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‘Unfair’ historic district proposal causes strife in East Marion

08/22/2019 6:00 AM |

The formation of a new historic district has caused a rift among neighbors in East Marion.  

In June, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the East Marion Main Road Historic District was one of 18 areas across the state recommended for inclusion on the state and federal registers of historic places. The effort was led by a committee formed within the East Marion Community Association, which researched the area’s history and submitted a 109-page application to the United States Department of the Interior for consideration. It was adopted June 13.

But some residents say the process of allowing impacted property owners to weigh in was unfair — and are now calling for the civic group to dissolve in an online petition.

Approximately 55 petitioners claim the community association has become a “special interest group” that represented residents “against our wishes and without our consent in a state and federal matter that governs the status of our homes.”

William Maffettone, whose Main Road home is now part of the historic district, organized the petition last month. He said he’s been opposed since he was first approached by members of the committee informally last year.

The district begins just west of Gillette Drive and extends east to the edge of Dam Pond and the Dam Pond Bridge, and also encompasses Bay Avenue and Cemetery Avenue.

In April, 158 affected property owners received letters from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation informing them of the historic district nomination and explaining that they had until June 12 to “concur in or object to” the listing.

If a majority of property owners object, the district cannot be listed.

An NYS Parks spokesperson said Friday that the rules set forth by the National Park Service do not require a community voting process or the solicitation of letters of support. He said that by its June 13 meeting, SHPO had received 10 formal objections from property owners, including Mr. Maffettone.

Non-responses are not viewed as objections, the spokesperson said, adding that there are 138 primary residences in the district and some people may own multiple properties.

Mr. Maffettone said that he and several neighbors were under the impression that a community vote would take place.

“[The EMCA] should have had their own vote; that’s more fair,” he said. “This vote was a yes, unless you said no.”

Recently retired Oysterponds Board of Education member Linda Goldsmith said the district, which owns the Old Schoolhouse Park in East Marion, wasn’t properly notified about the process.

“None of the board members got a letter,”  the long-time member said, adding that she and several others on the board voiced their concerns at an informational meeting held in May and did write to the state to object.

Ms. Goldsmith, who resigned from the board of education in July, said she’s concerned for the future of the park.

“I don’t think the organization did right with this historic district,” she said. “[The board] is responsible for Old Schoolhouse Park, which belongs to the entire community and taxpayers,” she said.

Mr. Maffettone also pointed out that a letter sent to his street address by SHPO in April was incorrectly addressed to Anne Murray, president of the East Marion Community Association. “How can any of this be legal?” he asked. “I don’t think this was a mistake, because I was the loudest opponent of this whole thing.”

Ms. Murray acknowledged that she received the letter meant for Mr. Maffettone, but said she delivered it to his home and noted that many street addresses do not match up to legal mail addresses in the East Marion area.

To object to the proposal, property owners were asked to mail a notarized acknowledgment that they are the property owner and are opposed to listing the property on the historic register, a process Mr. Maffettone described as “discriminatory,” because there are homes in the area that may have multiple owners.

Fellow Main Road resident Alan Schmidtchen, who also filed a formal objection, agreed.

“If two people are on a deed, they get two votes,” he said. “I live by myself, so I had one.”

According to the NYS Historic Preservation Office, historic district sponsors are responsible for community outreach, which can “make or break a project,” and are responsible for gaining support from local leaders and property owners within the district.

“The SHPO board will only bring a project to the State Review Board for consideration with demonstrated community support from local government and property owners,” according to an informational document.

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said the town was not involved in the initiative and was not asked to weigh in.

“For the state agency to claim that Southold Town supported it, or took any position on the matter because it received no response, is alarming to me and calls into question the integrity of their program,” Mr. Russell said, adding that the issue must be resolved by members of the East Marion community.

Ms. Murray said that in addition to sending several mailers out to residents, EMCA held three informational meetings on the nomination.

“It was a very open process,” she said.

A committee within EMCA was formed in 2017 to research the feasibility of a historic district, she said, noting that part of the group’s mission is to preserve the area’s history.

In 2018, the association began pursuing it with SHPO, she said, in part because the formation of a historic district does not infringe on property owners’ rights.

The designation is purely honorific, but residents within a historic district can benefit from certain state and federal tax credits and will now be eligible to apply for NYS historic preservation grants.

It does not prohibit property owners from remodeling, altering, painting, subdividing, selling or even demolishing their properties, unless state or federal funds are used.

Ms. Murray said the petition came out of left field.

“I was pretty shocked,” she said Friday. “I think a lot of the points in the petition are untrue.”

She said that there may be some misunderstanding about what the historic designation means. “It doesn’t restrict what you can do with your home,” she said.

Southold’s Historic Preservation Commission has jurisdiction on some historic districts designated before Nov. 16, 2004.

A code change would be required for the town to impose restrictions over the newly formed East Marion district.

Both Mr. Maffettone and Mr. Schmidtchen fear that’s possible.

“There’s enough restrictions on our properties as it is,” Mr. Schmidtchen said. “I don’t need more.”

Mr. Maffettone said he’s not opposed to historic preservation efforts, as he has invested in restoring his own 1800s-era home.

“But it should be a personal choice. Don’t make a decision on my behalf,” he said.

Mr. Maffettone also alleges in the petition that members of the EMCA sponsored the historic district’s creation to “promote the financial gain of [members] who rent their homes illegally on internet rental sites,” such as Airbnb.

In an EMCA e-newsletter sent out earlier this month, Ms. Murray said the petition “contains misinformation and conflates two unrelated issues.”

She maintains that the group remains opposed to short-term rentals and supports the ban enacted by the town in 2015.

“Residents should report rentals for less than two weeks to the town and hold the town accountable for enforcing the law,” the newsletter states. “For the record, no one from the EMCA board is involved with short-term rentals.”

Ms. Murray expressed disappointment that the issue has led to “unwarranted attacks” on the community group. “We’ve done a lot of good work,” she said. “We hoped the historic district would bring the community together.”

Ruth Ann Bramson, an EMCA member and chair of the committee that organized the effort for the listing, said Monday that the group has no intention to advocate for linking the East Marion Main Road Historic District to the town’s Historic Preservation Commission.

Ms. Bramson said that despite the pushback, she hopes the new designation will be a source of community pride.

“The history of East Marion has not been captured before,” she said. “We have a history of our own, and that’s worth sharing with the people who live here.”

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