by Andy Stewart, Orangetown Town Supervisor
Orangetown lost a part of its history on Sat April 4 when the Abraham Lent House, which had stood on South Greenbush Road since 1752, was unexpectedly demolished by the owners of the property.
I am shocked and saddened by the sudden loss of this historic home. It is especially painful since plans were underway to disassemble and store its historic elements for future reconstruction on a nearby property in Orangeburg offered by the Dodge family. In the weeks before the demolition, I had been working with the local residents who had initiated a fundraising campaign to implement this plan. We met with the owner of the property and spoke with the developer of Orangeburg Commons, and as recently as the day prior to demolition all parties seemed to support this plan. I wish that the owner and developer had given the community time to raise the funds to save the house.
Contrary to what some people have suggested, it would have been illegal for me as Town Supervisor (or for the Town Board) to order the Building Department to revoke the demolition permit which the owner had obtained for the Lent House last year. Likewise, some have suggested that the Building Department should have refused to issue a demolition permit in the first place. Because of the great age of the Lent House, the Building Department and town attorneys reviewed the demolition permit application very closely but all involved concluded that there was no legal basis for denying a demolition permit: the house was not in a historic district, it wasn’t listed on any register of historic places, and most importantly, private property owners generally have the right to demolish structures on their land.
Many people may not realize that many of the historic buildings that give our community its special character currently have no legal protection if the owner decides to demolish the structure. Even a listing on the National or State Register of Historic Places offers no guarantee of protection from demolition by private property owners. Orangetown has two historic districts, in Tappan and Palisades, which offer a measure of protection to properties in those designated areas, but for buildings elsewhere, the Town lacks options to stop an owner who is determined to demolish their building.
Some communities have historic preservation ordinances which strictly regulate all properties of a certain age. It may be that Orangetown should consider passing such a law, though it will be important to find the proper balance between preserving our heritage and respecting the rights of property owners. In my opinion the time is right for a debate about this issue. Please let me know if you would support efforts to create a new preservation ordinance to better protect historic buildings, or whether you believe doing so would put too much of a burden on property owners. It is critical that our preservation laws reflect the desires of town residents.
Andy Stewart is the Town Supervisor of Orangetown, NY.