The owners of a home in Sag Harbor’s historic district who want to expand it claim that they have been treated unfairly—and that the community organization Save Sag Harbor has played an unduly heavy-handed role.
Steven Barr and Frank Ahimaz, the property owners, also say that letters supporting their project were stolen by a vocal board member of the organization who lives next door.
At a Village Board meeting on December 8, that accusation came to light when the homeowners’ attorney, Alex Kriegsman, requested an exemption from the village’s building moratorium, which is set to expire in one month. Adopted in July, it applies to the construction of new homes larger than 3,500 square feet on lots that are less than one-half acre, and to houses of more than 5,000 square feet on lots that are larger than one-half acre. It also applies to renovations that would cost 50 percent or more of the home’s market value.
Mr. Kriegsman—who has called his clients “historic preservationists”—argued that Mr. Barr and Mr. Ahimaz have faced a “substantial hardship” in trying to renovate and expand their home at 43 Howard Street since June 2014. They had received the Sag Harbor Historical Society’s 2003 annual award for the restoration and renovation of their home on 96 Madison Street, Mr. Kriegsman pointed out.
The attorney blamed Save Sag Harbor and also stated that Mia Grosjean had delayed the process by taking letters in support of the project. The day after the meeting, he also said that a Zoning Board of Appeals member, Anton Hagen, had to recuse himself on the application because Ms. Grosjean had “made inappropriate contact” with him about it.
Dennis Downes, an attorney, was looking for the letters of support on behalf of his own clients, whose project had nothing to do with the house on Howard Street, in June when the secretary of the Building Department, Doris Alvarez, told him in an email that Ms. Grosjean had picked up some documents, either his or those of Mr. Barr and Mr. Ahimaz. The secretary’s email was also sent to Village Clerk Beth Kamper, Building Inspector Thomas Preiato, ZBA attorney Denise Schoen and others.
The email stated that Mr. Downes or Mr. Ahimaz had left documents in the meeting room. “I saw Mia Grosjean taking the set of documents and placing them in her bag. I approached Mia as she was leaving the meeting room and kindly asked her to hand over the documents she took from the table,” Ms. Alvarez wrote.
She described the encounter as “embarrassing.” Ms. Grosjean looked through her bag, Ms. Alvarez said, but “unfortunately, she didn’t find the documents.”
Ms. Grosjean told Ms. Alvarez that she would drop them off the next day—and she did, the email said. “I told her that would be the right thing to do, as those documents didn’t belong to her,” Ms. Alvarez wrote.
“It shows the lengths this woman is going to go to try to defeat our application,” Mr. Kriegsman said last week, adding that Ms. Grosjean and other individuals who are a part of Save Sag Harbor have “hijacked” the process of reviewing applications.
Jeffrey Bragman, Ms. Grosjean’s attorney, however, said the accusations are a distraction from the real issue—what the owners plan to do with the home. “It is a movie flat restoration,” he said. “They will keep one little box in the front and it will look like a new house.
“What they should do is work with the volume and shape of the home and then build and extension off of that,” he continued, stressing that the moratorium is meant to block projects that fail to preserve historic integrity.
This week, Mr. Bragman urged the Village Board to deny the exemption request, saying it is a blanket violation of the moratorium’s substantial improvement clause, which states that renovations on a home cannot cost more than 50 percent of the home’s value. He argued that the applicants barely revised their plans based on what he called the ARB’s negative reaction to the application.
“And, all of a sudden, because of the intervention of Mia Grosjean and Save Sag Harbor, they state outright that there are nefarious dealings going on,” he said.
While the exact square footage of the home was not available because of a discrepancy between the numbers the Village Board had and the numbers the architect, Scott Baker, had, the size of Mr. Barr and Mr. Ahimaz’s home would increase by roughly 1,500 square feet if approved by the Village Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review—and also the Village Board because of the required exemption from the moratorium.
Mr. Bragman also said on Friday that it is perfectly acceptable for Ms. Grosjean to approach Mr. Hagen, or any government official, about any project. “You certainly have a First Amendment right to approach your elected official,” he said. “That is pure political speech of the best sort.”
He continued, “They say this must be a conspiracy against us because we have a sympathetic restoration that we are going to do. The ARB didn’t like what they were going to do, and neither does my client, who will be 14 feet away from it.”
But Mr. Kriegsman said the ARB did not have a negative reaction, and that his clients were caught in the moratorium because the ARB never voted on their application, although the ZBA did approve their request for variances.
And in fact his clients went further: “As quite possibly the only interracial couple in the Sag Harbor Historic District, the only empirical conclusion is that perhaps there is some other motivation guiding the village’s actions,” they wrote in their application for an exemption. “Perhaps the village would prefer that we relocate to one of Sag Harbor’s historically black areas where exemptions appear to be granted according to different criteria than in the historic district where we live and own two properties.”
“There are a lot of troubling things about their case,” Mr. Kriegsman said. “Right now, they are trying to move forward in the process. It is ridiculous.”