How Preservationists Are Losing the Fight Against Luxury Real Estate
After weeks of waiting, Patrick Ciccone, a historic preservationist and author, was looking forward to finally arguing his case.
On a brisk Sunday morning, he arrived at the barnlike town hall in Durham, N.Y., to meet with the town supervisor, Shawn Marriott.
But before Mr. Ciccone could get a dialogue going, Mr. Marriott handed him what looked to be a photocopied statement with two typed sentences. “Effective immediately,” Mr. Ciccone was dismissed as chair of the Durham Historic Preservation Commission.
“I was fired and, frankly, I was embarrassed,” Mr. Ciccone said of losing the voluntary position he had held for six years. “After ignoring us for months, to be handed an undated, photocopied letter, and not to say a word, it was just emblematic of this whole situation.”
The “situation” is a contentious real estate project that has roiled this rural enclave of 2,700 in Greene County: Ninety-five acres of woods, wetlands and stone outcroppings are set to be converted into a dozen luxury homes, and not everyone is happy about it.
The historic preservation committee, led by Mr. Ciccone, had wanted to do a more in-depth environmental study on the project before it proceeded, but that didn’t happen. What happened instead were public meetings dragging on past midnight, tempers lost, a lawsuit and, lastly, Mr. Ciccone’s dismissal. Following the firing, three others on the commission quit in protest, leaving Durham’s preservation group toothless.
As city dwellers have flocked to this area of rural New York, several ambitious developers have taken notice, as have local governments in need of broader tax bases. This has put intensifying pressure on the historic preservation commissions of these towns and small cities. Commissions can be scrupulous when reviewing development proposals. Lately, their requests to slow down and study certain projects before jumping into construction have pitted them directly against the local governments they serve.
So far, the commissions seem to be on the losing side, with several vocal leaders either being relieved of their positions or quitting out of frustration.
“Too often preservation commissions get pegged as anti-development, but our role is to moderate change, to consider how we can allow places of historic significance to evolve without the community losing its integrity,” said Marissa Marvelli, who previously served as vice chair of the historic preservation commission in Kingston, N.Y. That city’s mayor dismissed her three years ago, after she urged a more thorough review of a plan to bring more than 140 apartments and 420 parking spaces to a historic district that dated to 1658.
“No reason was given to me as to why I was being removed,” Ms. Marvelli said. “The mayor’s publicly stated reason was that he had a long list of candidates, and it was time to give someone else a chance. But he never filled all the seats.” Today, the commission still has a vacant position, while the development, the Kingstonian, is nearing final approval.
In Durham, the development causing the uproar is Bosque (pronounced “bohs-keh,” the Spanish word for forest) which would convert an undeveloped area of Cornwallville, a historic hamlet, into a large-lot subdivision with a cul-de-sac and houses that start at about $1.6 million. The site would also feature a small farm and what the developer calls “the Bosque farmhouse,” which would have community programs and an artist’s residency. Bosque critics have dubbed it “the party barn.”
Stephen Ellwood bought the M.H. Merchant Stone House, erected in 1900, 14 years ago. It borders the proposed development, which could soon obscure Mr. Ellwood’s expansive views of trees and a mountain peak. “It’s a gated community, without a gate,” he said of the development. “This is about stewardship of nature, stewardship of historic architecture, and about preserving open space.”
Mr. Ellwood is part of Cornwallville Residents for Rural Preservation, a collection of more than 60 neighbors who oppose the development. They have been speaking out at public hearings, writing letters and disseminating white placards that say “no subdivision,” which are on lawns throughout Cornwallville. Chief among their concerns is that a dozen new homes will wreak havoc on the area’s fragile ecosystem and that the developer lacks any real experience to undertake a project of this size.
The Durham Town Board, however, completed a mandatory preliminary environmental study and, based on that, decided Bosque would not have significant adverse impacts on the area. Mr. Ellwood and his group are suing the developer and the board to force them to reverse that designation. Despite the pending suit, in early April the town voted unanimously to give Bosque the preliminary approval to proceed.
Bosque’s developer, Preston Jones, takes umbrage with the efforts to discredit him and the project. “We have received a lot of criticism and judgment from Day 1,” he said. “People didn’t give us a chance and just made assumptions.”
While it is true that Mr. Jones, 32, has a very short track record — his only prior experience is constructing a single home, which he did largely by watching YouTube videos and reading articles — he insists that his lack of professional experience has no relevance. “I am part of a new generation of developers focusing on building homes that are future-proof, built to last and not only looking at profits at the expense of our planet.”
