Bridge Lane in Sagaponack Village will be open to traffic for most of summer, at least, as officials from the village and Southampton Town continue to wrestle over how to make repairs to the small bridge that spans the waters of Sagg Pond.
The village has tried a variety of avenues to head off the project, including offering to take over the maintenance of the bridge itself, and Mayor Donald Louchheim last week penned a letter to the town on behalf of the Village Board informing the town that the village is investigating the possibility of exercising the municipal right of eminent domain to force the town to sell the bridge to the village at fair market value. The village would then undertake the nearly $1 million in repairs itself, with its own design.
Meanwhile, the village also has asked Town Board members to hold off on moving forward with the planned renovations to the bridge while the town’s Landmarks & Historic Districts Board seeks to have the 90-foot span evaluated as a possible historic structure, which could preclude some design changes to the bridge planned in the renovation blueprints.
The Town Board had been poised to vote on a resolution to push the project forward this week but has put off the decision until its June 10 meeting.
Landmarks Board Chairwoman Sally Spanburgh said on Tuesday that she has been working with state officials to get the approximately 85-year-old bridge evaluated as a historic structure. She said it could take as little as two weeks to get the evaluation completed, though it may not be possible by June 10.
“We seem to have our backs to the wall,” the village mayor, Mr. Louchheim, said. “We had hoped for a little more time, as we have been working with Sally Spanburgh to see if the bridge can be designated as a historic bridge. We thought we could let that play out—but then we learned that the town was poised to move forward, so we decided to play all our cards.”
Since December 2013, the bridge has been the focus of an at-times heated debate involving residents and public officials from Bridgehampton and Sagaponack, and Town Hall, over proposed changes to the bridge’s 1930s features as part of the renovation project, primarily the guide rails that line its edges, which would be replaced to improve safety, and a walkway, which would be removed.
State policy does allow numerous older bridges to remain without modern safety features to preserve their traditional appearances.
The village has offered, at different stages of the debate, to pay for the half of the construction that federal money was to cover if the town chose not to use the grant, freeing the project from a mandate to comply with the latest state codes. or to take over the maintenance of the bridge entirely and pay for the renovations itself.
Mr. Louchheim said the village will hire an attorney who specializes in eminent domain cases to handle the attempt at forcing the sale of the bridge. Eminent domain is a municipal tool typically applied to taking over private property in the interests of a greater public good. The seizing municipality can compell the owner to sell a property to them at its fair market value.
Deputy Town Attorney Kathleen Murray said she was unsure of what rights a village would have to exert eminent domain on another municipality’s property. She said she would be researching the issue in the coming days.
Town Councilman Brad Bender said he was doubtful that one municipality could use eminent domain to force another, much larger municipality to sell public property.
Were the state to give the bridge a historic designation—something it failed to do in a 2002 statewide survey of old bridges—it would require that any renovation plans be reviewed by a state committee and would likely mean changes could not substantially alter the aesthetic appearance of the bridge.
The Town Highway Department had initially planned to shut down through traffic on Bridge Lane for the entire summer, starting this month, while extensive renovations were made to the bridge. But Highway Superintendent Alex Gregor acknowledged this week that the delays caused by the tug-of-war over the bridge has meant that even if the Town Board gives approval on June 10, it would take at least two months after that to get the project up and running.
The board must vote to accept a $500,000 federal grant that has been earmarked, since 2009, for the project. The town has already approved and appropriated approximately $500,000 of its own money for the work as well.
The federal grant has been at the heart of the debate about the impact that renovations would have on the bridge’s quaint appearance and on the village’s desire to hold on to its rural identity. The grant’s stipulations require that any work it funds comply with the latest state-issued safety codes.
But state codes render the existing guide rails on the bridge—two rows of steel pipes running between 4-foot concrete columns—obsolete and would require that they be replaced. The designs also call for the roadway to be widened and a small curb and sidewalk along one side of the bridge to be eliminated.
Critics of the plans have said that the guide rails are the essence of the bridge’s quaint appearance, which makes it an iconic feature of the village. They have also argued that widening traffic lanes and removing the curb separating the walkway from the roadway would create a severe safety hazard, not eliminate one. There has never been an accident on the bridge in its 90-year history, and the narrow roadway and curb separating vehicles from pedestrians is part of the reason why, Sagaponack residents claim.
Mr. Gregor has said that he is not comfortable with the old guide rails and that, even without the demands of the federal grant, he would want to replace them with modern designs.
But the village and town have not been able to settle on modern railing styles that village officials are comfortable with.
Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said this week that the Town Board needs to make a decision about how it will proceed soon, as the federal grant money can be revoked if it is not applied in a timely fashion.
“At some point, this Town Board is going to have to make a decision about whether to move forward or not,” she said. “I don’t know what the legal hurdles for [eminent domain] are, but I gather they are not uncomplicated. I would hope that we can resolve this without getting into that kind of technical weeds.”
Mr. Louchheim expressed frustration that the debate has continued without resolution, since the village expressed its willingness to take over responsibility for the bridge early on.
“We, frankly, don’t understand how it isn’t in the interests of all town residents to let us have the bridge,” the Sagaponack Village mayor said. “They could use the federal grant money on another project, and they wouldn’t have to spend the $500,000 of their share of the cost. We offered to let them give us the bridge, and we’d take on the responsibility. Now we’re offering to buy it. After that, we’ve kind of run out of options.”