Sights Set on Harbor Heights

Save Sag Harbor
Save Sag Harbor has hired a lawyer and will focus on protecting the commercial code that it helped create in a battle over the proposed expansion of the Harbor Heights service station. Carrie Ann Salvi

   Words of wisdom from Margaret Mead warned to “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
    Save Sag Harbor, founded in 2007, has taken those words to heart, making it its mission “to safeguard the scale and fabric of a historic village,” effecting positive change while preventing what it sees as negative, and backing the village’s commercial code, which the group helped push for.
    At the moment, the all-volunteer not-for-profit has its sights set on the Harbor Heights Service Station on Route 114, whose redevelopment is before the Sag Harbor Village Zoning Board of Appeals.
    “We want it to stay a gas station, to be modernized, upgraded, and safe,” said John Shaka, one of the group’s directors, and others in the group at a meeting on Monday afternoon. But the group also wants to rein in what happens at the site, owned by John Leonard’s Petroleum Ventures.
    The application before the zoning board calls for multiple variances, including one for a 102-foot long canopy over the gas pumps, which does not meet village code. The revamped station, which is in a residential and historic district, would have more pumps and a convenience store, as well as new underground storage tanks, an upgraded septic system, and new stormwater drainage and retention systems. 
    As Mr. Shaka sees it, the application is the first full-scale challenge to the commercial code. “Sometimes you have to play defense,” said Mr. Shaka.
    And so Save Sag Harbor has, by hiring Jeffrey Bragman, an East Hampton attorney, to oppose the application as originally proposed.
    A victory of sorts came at an April 16 zoning board meeting, when Dennis Downes, the applicant’s attorney, said he would amend the application, spell out what variances will still be needed, and present a new plan at the board’s May 21 meeting.
    Mia Grosjean, Save Sag Harbor’s president, said she looks forward to seeing the new design. “We’re optimistic,” she said, “confident that they can create something that is in compliance with regulations, that is all we wanted.”
    At an earlier zoning board meeting, Mr. Bragman presented detailed diagrams showing how the service station and a 600-square-foot convenience store could conform to code and still accomplish the owner’s objectives. An exception, he said, are those that would entail a change of use, such as additional gas pumps.    Although the code does not allow gas stations in residential districts, the business currently operates in one because it was there before the zoning code prohibited it.
    But the multiple variances it needs are substantial, Mr. Bragman argued at an April 16 zoning board meeting. “You are supposed to grant the minimum variance necessary, not 62 percent,” he said, telling the board, “He has not shown unnecessary hardship. . . . He has to prove for each and every use that he can’t get a reasonable return on his property, with competent financial evidence. . . . It is an inefficient argument: added profitability for larger size.”
    “Dennis does not believe it is an expansion, which is why he hasn’t applied for one,” Mr. Bragman said on April 16.
    Mr. Downes argued that the pumps need to be moved to make the filling area safer, something Save Sag Harbor is not opposed to.
    On April 16, Mr. Bragman also seemed to convince the zoning board that the canopy proposed above the pumps should be a considered a building under the code — a new 2,600-square-foot, roofed structure where one did not formerly exist.
    While the group is making headway thanks to its legal representative, legal advice does not come for free. “We’ve got a couple of bills to pay,” Ms. Grosjean said Monday. It will raise money to continue its mission at Meet Your Neighbors gathering on May 4 at St. David’s A.M.E. Zion Church, next door to Harbor Heights.
    At the event, the group will share some historical facts about the neighborhood, believed to have been part of an Underground Railroad network. It includes a burial ground that has just been awarded a site preservation grant by the Archeological Institute of America. Examples of the Harbor Heights plans will be offered, too, to show how “out of scale and jarring” the proposed remodel would look, said Ms. Grosjean.
    Proceeds will be split between a fund for legal fees and the restoration of the church’s bell tower by Dana Harvey, an Eagle Scout. Guests will be asked for a free-will donation.
    Long Wharf could be next on the agenda, after a traffic-calming workshop hosted by the group demonstrated the community’s interest in having a say about its use now that it is owned by the village.
    The group’s members don’t agree on every issue. When last summer’s passenger ferry service was first proposed from Long Wharf to Greenport, some were opposed, some were not. Save Sag Harbor put together a survey to get the community’s input, encouraging the mayor and the village’s harbor committee to create their own, as well.
    The group tries to support small businesses, too, encouraging the community to shop locally. And its members attend village meetings to just listen or write up reports for those unable to attend. “More people should attend these meetings . . . standing up for what you believe in, having a voice,” said Ms. Grosjean. She and Mr. Shaka both said they plan to run someday for a seat on the village board.
    The group’s goal, Mr. Shaka said, is not “let’s stop something.” It has also raised money for the restoration of the windmill on Long Wharf and for free WiFi in the village, for example.
    “You can see how you make a difference, said Hilary Loomis, secretary of the group.