Mr. Jones, whose wife, Ariana Diaz, is also working on the project, plans to use low-carbon building materials, he said. He added that the homes would rely on solar power and be net zero, which means that greenhouse gas emissions would be cut as close to zero as possible. And while his company will cut down 25 percent of the area’s forest, most of the trees will be turned into biochar, a charcoal-like material that improves soil health.
But critics of the project say that these steps are not enough, and that a more intensive study is crucial. They contend that the homes are out of context with the rural surroundings and that the developer has conducted inadequate environmental reviews.
“We are simple people here, we don’t need these fancy houses and a homeowners association,” said Karen Beckingham, whose home borders the project. “It will bring lights and noise; they are building on wetlands — it just isn’t right.”
Mr. Jones maintains that he has done everything required of him by the town. “I mean, we spent a week digging holes to make sure there were no Native American artifacts there,” he said. “Dealing with the historic preservation commission was not like dealing with a neutral body, they acted like the opposition.”
Funded by a group of unnamed investors, the project will start construction only once a home has sold, he said, and the farmhouse will not be built until five homes have sold. Bosque hopes to start sales officially this summer.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing,” said Claudia Zucker, the real estate broker who sold Mr. Jones the 95 acres, and who sees the financial upside to having more taxpayers in Durham. “I am on the Board of Ed, and I want more families to come here, I want more tax base for the school.”
Because of her views, Ms. Zucker, who has lived in Durham for 35 years, has received nasty emails from neighbors and has been the target of a whisper campaign, she said. But she understands the heightened emotions. “If someone did this in my backyard, I would be angry and fight too.”
The city of Poughkeepsie is enmeshed in a similar battle over the fate of a 2.2-acre grassy knoll with a 163-year-old mansion and sweeping views of the Hudson River. There, developers hope to construct five residential buildings, as well as commercial space.
Poughkeepsie’s historic preservation commission has adamantly opposed this plan, declining to issue a certificate of appropriateness. This has prevented the developers from obtaining the necessary permits to proceed, and they have appealed the decision. City legislators upheld it, and the developers have sued. The case is continuing.
Despite the lawsuit, the city recently closed on the sale of the property and is working with the developers to hammer out a settlement. “We have a housing challenge — it has been called a crisis — and this site is a perfect location for market-rate homes,” said Poughkeepsie’s mayor, Robert Rolison. The current deal would preserve Pelton Manor, a historic building that has been vacant for nearly a decade, for public use. Originally it was slated to be converted to apartments; now it is to house an arts organization.
That isn’t enough for opponents. “This is an unvarnished sweetheart deal quite typical of the good ole boys way of business around here,” said Ken Stier, a freelance reporter who moved to the neighborhood from Brooklyn four years ago and is a vocal opponent of the plan. “The mansion, and its small but precious river-view setting, is the crown jewel in a much-diminished historic district,” he said. The area, he continued, will “be completely privatized and packed with upscale housing.”
Poughkeepsie’s preservation commission, in the meantime, is in a precarious spot. Of its seven seats, the terms of three have expired, and two more will expire this summer. With five of the seven seats up for grabs, it would be easy for the mayor to replace them with commissioners more sympathetic to the plan. So far, that hasn’t happened.
“I didn’t replace them because of their involvement in this proposal, because it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do,” Mr. Rolison, the mayor, said. But the future remains in question. “I haven’t done it for the time being,” he said, “but I am not going to lock myself into something.”
The repercussions of a local government that does dismiss its historic preservation commission leaders have so far been minimal. In the case of Durham, the town could lose its status as a certified local government. The designation comes from a federal program, administered by the state, which gives towns and cities some financial assistance and training in return for upholding preservation standards. New York has 75 such certified local governments, including New York City.
“The situation in Durham is incredibly frustrating,” said Daniel McEneny, the division director at the New York State Historic Preservation Office, which oversees the program. Mr. McEneny’s office has written two letters to Mr. Marriott, Durham’s town supervisor. Both letters explain that Durham’s preservation commission currently lacks a quorum to operate. So far, the town hasn’t responded. “If we don’t hear back, we will commence with an audit,” which is the first step in removing Durham from the federal program, Mr. McEneny said.
Mr. Ciccone recently wrote an email to Mr. McEneny asserting that his dismissal sets a dangerous precedent. “This is metastasizing from an esoteric local issue,” he wrote, to a major threat against local historic preservation commissions everywhere.