Southampton Town is expected to move forward next week on plans to repair the Sagg Bridge using federal money, despite objections from Sagaponack Village officials, who are desperate to preserve the small country bridge which crosses Sagg Pond and connects Sagaponack to Bridgehampton on Bridge Lane.
The village board has sought to control the 1923 bridge and assume all responsibility for it, and is now considering acquiring it by eminent domain. In a letter to the Southampton Town Board last month, Mayor Donald H. Louchheim said board members were frustrated at being unable to reach an agreement with the town about how the bridge would be altered.
He said the town had rejected the village’s offer to replace the federal funding if the town agreed to amend the work on the bridge. The town had also rejected the idea of giving the bridge to the village, he said, and hadn’t responded yet on whether it would be willing to let the village buy it. In the meantime, state historic designation is being sought in the hope that it wouldhelp preserve the bridge’s character.
Thirty-five feet of the bridge is beyond the village boundary because the line goes through the middle of Sagg Pond. Under New York State law, a town is responsible for all bridges in an incorporated village unless the village wants to take it over, and only then it can do so if the town agrees. “They would have to give us that 35 feet, which according to their attorney is a very simple annexation process because you’re not talking about property with an assessed value or tax rates, etc., nor are you changing the use of the property,” Mr. Louchheim said.
“We’ve kind of run out of options. Obviously, this is a last resort,” Mr. Louchheim said, referring to the possibility of using eminent domain. “Frankly, it’s incomprehensible to us, really, that the board and the highway superintendent should stubbornly reject these offers and chose to go ahead with a project that’s viewed by residents of both the village and Bridgehampton as aesthetically offensive and inappropriate to the character of the bridge. We do not understand it,” Mr. Louchheim said.
Southampton Town, which has responsibility for the bridge under state law, has plans for a $1 million project that would shore up the seawall at the bridge, which is collapsing, widen and repave the travel lanes, take erosion and sediment control measures, and replace the railing with the help of a $500,000 federal grant administered by the state’s Department of Transportation.
Southampton Town Councilman Brad Bender, the liaison to the Highway Department, which would oversee the work, said he wants to find an amenable solution and is working both to see that the 80-foot-long bridge is repaired and gets historic designation if the state deems it eligible. “But, you have to understand, my larger commitment is to the safety of our residents and we ?couldn’t open up the town to litigation if we’re unwilling to make repairs,” he said. “We have to balance that with the historic preservation . . . it’s kind of a juggling act.”
Alex Gregor, the town highway superintendent, who is in charge of the project, has said bringing the bridge up to federal and state standards will make it safer. Referring to an engineering report that called the bridge “functionally obsolete,” he said federal money couldn’t be used otherwise. “Everybody is focusing on ‘functionally obsolete,’ ” Mr. Louchheim said. “Well, lots of things are ‘functionally obsolete’ that are still going on -— including me,” he said with a laugh.
Mr. Louchheim said that Sally Spanburgh, the chair of the Southampton Town Landmarks and Historic Districts Board, in a “yeoman effort” had researched the history of the bridge. She said the steel and concrete structure is the fourth bridge at the site and the fifth crossing — the first one was made of logs and therefore not considered a bridge. She noted that the bridge is the successor of the one that gave Bridgehampton its name. She plans to file her report with the state’s Office of Historic Preservation and the Department of Transportation’s cultural resource unit by the end of the week in the hope that the bridge is eligible for landmark status. “It was always our intention to apply for eligibility consideration, we just didn’t realize it needed to be so urgently,” she said. She said she expected to hear back in a few weeks.
Nevertheless, the Southampton Town Board has put a resolution to acceept the federal grant on the agenda of its Tuesday meeting. “We’re going to try and get them to defer that until we can get an answer from the state on whether or not the state considers it a bridge where the aesthetics should be preserved,” the mayor said. Councilman Bender said the town is at risk of losing the money because a deadline is nearing. “If we have a drop-dead date that’s close, then we’re going to have to move forward. The reason being, we don’t have an agreement currently with Sagaponack to pick up the lost funds and the town surely doesn’t have the money to make up for the lost funds if we were to drop the ball on this,” he said. “We can’t say, ‘Oh, we dropped the ball,’ and then ask the residents of Southampton to pick up the $500,000.”
If in fact the town moves forward on Tuesday, or even at a later date, the project won’t begin for another two months, Mr. Bender said. The state is expected to respond long before then, so there is still a possibility that the bridge could be preserved through historic designation.
Still, Mayor Louchheim said the village might turn to litigation if the town keeps pressing forward. Anthony B. Tohill, the village attorney, advised the board that it is possible for a municipality to exercise eminent domain on a property in another municipality as long as the public use of that property doesn’t change. Eminent domain is more often seen in instances where a municipality condemns private property for public use in exchange for fair compensation. What the compensation, if any, would be in this case remains to be seen.