After three years of discussion, a state-mandated environmental quality review, and a green light last month from the Sag Harbor Village Planning Board, the Harbor Heights service station’s application for demolition and large-scale expansion finally came before the village’s Zoning Board of Appeals on Jan. 15.
Harbor Heights, on Route 114 (Hampton Road), is currently the only provider of fuel in Sag Harbor, and the night’s long hearing brought out a packed crowd of residents opposing many aspects of the plan, especially the addition of a 972-square-foot convenience store. The station is in a residential zone, but is allowed to operate there because it was built before the zoning code took effect.
Anita Rainford, who said she was representing 130 taxpayers of the Azurest Homeowners Association and some 300 other residents as well, said traffic was bad enough already on 114, and a convenience store would only make it far worse. The four gas pumps there now are enough, she said — four more are proposed — and she called the expansion plan “a monstrosity.”
The Rev. Kenneth Nelson, speaking on behalf of the nearby A.M.E. Zion Church, took issue with a convenience store selling alcohol (beer) so close to the church. “My ancestors built this church,” he said. “I want to save the church and the area around it.” He also expressed concern that students from nearby schools would walk down the sidewalk-less streets to buy things at the store, creating a safety issue, and that the store would become “a hangout for youth who have nothing else to do.”
“We are against that kind of environment,” said Mr. Nelson.
Dennis Downes, the village attorney, representing the applicant, John Leonard, brought two engineers to brief the board. Chris Tartaglia of High Point Engineering described the existing station as antiquated, run down, and in dire need of updating. He emphasized its lack of curb cuts or proper traffic flow, and said its pumps were unsafely positioned, just a few feet from the road.
Under the proposed redevelopment, the pumps would be set back to a less visible location on the side of the building, with a redesigned traffic flow, 32 parking spots, and a truck-loading stall, in addition to the doubling of the number of pumps. The other engineer, Charles Olivio, the owner of Stonefield Engineering, said the pumps as they now stand — in the right-of-way of a state highway — are “somewhat dangerous.”
The development also calls for a 24-foot high, 102-foot long, lighted canopy atop the island holding the pumps; about nine feet higher than the code allows. Mr. Tartaglia told the board the height was essential for tractor-trailers delivering gas to maneuver safely, adding that the shingled roof of the canopy accounts for several excess feet in height. Drawings of the canopy and the overall plan portrayed a “country market” look and feel, intended to fit in with the residential area.
While 600 square feet is the code limit for a convenience store, the requested variance is for 972 square feet. That includes a restroom for customers (there is none now), an 11-door walk-in cooler, two 20-foot display “gondolas,” 80 feet for coffee service, and display space for candy and gum, “salty snacks,” “meat snacks,” cookies and pastries, pet supplies, paper products and cleaning aids, groceries, and health and beauty products. The total also includes a stairway, the register area, an office, and a storage closet, said Mr. Tartaglia.
“Nobody knows where the 600 feet came from,” he said, calling the code “out-of-date.” Code restrictions on canopy height were “nowhere in any municipality I have ever worked,” he said. “It is completely nonsensical, especially for a gas station.”
He went on to present a lengthy explication of convenience store industry studies to justify the financial reasoning behind the desired size of the store, observing that fuel costs are up and profits on gasoline sales down, thanks to federal mandates requiring that cars get better mileage. And, he said, the demand for repairs has lessened, because oil changes and brakes last longer. You would “make as much on a can of soda as a $10 fill-up,” he asserted.
The board listened to the statistics, but its new chairman, Anthony Hagen, told Mr. Tartaglia that “what’s important to us is . . . how will this impact our community.”
Under the redevelopment, the current service station would be demolished. The new one, together with the store, would be in a single building, with decorative barn doors “for aesthetic purposes,” said Mr. Tartaglia, with a “300 percent increase” in landscaping as well as a new septic system, already approved by the Suffolk County Health Department, to improve on-site drainage. The engineer called that a substantial environmental benefit. Right now, he said, runoff goes into the state right-of-way.
A request for a sign setback variance was explained as a safety issue, so drivers could know the price of gas without slowing down. The existing Harbor Heights sign would be removed, and Mr. Tartaglia said the applicant would work with the Architectural Review Board for any new, ground-mounted, low signs.
Mr. Olivio told the board that based on traffic studies covering summer months, off-season months, and holidays, a 972-square-foot store would generate no more traffic than a smaller store that conformed to the code. Gas stations draw cars that are already traveling on the road, he explained. The fact that the village’s only other gas station, Getty, is now closed was not discussed or taken into account of by the traffic studies, as it happened only recently.
The finding about there being no increase in traffic at a larger store was a factor in the planning board’s approval last month. That board determined the site’s use under the code to be a gasoline service station with an accessory convenience store, where gas is what draws the traffic. The presumption is that a driver stops to fuel and then pays a visit to the store. Mr. Hagen confirmed, “You are making a judgment that the main use is gasoline.”
The meeting went on for over three hours. As it showed little sign of ending, Mr. Hagen tabled the matter until the board’s next meeting, on Feb. 19. Jeff Bragman, an attorney representing Save Sag Harbor, which has been gathering petitions against the application, was eager to speak, but said he would hold off until then in view of the late hour.