Fight a Flight of Stairs

    The Sag Harbor Village Zoning Board of Appeals listened with apparent empathy on Feb. 19 to  neighbors who voiced opposition to plans for a historic house on Garden Street that they said would change the character of the neighborhood and exacerbate flooding, as well as to Dennis Downes, the attorney for the applicant, William Egan. “The neighbors have had a good time stalling this for five years,” Mr. Downes said.
    The underlying problem in the neighborhood is that it is low-lying. Mr. Downes said the proposed changes were necessary because of the poor drainage, saying correcting that was the village’s responsibility. He said houses on Howard Street regularly pump water from their houses “and it is going into my clients’ basement.”
    To meet requirements of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the house, for which an addition is planned, has to be raised. That would require a new set of stairs, which would come within 7 feet of the road, where 35 feet is required. The setback now is 20 feet, Mr. Downes said, handing 24 surveys to board members that demonstrated houses and steps on the block with setbacks of only three feet.
    “Numerous homes have raised basements,” he said. “He is entitled to raise his house and put steps in so he can get into it,” said Mr. Downes. He added that the applicant has to pump his basement out every time it rains, and again blamed the village for negligence.
    “All work proposed meets every zoning code except the stairs,” Mr. Downes said.
    Given recent storms, however, flooding remained an issue for the neighbors. “We are really scared,” said Mia Grosjean. When a neighbor put in a swimming pool, she said it displaced water into her yard as well as others. “We are terrified of what can happen.”
    Robin Young, another neighbor, who also had water on her mind, also complained that the proposed changes would change the character of the neighborhood. The house would be “sitting up that high and looming down at mine,” she said. “I am familiar with water,” she said, noting that her backyard has gotten flooded for 37 years. “In the plans I saw dry wells, retaining walls. It looked complicated,” she said, “I worry when someone puts in a hard structure, where will the water go in a rainstorm.”
    Mr. Downes said the new retaining walls were dictated by the County Health Department to avoid septic flooding.
    Another neighbor also expressed concern that raising  Mr. Egan’s house would result in the water winding up in his own yard.
    Tim McGuire, a board member, empathized with the residents. “The village needs to look at the issue in this neighborhood,” he said.  Brendan Skislock, another board member who lives nearby, agreed, saying that during the recent storm, “I had to swim out of my house in a bathing suit.”
    “All I need is a variance for a set of stairs,” Mr. Downes insisted. Anthony Hagen, the board’s chairman, agreed, reminding the speakers that the board was “really not looking at anything but the steps.”
    Mr. Hagen said that because FEMA mandated raising the house, the applicant would have to site it back seven feet to avoid needing a variance for the stairs. This would require a return to the architectural review board, he said, but it had already decided the house should be kept in place.
    “Changing the character is a lesser evil than causing hardship,” Mr. Hagen said, while Denise Schoen, the board’s lawyer, asked, “What is the hardship of having the stairs in the proposed location?”
    Mr. Hagen decided not to weigh in officially without further examination. “I need a bit more time to clear up some legal issues,” he said. “We will vote at the next meeting,” he said, adding, “There will be no more public input.”