The Belfry: DEMOLITION PERMIT TO BE GRANTED

[Ed. note: Anyone who wants the complete back story on The Belfry, enter the word Belfry in my Search box on the right. Start with the oldest article and work your way up].

The Bedford Town Board met at 7pm tonight to listen to and vote on weigh in on the appeal presented by the owners of The Belfry who filed for a permit to demolish the Tudor home but were denied by the Town Historic Preservation Commission.

photo by Ginnel Real Estate

When I got there at 6:50 and was the only one in the room, I worried that I had the wrong night, but slowly the court room filled and the meeting started promptly at 7.

The lawyer for the owners was first to speak, but he very smartly made his comments brief, reiterated “our contention is that the Historic Preservation Commission made an error.”

The owner was the second to address the Board and she spoke calmly and ever so eloquently.

She made the case that they have been Bedford residents for 27 years and when they were shown The Belfry around Christmas of 2010, before deciding to purchase it, she and her husband did their due diligence, hiring local lawyers, local surveyors, and engineers.

It wasn’t until four months later, April 2011, that they were notified by the secretary to the Historic Preservation Commission that their home sat “on a survey”.

The owner contended they were never notified of the survey. No one, not their attorney, not their real estate broker, not the seller who managed the property for years, and not the local owner’s representative. None of those parties was aware that the house sat on a list of historic homes.

On May 12, they met with the Head of Planning Board and asked if other homeowners knew about the list and could they have a copy. They were given ONE PAGE, the “H” page, for the name of the road on which The Belfry sits.

It was then that the owners asked to meet with the Town Historian, John Stockbridge, one of the authors of the list, but he refused unless they were represented by their lawyers.*** [This comment didn’t make sense to me so I may have heard it wrong: perhaps Stockbridge wouldn’t meet with the owners unless he, Stockbridge, had a lawyer. I’ll have to wait to see what the local papers say to get that detail correct.]

The owner added that they would never have purchased the Belfry had they known it was on a list. Their experts determined that the home was functionally obsolete not to mention that Chubb refused to insure it. And when the Commission usurped their rights and encumbered their home by putting in on a list without their permission or knowledge, she said they felt betrayed by the Town, as if the property was seized. She ended by saying she felt “the ordinance went profoundly astray.”

John Stockbridge was next to speak, he the Town Historian and chair of the Historic Preservation Commission, the entity that denied the demolition permit.

Mr. Stockbridge spoke of the Master Plan set forth by the Town of Bedford in 2002 which implemented a preservation ordinance for the purpose of determining historic dwellings in town, based on a love of the town and the desire to preserve it.

Mr. Stockbridge said he was “incredulous” that neither the owners, nor the lawyers, nor realtors knew The Belfry was on a survey and stood firm in his contention that the house met enough of historic criteria to be denied application to tear it down.

This, despite the fact the owners were not aware of the list. To back up a bit, the owner in her comments tonight, made reference to the 2002 Ordinance and how she felt it was wonderful that the Town felt so strongly about preservation, BUT the ordinance clearly states the owners must be informed that their home is being considered historic. She said, the previous owners of The Belfry waited nine years to be told and it wasn’t until they, the new owners, purchased it and made known the intention of tearing it down, did the list appear.

No comments from the public were allowed and The Town Board voted to go into Executive Session, which means they discuss and vote in private. After about 20 minutes, they returned:

Photo by Ginnel Real Estate

Motion:
DEMOLITION PERMIT TO BE GRANTED, WITH THE FOLLOWING CONDITIONS:

1. The section of the home, known as The Belfry, which consists of the living room, front stairs, the actual belfry, (and I believe they said dining room), must remain.

2. The east and south wings of the main house can come down.

3. The demolition must be done in a specific order, the outbuildings first.

4. The owners may relocate the historic Belfry section of the home to another part of the property or if it remains in its current position, they can incorporate it into any new home they design and build.

5. It can also remain as a free-standing building when relocated and the new home can be built without incorporation.

6. The belfry section must be restored to historic specification, whether it sits separately on the property or is attached to the new home.

The historic core of the home (interior and exterior) stays and will be restored. The new home will be built. Everyone is happy? BTW, I have chosen not to use the names of the owners here. It is a matter of public record and anyone can find it on their own. I don’t choose to release it. The Bedford Patch article linked here by a reader does mention the owners by name.

