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What’s Next on Marsden Street?

Thu, 05/25/2023 - 12:07

Developer revives plans; suit may soon be settled

Pat Trunzo III, an owner of the Marsden properties, said this week that he is preparing to resubmit his development applications to the village’s Building Department for houses on three of the lots so far.
Christopher Gangemi

Now that a slim majority of Sag Harbor School District voters rejected the district’s proposal to buy five wooded lots on Marsden Street for future school expansion, the community has a tall task ahead of it: mending the wounds from the bitter, nine-month battle over the controversial plan.

Proposition 2, as it was known, failed by 75 votes — 1,081 in favor and 1,156 against — as the issue drew record turnout at the polls on May 16. A successful vote would have allowed the school district to borrow a $6 million bond and withdraw $3.425 million from a reserve account to buy the land from Marsden Properties L.L.C.

On social media and in interviews this week, people on both sides of the debate expressed hope that the community could move forward in a positive direction.

“Everyone needs to open their minds, not just the people who were against it,” said Lilee Fell, a longtime resident and floral designer by profession. “We all need to look at it and imagine what the other person feels. We all want the best for our community, and we all have hearts. . . . We should always speak like our children are present.”

In the weeks leading up to the vote, Ms. Fell, who lives near school property, had decorated one of her trees with flowers. “I thought everyone was so serious that we needed some levity and happiness and joy.”

Ms. Fell voted no, but Virginia Bennett voted yes. A graduate of Pierson High School — back when it was home to kindergarten through 12th grade — and a descendant of one of the oldest whaling families in the region, Ms. Bennett said, “This happened. Now we have to move forward.”

She “never saw this level” of divisiveness. “I blame this on politics. The tone of politics. There’s no sense of compromise. . . . I don’t get it. It’s been on the crazy side. I think maybe there were mistakes made on both sides.”

People need to “take a breath and look up at the great big sky,” Ms. Bennett said. “There are lots of good things going on in this world. Don’t be so quick to get angry with your neighbors.”

Could the school district perhaps hold some sort of open-house event, some have wondered?

“Have people be able to go on a tour of the school,” Ms. Fell said. “I like the idea of meeting the different teachers — something to get us back together. Everyone stands to lose” if Sag Harbor can’t reunite.

But Jeff Nichols, the district superintendent, said he hasn’t considered anything like that yet.

“I would need to think and consider what avenues exist that might be productive,” he said Tuesday. “I think there are still some leftover feelings that people have regarding some activities related to the vote that included allegations of dishonesty and things like that.”

A couple of days after the vote, a Sag Harbor teacher, Terri Federico, had invited the opponents to cheer on Pierson’s varsity baseball playoff game. According to Sandi Kruel, the school board president, only one of them came.

“I don’t know if that divide heals anytime soon,” Ms. Kruel said. “Time does heal all wounds, but there were a lot of words that were very hurtful.”

She continued, “I still think we’re letting the dust settle at this point and we’re going to continue to concentrate on the needs of the school district. Property is always a need for us. We don’t know where we go from here . . . but we’ll continue to evaluate and hopefully something arises.”

The focus has already shifted back to Mashashimuet Park. The park’s trustees and the school district had previously been considering partnering on a multimillion-dollar slate of renovations and upgrades at the park, which Pierson student-athletes use for practices and games. The plan was shelved in the 11th hour, before the community was to vote on the plan, when the potential Marsden Street deal with Southampton Town came to light.

Now, according to school and town officials, a potential development-rights purchase using the community preservation fund is in the works for Mashashimuet Park, some of which is zoned as residential land.

“I’m optimistic we’ll be able to do something significant there,” said Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman. “It will be subject to valuation and public hearings and things like that. We’re not at the point yet where we can solidify the numbers.”

Leading up to last week’s vote, opponents of the Marsden proposal started a petition seeking to “preserve the wooded lots on Marsden Street.” It drew more than 1,300 signatures as of press time this week. petitions are open to everyone regardless of location, rather than solely school district residents.

The petition points out that the land provides valuable animal habitats and features many healthy trees. It reads: “The community urges the village and/or town officials to acquire the wooded lots for preservation, as they are some of the last wooded lots in the historic district of the Village of Sag Harbor. . . . The Marsden Street lots do not need to be developed.”

Mr. Schneiderman said the town has no interest in pursuing a separate preservation fund purchase on its own.

A few other loose Marsden Street ends are being tied up now:

The Village Police Department received a complaint on May 17 from Ms. Kruel that she was verbally and physically harassed by a resident, Janis Donnaud, after the vote. “We are investigating if there is criminality in this case,” said Police Chief Austin J. McGuire.

Ms. Donnaud, a Marsden Street opponent, denied that it had gotten physical. “We had a verbal dispute,” she said.

“When a volunteer elected official is assaulted in the manner in which I was, publicly, somebody has to have consequences for those actions,” Ms. Kruel said. “There were many witnesses. It was unprovoked and unnecessary.”

On another front, Lauren Friedman, the attorney representing plaintiffs in the lawsuit Oppenheimer et al. v. Sag Harbor School District, which sought to halt the Marsden Street proposition, said by email on Tuesday that “the petitioners would like to settle the claim and are exploring that option.”

Meanwhile, Pat Trunzo III, an owner of the Marsden properties, said this week that he is preparing to resubmit his development applications to the village’s Building Department for houses on three of the lots so far.

“I was very much hoping [Proposition 2] would pass,” Mr. Trunzo said by phone Tuesday. “I was in favor of the school acquiring the property. I think it’s a loss to the community that it didn’t go through. It would have been a long-term benefit to Sag Harbor for the school to have more room.”

He had previously withdrawn his applications from the review process before the village’s board of historic preservation and architectural review, taking the stance of a willing seller in the potential preservation fund deal with Southampton Town.

“The board has already seen these houses before. They wanted me to reduce their size somewhat — of course they never said by how much — and in theory, since I’m doing that to what I think is a reasonable extent, they should be not too far from saying yes,” Mr. Trunzo said. “When I had the applications before the board and they held a hearing, there were three dozen letters in opposition as well as people appearing in person. The way they were carrying on, you’d think another five houses would be the death of Sag Harbor.”



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