The Sag Harbor Zoning Board of Appeals has been asked to give approval to a controversial project at the Harbor Heights service station on Hampton Street, on the East Hampton side of the village. In a plan put forward by the property’s owner, John Leonard, the existing service station would be razed and a new, larger one — with a convenience store, roughly the functional size of the village’s 7-Eleven — would rise on the site.
But the question for the Sag Harbor Z.B.A. is of a more existential nature than how high the canopy at the station should be or just how many square feet might be acceptable for the convenience store. Instead, board members ought to be asking why Harbor Heights should be allowed to expand at all, especially since it would be in clear contradiction of local regulations that bar the gas station’s growth because it is on land with residential zoning.
The basic issue is how Sag Harbor officials deal with this and other projects proposed for businesses that are on property zoned for houses alone. Such businesses are termed pre-existing, nonconforming uses, and they can be updated, restored, or repaired — up to a point. That mark, and this is key, is that the “degree of nonconformity shall not be increased,” according to Sag Harbor law.
Another section of the village code supports the belief that any discussion of how much to allow Harbor Heights to grow is misplaced. It states that “every effort shall be exercised to contain those nonconforming buildings and uses that now exist.” Doubling the number of gas pumps from two to four, adding a food market, providing more space for mechanics, and putting up a high, lighted canopy cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered containing or restraining the use. Officials appear to have fallen for the old lawyer’s trick of debating the details while looking past the fundamental problems with an application.
By a back-of-the-napkin calculation based on traffic projections provided by the applicant, the new station and convenience store could increase the number of patrons there by 40 percent. Others looking at the developer’s numbers have said traffic could triple. And this, even at the lower figure, is not expansion? Hello, Sag Harbor, is anyone home?
Repair shops and filling stations are flat-out prohibited in the village’s residential zones. However, a convenience store as part of a filling station is allowed by special permit under a provision of village law suspiciously relevant to this application. If the property owner is to be believed that there is no money in selling gasoline, the main business on the site might be the store — which should have raised a question about change of use earlier in the process.
Beyond all this is an unmentioned section of the law that allows the Sag Harbor Village Board to terminate a nonconforming use, like Harbor Heights, “when it is found detrimental to the conservation of the value of the surrounding land and improvements or to future development of surrounding lands and therefore is tending to deteriorate or blight the neighborhood.” As neighborhood opposition to the proposal coalesces around fears of falling property values and a loss of community character, the Harbor Heights property owner should keep in mind that the village, in the end, has this as its ultimate option.