Photo by Tom Bartley of Bedford Patch showing the historic belfry section of the home to be preserved

33 thoughts on “The Belfry: DEMOLITION PERMIT TO BE GRANTED

  1. Are the owners pleased with that? I think it’s a good compromise but it chafes me that they are being told, after the fact, what they are allowed to do and must do with their own property.

    1. Maggie: I couldn’t get a read on the owner’s feelings. That didn’t flinch when the motion was read. While the motion does give them the ability to build their dream home, it should not be discounted what price it will take to restore and/or move the belfry section of the house.

      If you ask me, I think the Town took advantage of the known wealth the owners have and put parameters around their decision based on the fact the owners could assume the added costs. I agree Maggie, that it’s wrong for the owners to be told what do do.

  2. Hi,
    At least now the owners can get on with doing something to the house, as you said a win, win situation, but still it must of cost the owners a fortune in court costs.

    1. Maybe my terminology is wrong UF and I should even change my first sentence in this post. They went into executive session to “talk among themselves”. When they returned they had a long written statement that must have been prepared way before last night’s meeting so why they went into exec session is unknown to me. Voting didn’t seem to enter into what I saw and reported on. The Chair of the Board prefaced the announcement that they were going into exec session by saying the magic words “possible litigation.”

  3. My understanding of freedom of information and public land use regulation is that executive session privilege is limited to confidential personnel matters of staff, and actual litigation discussion with the board’s attorney. Both those items are protected under the “privacy” section of the U S Constitution. Maybe an attorney-type can remind me which section that is.

  4. I am torn about this decision. While I agree with Mags that it seems like a win-win, I lean a little more to Maggie that I’d be chafed that the town was still dictating to me what I could do with my house that I bought free and clear of any encumbrances and limitations.

    BTW, neither the Bedford Patch or Bedford Daily have reported on this. Good get.

  5. “Possible ligitation” is not protected from the open and on-the-record business of a land use board. Call your State FOI Commission. Then FOI the session minutes.

    PS – This is awesome coverage, where blogging becomes part of the story.

  6. I think Maggie has it right. The Town is still dictating to the owners what they must do and I find that troubling. I suppose this is a win-win, if you have the $$ to add the extra renovation onto the bill.

  7. that “belfry section” is huge and to restore it, let alone MOVE it, will cost a fortune. troubling isn’t a strong enough word for what i feel about this decision.

  8. I am delighted that the historic section of the house is being retained. The owners would have destroyed something unique in Bedford and we would have lost a treasure.

    1. ABR: Yes, that’s true, but had YOU been the owner, and were now forced to preserve something that had heretofore not been labeled historic nor was in the historic district, and you couldn’t afford to restore it, how would you feel then? Your property would be considerably devalued and could only be resold to someone with (a) enough means to restore and (b) an interest in restoration.

  9. How big is the actual “belfry” area? Is it the 3 towers/peaks in your last photo. Do you know the sqr footage? You have done a great investigative piece with up-to-the-minute reporting. I think you should sell the story to Westchester magazine, or maybe a tabloid!

    1. SB: I don’t know the actual sf but it looks substantial to me. I have tweeted and emailed this story to a few people involved in the transaction so perhaps one of them can comment on your question. But yes, I believe it is the entire right hand corner of the house as shown in the last photo taken by The Bedford Patch reporter.

      Thanks for the pat on the back for reporting. This story has caused quite a division in the town – as many are appalled that the Town can have such a huge say in someone’s private property as are those who are upset that the owners would even consider tearing down any part of the house.

  10. I greatly appreciate the preservation and restoration of historic structures. However, in this particular case (and from what little I know about all the intricacies of this case), were the decision all mine, I’d tear the whole damn thing down and start anew. The way this decision was handled by the secretive “Historic Preservation Commission” cabal smacks of “Big Brother” dealing with a marked deck.

    1. Cobra: You won’t get an argument from me on anything you just said.

      I had hoped to ask a question last night but they were not taking comments from the peanut gallery: I want to know how many homeowners on “the list” of 500 are aware that their home is tagged. Not aware because a neighbor (or blogger!) has informed them but aware by virtue of the town ordinance that REQUIRES homeowners to be notified if their home is designated historically important.

