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Turmoil Over Proposed Sag Harbor Improvement Corp.

Wed, 07/03/2024 - 11:50
“I voted for all of you guys. I know some of you personally. I don’t see this as the future of Sag Harbor,” Anthony Brandt told the Sag Harbor Village Board during a meeting about establishing a local development corporation.
Denis Hartnett

Fireworks came early Monday to a packed Sag Harbor work session on the seemingly mundane topic of local development corporations. The meeting featured yelling among members of the village board and yelling from the audience at the board. A resolution to disband a committee failed on a split vote before Mayor Thomas Gardella resigned from the same committee, allowing another trustee to take his place, and there was seemingly unending public comment — all questioning the need for a Sag Harbor Improvement Corporation.

It was all thanks to a botched agenda from the June 10 meeting, for which, at the outset of the session, the mayor took responsibility.

“The resolution to form the Sag Harbor Improvement Corporation should not have been placed under an ‘action item.’ It should have been placed ‘under discussion.’ No disrespect was meant to any board member,” he said.

In other words, the document was intended as a draft.

Sag Harbor Improvement Corporation would have been the name for a local development corporation had the “action item” been adopted. A local development corporation is a controversial funding method, looked at askance by the state comptroller, that a municipality may use to avoid tapping its tax base. In particular, thus-named corporations can be used to fund projects that have a commercial component, whereas municipalities can only issue tax-free bonds to fund projects that do not generate income.

Mayor Gardella noted that the same stubborn issues have plagued the village for a least a decade. “The status quo is not going to work,” he declared. “We need to get creative. There are two things I’m not going to do as mayor. I’m not going to do this job alone, and I’m not going to do it with fear.”

He made clear that he would not vote for a resolution offered by Aidan Corish, a trustee, to disband the village’s capital planning advisory committee, despite loud applause after Mr. Corish read the resolution, which accused that committee of failing to adhere to its own charter. It was the not-quite-three-month-old committee, formed by Deputy Mayor Ed Haye, that had suggested the village form a development corporation in the first place.

Mr. Corish contends, first, that the group only exists as an advisory committee, and second, that it has failed — despite having hired a $650-an-hour lawyer — to properly advise the village board about the benefits or pitfalls of a “local development corporation.”

Bob Plumb, the lone trustee siding with Mr. Corish, took issue with the committee’s seven-member board, saying that it was hand-picked by Mayor Gardella and Mr. Haye. “The whole board approved the members on April 9,” Mr. Haye replied. If there were misgivings, he added, they should have been raised then.

Mr. Corish suggested individual local development corporations for individual projects, and wanted the village board, not the development corporation, to choose all capital projects. As for the capital planning advisory committee, he said, it should analyze and compare whether the cost should be managed by the village in the “old-fashioned” way, or by a local development corporation, and only make recommendations.

“These projects are not one-size-fits-all,” he said. He pointed out that the advisory committee’s board was the same as the proposed local development corporation — “like they’re an all-seeing board.”

“I’m not going to sit here and have you attack members of the community,” said Mayor Gardella, as the emotional temperature in the room peaked. Duncan Darrow, a village resident, yelled from the audience, “Take a straw poll!”

When, through the mayhem, Mr. Corish all but shouted, “We do not need community development, we just need to sustain our community,” the room broke into raucous applause. Nonetheless, recognizing that he was not going to prevail in his effort to disband the capital planning advisory committee, he said, “I would like to appoint Bob Plumb to the C.P.A.C. if we lose this vote.” He suggested further that the meetings of that committee be open to the public, and that it should provide monthly reports to the village board.

Regarding local development corporations in general, Mr. Corish said he wasn’t necessarily against them, assuming they were tailored to the village’s needs. “The first thing we got from the C.P.A.C. is an oven-ready L.D.C. to look at, with no discussion.”

“That was a mistake,” said Mayor Gardella.

“That’s a huge, long-term mistake. ‘Oops! I made an L.D.C.,’ ” Mr. Corish shot back.

Charles Bruschi, the village treasurer, talked about the purpose of capital planning. He is making an inventory of village assets in order to identify funding sources and create a priority list of projects, he said. “The capital plan is in the initial stages,” he noted, adding that he hopes to implement it as part of the next budgetary cycle.

“We have a lot of needs that we don’t know how to pay for,” said Mr. Haye. He ticked off several, including water quality management, pedestrian safety, traffic relief, flood protection, and upgrading the sewage treatment plant. “These capital investment needs are not new. They’ve been known, but they keep getting deferred. Each can cost tens of millions. Where does it come from? The village has a small tax base.”

He showed pictures of the top two floors of the Municipal Building. “The top two floors are unusable, unsafe to use,” he said, raising his voice. “This is a wasted asset in the heart of the village!”

Forming separate local development corporations project by project, as suggested by Mr. Corish, would create an administrative burden, Mr. Haye asserted, whereas an all-encompassing corporation could help the village be ready for projects that just come up. Just such an entity, he said, could have been used to save the gas-ball lot, which ultimately went to the developer Adam Potter, and the village lost out on nearly 100 parking spaces.

At that point, Mr. Haye’s presentation devolved into cross-talk, with members of the audience shouting questions.

“This is the governing body of our village,” Mayor Gardella announced. “If we can’t come up with a solution together, then there is no solution.”

“Can we say, ‘This is dead?’ “ asked Mr. Corish, throwing the incorporating papers of the Sag Harbor Improvement Corporation on the dais.

Indeed, it was. Nonetheless, more than 10 members of the public stood up to voice their concerns over the dead document, beating a dead horse, as it were, but making quite clear that the board needed to be more transparent.

Anthony Brandt, after mentioning his seven years’ experience as head of the architectural review board, said that “this whole thing feels rushed. We are a unique community, and everybody who knows anything about communities like this knows they get co-opted. They get taken over by developers.”

The board then voted on Mr. Corish’s resolution to disband the capital planning advisory committee, with Mayor Gardella, Mr. Haye, and Jeanne Kane, a member, voting against. “I don’t need to be on the committee,” said Mayor Gardella, withdrawing. “Trustee Plumb could take your place if the board agrees,” said Mr. Corish. The board agreed, unanimously. “This committee, then, is on notice,” Mr. Corish concluded.

“As far as an L.D.C. goes, I don’t think we’re anywhere near proposing one, or approving one. We’re going to need more input from the public,” said Mayor Gardella, and he called a hard stop to the meeting, two hours after it had begun.

“Mission accomplished,” said someone in the audience.

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