling port—named, perhaps ironically, one of “America’s Happiest Seaside Towns” by Coastal Living” not too long ago—have turned out in droves to sometimes heatedly voice their opinions about the changing character of the village and the proposed legislation to curb oversized construction projects. Tempers have risen and anger has boiled over during discussions of Sag Harbor’s future.

What’s got everyone in such a snit? The continuing tendency toward bigger builds in the village.


Of the 1,607 residential lots in Sag Harbor, the tendency to upsize has increased in the past few decades, changing the complexion of what was once “the unHampton.” New construction has evolved and house sizes have grown, with the median gross floor plan area more than doubling from 1,610 square feet in the early 1980s to 3,301 square feet in 2015,

Village leaders and preservation-minded folks want to put an end to the potential McMansioning of the area. But those who are pro-development see the enactment of a residential building moratorium and revised language in the village code as anathema to their basic rights of life, liberty and happiness.

Proposed initially to stem the tide on massive residential construction projects and an unprecedented building boom, in a serious of sometimes contentious meetings, Sag Harbor’s elected Village Board leaders say that they introduced the legislation in order to “reset” regulations related to historic and architectural preservation. The legislation addressing these moratorium and zoning code amendments will be revisited during a public Village Board meeting on March 8 and will presumably be subject to board vote on April 12.

sag-harbor-long-wharf4The building moratorium was enacted in July 2015 in order to put on hold projects that would result in renovations or additions to increase the value of a house by more than 50 percent as well as the construction of new houses larger than 3,500 square feet on lot sizes less than approximately half an acre and 5,000 square feet on lots larger than approximately half an acre. In January 2016 that legislation was revised, with additional zoning changes proposed concerning the demolition of homes, gross floor area restrictions on new construction, residential renovations and swimming pool construction.

The two most controversial pieces of the proposed legislative changes have had to do with new setbacks for swimming pools, which were scrapped after intense public outcry, and the gross floor area limits for new construction, which allows 8 square feet of gross floor area for every 100 feet of lot area, or more with special permits.

Sag Harbor is currently the only village in the Hamptons that does not place limits on gross floor area. The proposed revised GFA actually allows an additional 450 square feet for median-size houses in the village than the current zoning laws but it also seriously limits the square footage for those owners who intend to have more house than surrounding property.

 Michael Daly of Sotheby's International Realty. Photo by Dawn Watson.

Michael Daly of Sotheby’s International Realty. Photo by Dawn Watson.

Michael Daly, Associate Broker for Sotheby’s International Realty and member of the Zoning Board of Appeals in nearby North Haven, says that he can see both sides of the fence.

“There are a number of buyers who bought with the expectation to be able to develop larger homes on their properties,” he says. “Even though they’ve already paid for these properties, they will be subject to a more restrictive building code, which won’t allow them to build the home that they hoped to and will limit their return on investment.”

Since the moratorium was enacted, the Village of Sag Harbor saw three lawsuits by disgruntled homeowners. All of which have been settled in early 2016.

But, Mr. Daly says, there’s also the importance of the historic character of the village to consider. And let’s face it; most who seek a home in Sag Harbor aren’t looking for monster-sized houses, he adds.

“The average person who comes to Sag Harbor has no interest in building a monstrous house. That’s not really why people are typically drawn here,” he says. “There are currently only a handful of permits for houses 6,000 square foot or better.”

Though he does personally think that the 8 percent guideline in the GFA is too low, Mr. Daly says that it is in the right ballpark. And, he adds, the size restrictions might just create increased demands for pre-existing larger homes the already hot Sag Harbor real estate market.

“We may actually see in increase in value. Teardowns will be harder to get approval on and we may see more renovations and reproductions,” he says of the effects of the new legislation. “And, like in Manhattan, this might actually encourage people to buy double lots if they want a bigger house.”

Or, those seeking bigger houses might just go looking into nearby areas, such as North Haven or slightly farther out of the village heading toward East Hampton, says Mala Sander, Associate Broker for The Corcoran Group, and Gioia DiPaolo, Sag Harbor Branch Manager and Associate Broker for Douglas Elliman Real Estate.

sag-harbor-long-wharf2It’s too soon to really tell how the new legislation—particularly the GFA restrictions—will affect the village, says Ms. Sander, but overall it should shake out just fine. Most likely, the new rules will garner positive results, she says.

“It remains to be seen, but I think some measure of control was needed … many villages have successfully implemented GFA regulations in the past,” she says. “We can expect to see pre-existing, non-conforming properties increase in value, probably disproportionately to properties that need updating but cannot be appreciably changed or expanded.”

And really, at the end of the day, preserving the character of the village is in the best interest of those who want to live here, says Ms. DiPaolo. It’s what draws everyone to Sag Harbor in the first place.

“Interest will continue and values will prevail, and we’ll see big interest in creating small house jewel boxes,” she reports. “Sag Harbor will survive!”

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