      IMO, That is the entire crux of this case. The Historic Preservation Commission can have all the lists they want for their own use, but when it single-handedly takes on the importance of being law, wow, that’s trouble with a capital T.

  11. On what basis does the town have the right to dictate the interior and exterior restoration of the belfry part of the house? What is meant by ‘historic specification” and who is to be the judge? Sounds very expensive for the homeowners.

    1. Swanton: I will have to read the actual motion when I can get my hands on it. I couldn’t write fast enough as they were reading the ‘verdict’ but the Board did mention the name of some group which will supervise/inform/oversee (I’m not sure what the right word is here) the owners about the restoration. The owners were told it MUST meet some historic guidelines.

  12. I wonder if This Old House would be interested in the renovation?

    It’s worth reading on the town website the Historic Preservation chapter of the 2002 Town Master Plan. I was involved heavily in this project and am embarrassed for the town that they handled this so poorly. Every homeowner should know if his/her house is being “listed”. It borders on criminal that the Benaim’s are FORCED to spend money at the town’s whim.

    http://bedfordny.info/html/pdf/planning/09_community_apperance.pdf

  13. 1. The fact that they would not allow the public’s comments was a cowardly act – by a group that had the self awareness that they had over-reached.
    Executive session, I thought, was reserved for certain types of employment and personnel type discussions and not when they are too embarrassed to
    disclose how they weigh in on a hot topic individually.
    2. When is a demo permit not a demo permit? When you can only demo part of the structure and must restore the part that they deem sacred. Demo is like being pregnant- there is no sort-of involved.

    I would not have accepted this compromised concession if I were the owners. It still inflicts an unfair burden on their use of the property.

  14. We followed up with the Benaim’s attorney, Al Del Bello today—the couple declined to be interviewed last night—who said they were very pleased with the outcome. “It was a good resolution to a difficult problem,” he said. The couple plans to work with the Belfry in designing a new home.

    [Ed.note: Lisa Buchman is Editor of the Bedford Patch]

  15. I see this situation far more as a lose-lose. You have town preservation zealots who make a list “for the good of the town” but keep the list to themselves. You have Town Board members who were too timid to stand up against Stockbridge for what they know was an error on the HPC part. And you have new owners will spend more than a small fortune to restore the bell tower. Where’s the win in this?

  16. As a preservationist (but not a zealot), I am pleased that the core of this home will get a chance to survive. It really should stay, the interior, although tired and needing TLC, is a fine example of old-world craftsmanship that can’t be duplicated today. I happen to think the Benaim’s will be glad they are being forced to keep the bell tower and once restored will only enhance the property should they ever decide to sell.

    I am also an architect and know first hand how many $$$$$ it will cost the Benaim’s to accept this fate. They are a very special couple and should be given alot of credit for not turning this whole awful event into a smack-down.

  17. @William: you don’t see anything wrong with the fact that the Benaim’s are being forced?

  18. Catherine, not as much as the rest of you seem to be. The Town came up with a reasonable motion that stays true to the 2002 Master Plan preservation goals but gives the Benaim’s the right to build their dream home as planned.

  19. I agree with most here. It’s kinda crazy that the government is still telling them what to do with their property. The Historic stuff seems silly too, since this house can’t even been seen from any highly traveled road. I don’t even think it can be seen from the dirt road that it’s on.

  20. Good article here and good overall coverage. I took the time to read the older articles and enjoyed the comments. Some very well informed readers.

    I have a short comment for John who commented at 5:13pm: The owner made mention of that very fact at the Board session last night, that the house is not visible from the road. I believe she made that point because one of the criteria on the HPC checklist is being visible from the road. However, one can argue that if the house is truly historic, being visible is irrelevant.

  21. I think the owners should move the Belfry to Mr. Stockbridge’s back yard and allow him the honor and expense of restoring it. Kidding, obviously, but this whole situation is ridiculous. 😆

  22. Anonymous: That’s the best idea of the day.

    Anyone have an idea how much money is involved in restoring that section of the home? $100,000? $200,000? $Half million? More?

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