This old house, can be demolished
PENN YAN--The balance of historic preservation versus the practical value of a property can be a controversial issue.
A recent decision of the Penn Yan Village board overturned a unanimous ruling by the village Historic Preservation District Commission and will allow homeowner Pete Townsend to tear down his 19th century Greek Revival home in the historic district. The Penn Yan Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Fran Dumas is the village historian and has a seat on the village historic commission. Dumas fears the decision will set an alarming precedent. She added she was surprised by the board's decision, especially since new regulations are about to go into effect that will give the commission more power to protect historic homes in the future.
Townsend's only comment was, "It's been a 10-year process."
Lynn Duryea, secretary for the historic preservation commission said that in 2000 Townsend bought 210 Clinton St. next door to his company, TRT Masonry Inc. Duryea said he rented the home for a few years, then in 2003, appeared before the village historic commission asking permission to tear the house down. He claimed renters had damaged it beyond repair.
The commission refused, citing the historic preservation law, Chapter 110 of the Code of the Village of Penn Yan. It states the duty of the commission is to "Protect and enhance the landmarks and historic districts which represent distinctive elements of Penn Yan's historic, architectural and cultural heritage."
Duryea said that after Townsend was denied teardown, he asked if he could sell or even give the house away to someone who would move it. She said the board consulted the state preservation office and found out that also was a violation of the preservation law.
Duryea said that for about the next 11 years, nothing seemed to happen with property "because he decided he wanted to get rid of the property and couldn't, for years and years he [had] not [put] any money into it and it's deteriorating."
As the house sat empty, the issue slipped out of the awareness of the historic commission whose membership had changed over the years, Duryea added. No mechanism was in place to track compliance with the commission rulings.
"No one even thought about it," Duryea reported, "until years later when the historic commission noticed it was not being maintained."
Duryea said that in September 2015 the historic commission sent Townsend a letter noting a "complete lack of upkeep" and demanding immediate action to repair the roof and siding to prevent more damage. They met with Townsend at his property and inspected the interior. Following the inspection, in a letter dated November 2015, they gave him specifics about more repairs. They told him to rehang the shutters, cover the roof with a tarp and install the roof by July 2016, rebuild the dismantled chimney and repair the broken window panes.
"Anything someone does to change the exterior of their property has to get approval by the historic commission first," said Duryea.
Duryea reported that instead of complying, he did just the opposite. She said in December 2015 he removed both chimneys, leaving gaping holes in the roof. He removed the patio and shrubs. The historic commission put a stop work order on the property and asked the village attorney to consider legal action.
In April 2016, the historic preservation commission received a letter from the village attorney, Edward Brockman, saying the village was not going to pursue legal action.
The historic commission also found out they needed to revise the outdated language of their 1989 preservation code to give it more power of enforcement.
Dumas explained that the old code did not contain the procedural steps for enforcement. The realization prompted a rewrite of the code. It is expected to go into effect within the month.
However, while the historic commission wrestled with these issues, Townsend appealed directly to the village board.
Minutes of the Sep. 20, 2016 meeting of the Penn Yan village board indicate Townsend had "already spoken with the historical committee and hasn't gotten anywhere. He would like to tear the structure down." The mayor told Townsend he needed to document the cost of fixing the house and needed "to show it's not a reasonable investment to rehab the house." The mayor then added, "If the historical committee denies you, you can appeal that decision to the village board for review. [The board] can override the historical decision."
And that is exactly what happened. Townsend presented his financial data on the estimated cost of repairing the home to the historical commission at its January meeting. He provided estimates that it would take more than $161,000 to make the property habitable. He claimed he could never recover his investment. The historic committee tabled the decision in January but in February it unanimously voted to deny tear-down of the property.
Townsend then appealed the commission's decision at the Feb. 21 village board meeting. He claimed financial "hardship." In a 4-3 decision with the mayor as the deciding vote, Townsend was given permission to tear down his historic house.
"Nothing like this had ever happened before," Duryea said. She explained that if the commission had pursued Townsend more vigorously in 2003, he might have had a more difficult time showing financial hardship, but the decade of neglect had taken a heavy toll.
The day after the village board's decision, contractor Gary Enos was at the site with a crow bar removing parts of the home for salvage. Enos said, "I get so sad when I see these old houses being torn down. Look at this piece of wood. It is almost 200 years old and it was made in the first place out of a 300-year-old tree. This old pine is irreplaceable. It's as hard as oak when it's this old."
Enos pointed out the manner in which the house was constructed using wooden pegs in place of nails. He said, "I just ran into Pete by accident and he told me the house was being torn down. I am going to salvage as much as I can." Enos said he was going to use the wood to continue restoring his own Victorian home. He spoke of his desire to do more salvage work as a business not just a hobby. He said if salvage is done with care, it can be profitable and create a "win-win" for everyone.
Dumas noted that from the point of historic preservation, the harm is irreparable. Each home in the historic district is unique and tells its own special story reflecting an aspect of Penn Yan's past that is valuable to future generations. Now she says, she only can hope that the new codes will prevent something like this from happening again in the future.