Pictured Above: The Sag Harbor Village Board at the Jan. 27 community forum.
When our children can no longer afford to stay on the East End, are we still a community?
Of all the existential questions facing this region, this one cuts most close to home for everyone who has experienced the recent mass exodus of longtime friends and neighbors, and their own children.
The Village of Sag Harbor, which for a long time prided itself on being the “UnHampton,” is now decidedly unaffordable for working class people. The median home sale price in the historic village is now above $2 million, and Sag Harbor’s recent efforts to change its code to encourage affordable housing have met with setbacks, after a developer proposed a 100,000-square-foot, 79-unit mixed-use affordable housing complex in the heart of the village just a day after Sag Harbor adopted an affordable housing code in 2022. A portion of that code was struck down by the New York State Supreme Court in the spring of 2023 after a lawsuit by Save Sag Harbor alleging the the village did not properly apply State Environmental Quality Review Act rules to its code changes.
Save Sag Harbor representatives said at the time they were committed to supporting responsible legislation to address the “urgent need” for housing, and the developers of the downtown housing complex, known as 11 Bridge Street, recently resubmitted a scaled-back plan for 39 apartments in a 61,314 mixed use building — 20 of which would be market rate apartments and 19 of which would be “workforce units.”
The village also recently introduced legislation creating a new Affordable Workforce Housing Overlay District, and last fall changed its code to allow smaller accessory dwelling units (between 280 and 600 square feet) in the R-20 zoning district.
The Village Board of Trustees reached out to the public at a Jan. 27 community meeting at the Brick Kiln Road firehouse for ideas about how to foster affordable housing.
Sag Harbor Mayor Tom Gardella, who has been guiding a proposal to restructure the village’s emergency services complex on Brick Kiln Road to build affordable apartments there, kicked off the meeting by reading a letter from his daughter, a first responder who can no longer afford to live in the village.
“We have a wonderful school system, but our children will not come back here because we don’t have the jobs locally that will attract them,” added Village Trustee Aidan Corish. “We need to look at community industrial development, and offer the opportunities our children will need to have a fulfilling life locally.”
He added that because of the limited land area in the village, which is only 1.8 square miles, regional solutions are necessary.
Southampton Town Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni, a Sag Harbor resident, also gave an overview of the town’s Community Housing Fund Action Plan, which will guide how the town will use funds from a new half-percent real estate transfer tax for community housing. About two-thirds of Sag Harbor Village is within Southampton Town, and the town can use a portion of its housing fund revenue there.
He added that the town is also planning to build 15 units of rental housing at the Bridgehampton Senior Center and purchased 3.7 acres in Water Mill where it plans to build affordable townhouses.
Sag Harbor Deputy Mayor Ed Haye said the village is looking to preserve multi-family homes, many of which have recently been converted to one-family homes, and is working with both East Hampton and Southampton towns on building more housing outside of the village’s boundaries.
“Sag Harbor itself is not going to solve this problem,” agreed Mr. Gardella, adding that the village “will be part of the conversation, and will offer our perceptions” to both towns.
Many members of the public didn’t mince words about the Bridge Street housing complex, proposed by a developer named Adam Potter.
“The Potter thing is a disaster, and we all know it’s a disaster,” said resident Anthony Brandt. “From experience, we know that area. It’s a sink. The water table is so high, that every time it rains every one of the four houses there have to pump out their basements. That should be plain to everybody.”
Former Village Trustee Robbie Stein added that a study of the Bridge Street properties found it would cost $16 million to stop the flooding before anything is built.
“I would really encourage some legislation to stop any further building in floodplains,” he said.
Ellen Dioguardi, who now lives in Noyac, said she remembered fondly all the apartments she had once lived in in the village, but said they no longer exist because the buildings they were in have been turned into single family homes.
“If we do have a dozen legal multifamily buildings in the village, I would be shocked,” she said. “Accessory apartments in the village need to be easier to have and easier to be legal…. The only reason I’m still here is I have an apartment in my house.”
When the former Bulova Watchcase Factory in the village was renovated as high-end condos, the developers paid into a village housing fund rather than make 10 percent of the buildings on-site affordable.
Sag Harbor Village used that money to buy the Sag Harbor Cottages, a small motel on Route 114 just outside of the village boundaries, in East Hampton Town, said Mr. Gardella. He said the Sag Harbor Community Housing Trust is now working with the Town of East Hampton to redevelop that property, and another adjacent property owned by East Hampton Town, as affordable housing.
Resident and village Harbor Committee Mary Ann Eddy urged the village to engage in a “strong and persistent conversation about sustainability,” incorporating solar power, heat pumps, bike racks and electric vehicle chargers into its affordable housing designs, “with an eye to the future.”
Harbor Committee Chairman Will Sharp, an architect, said he believes the center of the village is the right place for more density.
“I get my coffee in the morning from someone who lives in an apartment above Main Street. He doesn’t have a car,” he said. “I think density is critical on Main Street. It’s something we have to look at through our rules. The car is one of the largest detriments to the cost of housing in America.”
Anthony Vermandois, also an architect in Sag Harbor, agreed.
“The notion that affordable housing in the village will increase traffic is nonsense,” he said. “That traffic is coming whether we have one or no affordable housing units in the village. Workers who live here are not in the trade parade. They can walk to stores and walk to work. I think this notion is just nonsense. Bring the density onto Main Street, not in the periphery of the village. Sag Harbor had more two and three-story buildings over 100 years ago than it does now. We could put a dent into our housing crisis by making Sag Harbor physically look more like it did 100 years ago.”
He suggested the village make that happen by reaching out to individual private property owners to see if they want to add a story onto their building, and added that many of his clients are interested in building small accessory dwelling units on their properties.
“This is not like the nonsense Potter is doing,” he said. “It’s incremental.”
He added that an expansion of the village sewer district should help make such construction easier.
Accessory dwelling units in the village must be rented to someone who meets “affordable workforce housing income occupants,” the property owner, or a family member of the property owner. The village code also gives priority to people who work for or in the Village of Sag Harbor or are volunteers for the Sag Harbor Fire Department and Ambulance Corps. Sewer rent is also waived for the portion of the property occupied by the apartment.
“The majority of applications to date have been for family use,” said Village Trustee Jeanne Kane, who added that the East Hampton and Southampton Town Housing Authorities will likely help ensure non-family members meet the requirements in the future.
Resident Kathryn Szoka shared an anecdote that Stony Brook Southampton Hospital had recently been looking for a radiologist for six months, and once they hired someone, the person quit after spending a day in traffic in the trade parade.
“We do live in an unhealthy environment here now, when teachers have to sit in traffic for two hours to get here,” she said. “The village cannot solve all the problems, but smart growth principals call for density in specific areas like hamlets and villages. I do think the village can bear, creatively, a greater number of units, because of the density of its environment. I used to live in the village. I walked to the stores. I don’t walk anymore. I drive. The traffic problem is not people living in the village. Adding more units is not going to impact the traffic problems.”