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The Wall Street Journal: "When Private Property Rights Collide With Public Goals in New York"

11/20/2017 News Release Image

When Private Property Rights Collide With Public Goals in New York (The Wall Street Journal)

Bobby and Tamar Ben-Simon thought they had found the perfect site to build a new family home.

The couple had planned to tear down the sprawling but dilapidated stucco house in White Plains, N.Y., and build a home that would be a gathering point for their children, most of whom are grown, and future grandchildren, said Mr. Ben-Simon. The 4.3-acre property at 283 Soundview Ave. is next door to a synagogue, a convenient walk for family members during the holidays, he said.

But for the last two years, those plans have been on hold as the Ben-Simons have grappled with a new government body standing in their way.

When the couple signed the contract to buy the home in January 2015, Mr. Ben-Simon said, their research turned up no obstacles. But after closing on the house in August 2015 they learned the city had enacted a preservation law three months earlier and launched a commission. Almost two months after they closed the deal, the ramshackle house they had purchased to knock down and replace was on a swift path to being designated a historic landmark.

The White Plains Historic Preservation Commission sees the 1920 house as a significant, intact example of a beaux-arts architectural style and one of the few buildings in the city some 30 miles north of Manhattan that embodies the characteristics of a classic manor house built for the wealthy.

The homeowners disagree.

“It’s a basic stucco house with no special features, not even nice stone work,” said Mr. Ben-Simon, a builder of luxury single-family homes. “It’s just a plain stucco house.”

Now the couple is petitioning in state supreme court in White Plains to overturn the designation. They allege the city has disregarded their property rights and carried out the landmark law in a way that was at times secretive and confrontational and was always headed toward a predetermined outcome.

Requests for comment from members of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission as well as the mayor were referred to the city attorney, who declined to comment on pending litigation. In court documents, the city has asserted that the commission followed a preservation law crafted over several years that was based on the New York State Historic Preservation Office’s model ordinance.

The legal fight highlights the tensions that can flare between property owners and landmarking bodies. It also underscores the broad criteria preservation committees can call on to designate properties as landmarks. To some neighbors the house has been an eyesore; to the city’s preservation commission it is a local treasure.

“This scenario is one in which there is the ever-present contest between historic preservation law and the owners being able to control their property,” said Shelby D. Green, a professor of law at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University.

Mr. Ben-Simon said he didn’t realize there was any local historic preservation until his request for a demolition permit was held up and he received a stop-work order around Oct. 16, 2015. On Oct. 19, the city’s historic preservation commission proposed the house be considered for landmark designation.

The property has been listed on the state register of historic places since 2008 and on the national register since 2009. Neither of the listings restricts owners from demolishing or altering a property but brings with it an extensive study conducted by a state researcher to support its historic significance.

Read the full article.