Sag Harbor Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy put it well during a public forum last week when she said that the village has the power to control the use, size, and character of development. Officials there are working on updating zoning laws in response to a wave of high-visibility projects that threaten to radically alter the waterfront. But laws are only as good as the people who enforce them, and Sag Harbor, like most of the local jurisdictions on the East End, has had a mixed record in that regard.
There is an unfortunate irony in Sag Harbor, that it was the first village to complete a state-authorized local waterfront revitalization plan, or L.W.R.P. in governmental shorthand, which was supposed to make public access, water-related commercial development, and views the top priority. The 300-page plan, once given a final stamp of approval in Albany, provided many of the tools that Mayor Mulcahy now says are needed. High-profile initiatives like this are routinely forgotten — take the Town of East Hampton’s hotly contested rental property registry, for example — but they should not be.
Had more recent Sag Harbor officials remembered the village’s existing waterfront plan, some of the more egregious property changes there might have been avoided. It needs to be noted that the site for a proposed new Bay Street Theater is within the village’s “waterfront functional area,” an important distinction that extends from the Sag Harbor Cove West Marina to the western side of the Cormaria Catholic retreat property on Bay Street. Also within this critical designation is a set of eyesore new glass-clad residences that served as a backdrop to the meeting last week at which the mayor spoke but that had already been green-lighted by village officials despite starkly contradicting the waterfront plan.
In concept, the L.W.R.P. was a promising tool. Once adopted, it was supposed to lend the weight of state authority to local zoning laws. Sag Harbor was a proud trail-blazer, completing its version in 1986 and amending it twice since then, in 1999 and 2006. Any proposals within the village’s waterfront areas were to be consistent with the plan objectives by law. These included enhancing “community character,” preserving open space, and minimizing adverse effects of development. Policy 1 was to “sustain the pattern of existing land use which defines Sag Harbor as a historic port.”
As stated, the plan’s ultimate goals were to improve and restore coastal water quality, increase the areas available for shellfishing, “dependent on upgrading and restoring the natural environment.” New projects were to be limited to those that increase the public’s use and enjoyment of the water’s edge — and the plan specifically spelled out Long Island Avenue and West Water Street as among places where a “sense of place” and “enhanced visiting pleasure” were paramount. Nonwaterfront-dependent development was to be elsewhere. This is still the law. Current officials and residents concerned about changes to their beloved village should give it a look.