New House a ‘Poster Child' for Problems Cited in Sag Harbor Petition

Carol Olejnik said a next-door neighbor in Sag Harbor found a loophole to allow him to expand a pre-existing, nonconforming house. Taylor K. Vecsey

The Village of Sag Harbor is in the midst of a building boom. Houses in its historic district are being knocked down or added on to, their character altered. Residents have taken notice and are asking for changes in the village code.

“The momentum of objection to it has been building, and I think I happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time on Main Street,” said Frank Greenwald, an architect and investor in a project at the center of the battle between old and new. “It seems, I’ve been told, I am the poster child for expansion problems in the Sag Harbor Village . . . in terms of community opposition.”

Mr. Greenwald’s limited liability corporation, 19 Indian Hill, bought a two-story, 1,658-square-foot house on a narrow 9,909-square-foot lot at 295 Main Street, which is south of the business district and across the street from Canio’s Books, about two years ago.

The house was for the most part torn down after permits were issued in September for the renovation of what was left standing, as well as for a two-story, 2,720-square-foot addition, a 240-square-foot pool house, and a swimming pool.

At issue are property setbacks and the village’s “sky plane,” or pyramid, regulations, which limit height.

Because part of the house was built 100 years ago, its setbacks and its peak were considered legal even though they do not conform to current zoning. Construction got under way.

Although permits were in place, on Dec. 31, after Tom Preiato, a former East Hampton Town building inspector, took over that post in the village, he issued a stop work order on the premise that the house had been demolished and that the scope of the project was reconstruction rather than renovation. A subsequent hearing was held in March by the Sag Harbor Zoning Board of Appeals, however, which decided that Mr. Preiato had been incorrect.

“The setbacks, whether legal under current zoning regulations or pre-existing and nonconforming, will remain the same as will the pre-existing and non-conforming pyramid violation,” the zoning board wrote in its decision, going on to point out that “demolition and reconstruction are, unfortunately, not defined terms in our village code so we base this conclusion on the ordinary definitions of these terms and our common sense review of relevant facts.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Preiato said he didn’t have “a full grasp” of the code at the time of the stop-work order. “The zoning board did what they had to,” he said, adding that there is a “weakness in the code because it does not have a definition of a demolition.”

Such weaknesses in code are at the center of a petition from Save Sag Harbor signed by 961 residents and neighbors. The petition calls for the village to take action “to ensure that the distinctive and historical character of the historic district of the village shall not be injuriously affected.”

Those who signed the petition asked the village to “put an end to the unprecedented and damaging flood of approvals, variances for development, and code violations that are threatening to destroy the historic fabric, scale, and character of our village!”

By chance, the petition was presented to the village board on April 14, the same night neighbors of 295 Main Street pleaded with officials for help.

“This is not a renovation. This is a joke. The peak is the only thing left of the renovation,” said Carol Olejink, who lives in a family house at 291 Main Street, which has deeds going back to 1856. “Excuse me, common sense says this is a new home.”

The houses in the area have always been close together. In fact, she allowed workers onto her property at the start of the project so that work could be done on 295’s foundation, which, in places, is between 9 inches and 3 feet from her property line. It’s a decision she regrets because part of her yard caved in during the work.

Known as the Tomato Lady, Ms. Olejink enjoys her garden and said the new house looms over it, ruining her comfort zone. “Once you knock it down you should have to go for setbacks,” she said.

While construction continued after the Z.B.A.’s decision, work has again stopped after questions were raised about the height of the house’s peak. “To me, it appears to be high. I’m not going to say how high,” Mr. Preiato said. On Friday, he reached an agreement with Mr. Greenwald for work to cease until a new survey is produced.

Mr. Greenwald maintains he has done nothing wrong. “It’s obviously in violation of the pyramid law but the existing house was. There’s no increase in the level of nonconformity,” he said.

Mayor Brian Gilbride, who had expressed displeasure that the original application had gone through without thorough scrutiny, said he understood the Z.B.A.’s decision. “If this is a flawed part of the code, we need to look at it,” he said.

The mayor and building inspector’s stance that the code needs another look is one Mr. Greenwald agrees with. “I do think the Village of Sag Harbor code needs to address renovation and restoration and reconstruction of all the houses in the village,” he said. But in the meantime, he wants to get back to work. “It’s a great old house. It will be a beautiful addition to the village if we could ever get to redo it properly.”