Sag Harbor Weighs In: Scrap Harbor Heights Plans

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With a decision imminent in the contentious case of a proposed major renovation at a small gas station in Sag Harbor, more than 550 community members have weighed in with their opinions in some form or another.

Despite three years of legal wrangling, few seem to be convinced that approving the expansion is the right decision for Sag Harbor Village—only two written comments are at all positive about the plans for Harbor Heights.

The owners of the often overcrowded filling station on Route 114 are seeking to add a convenience store to the premises in addition to installing new pumps farther from the road, which would double the fueling spots.

Petroleum Ventures LLC has asked the Village Zoning Board of Appeals for three variances—the continuation of a nonconforming, 15.6-foot setback from the road, where 50 feet is required; landscape buffers of 10.6 and 21 feet on the east and west boundaries of the property, where 30 feet is required; and a shopping area of 718 square feet, which would be 19 percent more than the 600-square-foot limit set by the village code.

“The benefit to the property owner and the community is readily apparent,” wrote Chris Tartaglia of High Point Engineering when laying out his arguments on behalf of the applicants. “Vehicles, which now queue up on Route 114, will be stored on site. The additional pumps will allow vehicles to avoid long waiting lines to fill their vehicles. The site, which is currently barren of vegetation, will be substantially improved upon.

“The opposition has failed to establish any detriment to the public health, safety and welfare of the community,” he added in his comment. “The record is devoid of any empirical evidence to that effect.”

Regardless of Mr. Tartaglia’s insistence that the renovation would not harm the health, safety or public welfare impacts on the community, the ZBA is bound to consider the project’s effect on quality of life of neighbors. Many neighbors, and an attorney working on their behalf, weighed in on that aspect.

Attorney Jeffrey Bragman, arguing on behalf of the group Save Sag Harbor, also filed a written submission of counterpoints, claiming that there were five flaws in the application.

First and foremost, Mr. Bragman said nonconforming use structures that have been grandfathered in are disfavored in the eyes of the law and only grudgingly tolerated. “Village code has an overriding policy aimed at the restriction and eventual elimination of nonconforming uses,” he wrote.

Next, Mr. Bragman argued that the applicants are being misleading or outright deceptive by underreporting the size of the convenience store. “Applying the correct standard, the applicant’s proposed convenience store (without bathrooms being counted) appears to contain 944.32 gross square feet, which is 344.32 square feet larger than code permits,” Mr. Bragman wrote.

Third, he argued that the 30-foot buffer around the commercial property is essential to protecting the quality of life of neighbors, as well as the neighboring historic St. David AME Zion Church.

A fourth concern for Save Sag Harbor is the potential for an increase in traffic at the lot. According to the filing, using numbers provided by the applicants for the summer months, the community group estimates there will be an average of 49 more cars per hour stopping at the station in the mornings and 71 more cars per hour in the evenings.

Lastly, Mr. Bragman argued that the proposed canopy over the four pump islands is not only excessively large, but so large that it should be considered a second principal structure and not an accessory structure.

He wrote that the enclosed fuel area underneath the canopy will be larger than the building itself by more than 600 square feet. The fueling area would be about 2,418 square feet, while the current fueling island is only 78 square feet, Mr. Bragman wrote.

But the concerns didn’t end there, as community members found other less technical, more lifestyle-related aspects of the plans to criticize—disparaging the renovation in 45 individual filings and three petitions that garnered a total of 522 signatures.

Terry Fraser, a village resident who wrote that he spent his 40-year career in marketing and sales for “brands that are dependent on convenience store trade,” said the store will entice Sag Harbor’s youths to purchase beer, tobacco, caffeine shots, sugary and salty snacks and lottery tickets.

He wrote that 80 to 90 percent of profit in the convenience store industry is dependent on those products that “threaten middle and high school age youth.”

The heart of the issue for a majority of those weighing in was the simple notion of keeping small town America—a village that is trying desperately to balance its tradition as a small whaling community with a future commercial and housing boom—small.

Perhaps village resident Bruce Milne summed it up best when he wrote: “This type of development is exactly what we who live here, and those who cherish visiting here, are so relieved to get away from when we are in Sag Harbor, a restful small village environment free of the blaring commercialism that so wants to consume our lives.”

In response to that sentiment, shared by many, Mr. Tartaglia dismissed the idea as outright resistance to change, writing, “The emails solicited by the Sag Harbor Group all have the same theme that the subject premises should not change.”

The attorney for Petroleum Ventures, Dennis Downes, stressed that without improving the premises, the business will be hard-pressed to thrive. “Modernization is not expansion” is a phrase Mr. Downes used many times over the course of the proceedings, saying that modernization is a necessary part of doing business.

Even Susan Mead, a Save Sag Harbor board member, acknowledged the need for an upgrade to the property in her anti-renovation written comment.

“I urge you to please deny all the requested variances and allow the property owner to redevelop the property within the code,” she began. “If the ZBA would also ask the building official to, in the meantime, send a letter requesting that the owner clean up the site so that the neighborhood can receive the opportunity to flourish as it deserves.”

As for the lone petitioner to allow the renovation to proceed, Paul D’Ascoli, he wrote: “I feel that enough is enough with this whole extravaganza! [I’m] not sure why the people who oppose this renovation are so adamant about not giving Harbor Heights even a little slack. If anything, to me, it says more about them than the owner who has tried to do the right thing and make the place less of an eyesore, as well as a more useful gas station.

“After all, it is what it is,” he continued. “Why is the opposition trying so hard to perfume the pig?”

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