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Skippers Lane homeowners appeal Historic Preservation Commission decision

The current house that may be demolished. (Credit: Cyndi Murray)

The owners of an Orient home located in the hamlet’s historic district argued at a public hearing Tuesday that Southold Town’s Historic Preservation Commission did not adequately review its application for their proposed “teardown,” and maintained their position that the home has no historic value.

Property owners Louis Potters and Lenore Brancato appealed to the Southold Town Board to overrule the commission’s May 21 decision to deny the application.

“The HPC based this decision on the premise that the existing house can be renovated or altered to suit the applicants’ needs,” the owners’ attorney, Martin Finnegan, said. “But there’s absolutely no evidence on the record to establish how that could happen and there was no realistic alternative offered by the HPC as required by Chapter 170 of the town code.”

Supervisor Scott Russell said the obligation of the board is to “make a decision based on the facts as they were presented at the HPC hearing.” He added that the Town Board did not have an obligation to hold the public hearing and could have made a decision based on the record.

“This board wanted to make sure that we provided every opportunity for everyone to be heard,” he said.

The 1,827-square-foot house is located at 675 Skippers Lane, just next to Poquatuck Park. The “teardown” was proposed in June 2018. The proposal first involved replacing the existing house with a 3,424-square-foot home, which was later decreased by about 100 square feet. The proposal underwent several revisions during the process to accommodate the HPC’s requests.

More than a dozen people spoke Tuesday — most in support of the unanimous HPC decision against granting the applicants a Certificate of Appropriateness. A few Orient residents supported the applicants.

Dr. Potters addressed the board and said they had negotiated in good faith with the HPC and decreased the mass of the house by 18% and made the square footage of the house smaller.

“The house itself will be 20.93% lot coverage, which includes the garage, which is about 0.93% greater than code,” he said. “The house itself in terms of setbacks along the park meets the requirement for a setback.”

Louis Potters addresses the Town Board. (Credit: Mahreen Khan)

“I think it’s misleading to think of the house in the context of square feet,” he added. “A lot of the square [footage] is used to maintain and rebuild the house in its current position, as well as adding an addition.”

The property owners and Mr. Finnegan claimed the HPC “overlooked … overwhelming expert evidence … [that] remains undisputed” and that outlines the “deplorable” condition of the home, which is reportedly rife with mold, lead and asbestos. They also said the HPC never hired an independent engineer to review the determinations made — nor did commissioners take up opportunities to walk through the house themselves.

Mr. Finnegan said the evidence presented to the HPC “conclusively established demolition is appropriate under the criteria set forth” in the town code, adding that the code does not prohibit demolition simply because a property lies within the boundaries of a historic district.

Neighbors, members from the Orient Civic Association and Oysterponds Historical Society, as well as a former New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission employee, were among those who spoke in opposition of the demolition and urged the town to uphold the HPC decision, arguing that this decision will set precedent for future applications.

“We bought our house in the spring of 2007; we renovated it 11 years later,” said Skippers Lane resident Sarah Burnes. “I would just like to say, if mold and lead were a reason for demolishing a house, we should have demolished our house immediately. That is the state of those historic houses.”

Others expressed concern about the scale and design of the proposed new home, arguing that it does not keep with Orient’s traditional historic aesthetic.

Tim Frost, who said he has owned a home in Orient for 35 years, urged the board members “to require the commission to publish a definitive map of the historic districts of the town.”

“There still continues to be much confusion of what is in the district and what isn’t in the district,” he said.

The hearing was closed, with the record left open, meaning that the public will have the opportunity to comment over the next two weeks.

Mr. Russell said the decision will be a difficult one, adding in reference to Dr. Potter: “I read the record and I know that you were on the record as saying that you like the historic district and wanted to live in the historic district, but it would appear under the circumstances you just don’t want to live in a historic house.”

He added that he didn’t intend to put down the owners, but there are a lot of issues to sort through.

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