Owners of the Belfry, a home on Holly Branch Road, were denied permission to demolish the structure.
Bedford’s Historic Building Preservation Commission denied a property owner’s application to demolish a nearly century-old Katonah house last week, citing important distinguishing characteristics and architectural style even though it’s currently not listed as a historic structure. On Wednesday night, the commission approved the wording that was drafted in the written decision regarding its denial of the demolition for the Belfry that had been drafted by town attorney Joel Sachs.
The decision to save the house at 44 Holly Branch Road, known as the Belfry, came at the conclusion of the commission’s March 21 public hearing. The evening featured an hourlong executive session, which included owners Darel and Carlos Benaim and their representatives for a portion of the closed meeting, followed by an hour of comment from the public and debate between the parties. Mr. and Ms. Benaim, Bedford residents for 27 years, had hoped to remove the roughly 9,000-square-foot structure and build a new house on the 16-acre property they bought for $3.6 million last February.
The commission was scheduled to convene Wednesday night to approve an official draft decision crafted by town attorney Joel Sachs. Requests for demolition of two other structures on the property, a smaller two-story residence and a garage, were granted.
Chairman John Stockbridge said the commission concluded that the Belfry fit two out of the six criteria outlined in the town code that allows for the committee to deny a demolition permit if the structure is outside the historic districts and built after Jan. 1, 1900. The house is important to the town because it reflects the Tudor revival-style homes that were built in Bedford and other suburban communities between 1910 and 1940, he said.
“It’s a distinct architectural style that has been a part of our history, and it may not be called historical, but it’s a part of our history,” Mr. Stockbridge said.
The Benaims’ attorney, Alfred DelBello, vowed that his clients would immediately appeal the decision to the Bedford Town Board, which under the ordinance that was passed in 2003 can override the commission’s decision. Mr. DelBello also said there is “no doubt” that the Benaims would sue the town for denial of due process should their appeal to the town board be rejected.
At last week’s meeting, Mr. DelBello raised the issue of a list that had been developed by the town containing more than 500 properties throughout Bedford to identify historical structures and other buildings that are worthy of being saved. The Benaims maintained they were never told by town officials that the property’s main house was on the list when they inquired about potential roadblocks prior to their purchase. After they learned of the existence of the survey last May, they were denied access to the list, they charged.
In addition to the money they spent on the property, Mr. DelBello said the couple has spent a significant sum on professional costs that will pose a hardship. He did not provide an estimate on how much the owners have spent on other expenses.
“That property now is encumbered as are something like 500 other properties, meaning that without any sense of constitutional due process, you have infringed on their property rights,” Mr. DelBello told the commission. “There’s a constitutional requirement that at least if you’re going to do that you give people the opportunity to respond.”
Ms. Benaim said in December 2010 she and her husband met with director of planning Jeffrey Osterman, and there was no indication given that they could run into problems.
“You looked at the maps and you told us you didn’t see any reason why we couldn’t build our dream house on this property,” Ms. Benaim said to Mr. Osterman during the meeting.
Mr. Osterman said he had no recollection of the meeting or the conversation that Ms. Benaim referred to.
It is likely that a majority of the roughly 500 properties that appear on the list are either in one of the town’s historic districts or were built before 1900, Mr. Stockbridge said. He did not have a breakdown of how many properties fall into the same category as the Belfry.
Last week Mr. Stockbridge pointed to a seven-page report written by a town consultant, Susanne Pandich, who recommended that the Belfry be saved. Ms. Pandich, a longtime expert and steward of historic landmarks and a member of the Westchester County Historical Society, stated in her report that the Belfry is “a unique specimen of the Tudor style” and depicts a way of life and culture. She also stated that the property would be eligible for the National Register because it would have local and state significance and contributes to the uniqueness of the community.
“Without the main house as part of the composition, the design intent would be lost and the historic significance of the property with it,” Ms. Pandich’s report concluded.
The home was built by Gordon K. Bell, a lawyer and Wall Street financier, in 1913, and designed by William Armstrong and Peter DeGelleke Jr., two noted architects of the day.
Meanwhile, a few speakers criticized the commission for maintaining a hard line on saving the house when in some other experts’ views there is little to no historical significance of the house or the property. Aside from the owners’ expert architect, Stephen Tilley, sharing that view, town resident Gabriel Gabella, a retired architect, agreed there was no historical value.
“When I see something that is becoming such an issue of debate I am appalled, really, at the waste of time and energy on something which is absolutely worth nothing,” Mr. Gabella said.
The two passages in the town code Mr. Stockbridge cited that supports the commission’s decision appear in chapter 71-25 governing demolition permits. One criterion allows the commission to deny the a permit if the structure “embodies the distinguishing characteristics of an architectural type specimen exceptionally valuable for the study of a period, style or method of construction, or that represents a significant, distinctive and exceptional entity whose components may lack individual distinction.”
Another criterion pointed out by the commission that would also apply is if a building is “composed of integral parts of the environment not sufficiently significant by reason of historical association or artistic merit to warrant individual recognition but collectively compose an entity of exceptional historical or artistic significance, or outstandingly commemorate or illustrate a way of life or culture.”