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Preservation group criticizes Brewster House demolition

Preservation Long Island, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of Long Island, says Southampton Town needs to prepare a full environmental impact statement before demolishing the Brewster House in Flanders. 

The Town Board approved the acquisition and demolition of the historic structure last month for water quality preservation, using money from the Community Preservation Fund. The acquisition was paid for with CPF money allocated for water quality projects, but its demolition will be funded from the general CPF fund.

The building has been a point of contention for years and has been neglected since it was badly damaged by a fire in 1987. Its owners considered converting it to a hotel in 2016 but dropped the plan because of apparent opposition from neighbors. 

During discussion of the demolition at a Town Board meeting, officials argued that the building could be a safety concern. The Flanders, Riverside, Northampton Community Association accepted the town’s decision, although it expressed disappointment that the building — which has been a fixture in the community since 1880 — could not be saved. 

Sarah Kautz, preservation director at Preservation Long Island, argued that because the house is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, its demolition “should be considered an adverse effect” under New York’s State Environmental Quality Review Act, which would require the preparation of a full environmental impact statement. 

SEQRA’s definition of “environment” includes “the physical conditions which will be affected by a proposed action, including … objects of historic or aesthetic significance.” The criteria for determining if an action might have a significant impact on the environment includes the “impairment of the character or quality of important … aesthetic resources,” according to the SEQR Handbook. 

“Demolition of a cultural property like the Brewster House (eligible for the National Register) is not consistent with accepted standards for historic preservation,” Ms. Kautz wrote in an email. 

She added that the property “also appears to be highly sensitive for potential archaeological materials, although a professional archaeological survey would be needed” to determine that conclusively. She further contested the use of CPF funds for demolition on the basis that the house is a cultural resource. 

“Using CPF money to demolish a building eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places seems to go against the spirit (and perhaps the letter) of the CPF program,” her email said. 

Ms. Kautz also pointed to a December 2016 Town Board meeting where Southampton withdrew a resolution to “remove unsafe and dangerous conditions” at the property after an engineer found the building to be structurally sound and no threat to the community. The town’s chief building inspector — who presented the report — expressed some disappointment, as he’d visited the site that summer and found it “probably one of the worst” buildings he’d seen.

A report from the town’s chief building inspector, Michael Benincasa, submitted in June 2016 had also stated that the house was safe from collapse, but described “a badly deteriorated wood frame (front) building that has been sured up at several locations throughout the first two floors” and highlighted “other dangers that are a real concern,” including the risk of fire and subsequent dangers facing first responders, people without homes seeking shelter and the “haunted house syndrome, attracting adventurous kids.” 

“The issue for me is not whether the building is ready to collapse but rather is the building able to be rehabilitated into a functioning structure,” Mr. Benincasa wrote. “I believe it is so badly deteriorated, has outstood its useful life and therefore it should be demolished.” 

The house had also been stabilized by its previous owners earlier that year, according to a May 2016 report provided by the town.

Ms. Kautz emailed her arguments to Southampton Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, but as of Monday afternoon, had not heard back. 

Mr. Schneiderman said he’s not sure Preservation Long Island is correct. He doesn’t believe the town needs to conduct an environmental review and he said that CPF funds can be used for demolition. He added that it’s “unfortunate” the house fell into complete disrepair, but it’s a “dangerous structure” that’s “beyond the point of restoration.” 

Town law does permit demolition of existing buildings via CPF funds for the sake of land preservation, but also dictates that lands acquired by the town “shall remain preserved in perpetuity via a permanent conservation easement or other instrument that similarly preserves community character.”

Mr. Schneiderman argued that there are much older structures in the community and he’s not sure why there’s a sudden interest in the Brewster House. He said he’s gotten a lot of complaints about the house being a blight on the community. 

“We’ve been talking about it for many years now — it comes to a point where we’ve finally reached an agreement,” he said, adding that the town has held public hearings on the proposed demolition. “A structure like that could be a million-dollar project. I don’t think that’s the right use of taxpayer funds.” 

The supervisor said post-restoration, the town would also have to pay to maintain it — something that is not covered by CPF funds, according to Mr. Schneiderman. “Who is going to foot the bill, and for what purpose?” he asked. 

New York Assemblyman Fred Thiele, who authored legislation establishing the Peconic Bay Community Preservation Fund Act, said it’s ultimately a local decision to designate a property as a landmark, determine the proper CPF category for a land preservation project and comply with SEQRA. 

“In this case, the decision to consider this as a water quality improvement project and not an historical preservation project is strictly a local decision dependent on specific facts,” Mr. Thiele said in an email. “I think the town needs to explain what in their analysis (including SEQRA) favored acquisition of the property as a water quality project rather than historic preservation.”

According to Mr. Thiele, the Brewster house would have to be formally recognized as a historic landmark by some level of government and included by the town “for that purpose as part of the CPF project plan.”

Although the Brewster House is eligible for landmark status, it has not been officially designated on the historic register. Mr. Thiele also pointed to a segment of State Town Law establishing that CPF funds may be used for “the restoration of acquired real property to its natural state including the demolition of existing buildings and structures.” 

In regard to SEQRA, he said, “At a minimum, an environmental assessment would need to be completed to determine whether or not a full environmental impact statement would be required. A finding by the town that the action may have a significant adverse environmental impact would trigger an [environmental impact statement].” 

Ms. Kautz said Preservation Long Island plans to gather information and speak with local preservation partners, community members and stakeholders to advocate “for a more sensitive approach to this property in particular and the CPF in general.” 

She outlined a list of goals the organization plans to advocate for, including allocating CPF tax revenue to hire a historic preservation planner or another qualified professional to aid in CPF decision-making, planning and management; appointing citizens with expertise in historic preservation or public history to serve on the CPF Advisory Board; opening all meetings of that board to the public; and pushing the town to seek guidance on preservation planning from experts at the state Historic Preservation Office’s Technical Preservation Services Bureau. Mr. Schneiderman said CPF meetings are confidential to protect the town’s ability to negotiate for properties. 

“There is little to no effort to integrate historic resources into the other program areas of the CPF, although the entire landscape of the East End is historic,” Ms. Kautz said. “Agricultural fields, wetlands, parks and open space, etc., all have histories (some going back hundreds if not thousands of years).”

She added that the vision and planning section for “Historic Resources” in the Southampton Town 2021 CPF Project Plan, which dates back to March 1999, might be outdated, as “preservation practice has changed significantly since 1999.” 

“While the ‘lists’ [outlined in the section] have been updated more recently, I’m not sure how helpful they are in terms of planning and decision-making,” she said. 

Vince Taldone, president of the Flanders, Riverside, Northampton Community Association, said he’d be interested in speaking with Preservation Long Island to see if they can “put the brakes” on demolition and find something to do with the building. 

“I may put in a call … myself to see if I can get a better understanding of what this is,” he said. “If it only slows them down, it doesn’t really help me.” 

He added that his “greatest hope” for the building had been for the town’s housing authority to purchase the site, but apparently repairs would have cost too much money. 

“It was a guesthouse — why can’t it be a group home for any number of populations that need a supervised living situation where there’s a lot of bedrooms, and there’s somebody looking after them?” he said. 

Southampton has not set a date yet for the Brewster House’s demolition. Mr. Schneiderman said the town might also consider placing a historical marker at the site.