Baxter House Has A Date With Wrecking Ball

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Building inspector issues formal order of demolition

Though the Baxter House sustained extensive damage in the Feb. 5 fire, advocates of preserving the landmark argue that it need not be demolished and could be rebuilt. (Photo by Elizabeth Johnson)

The centuries-old house that is intrinsic to the identity of the Village of Baxter Estates might soon be gone.

On May 11, Village Building Inspector Joseph Saladino issued a formal order to Baxter House owner Sabrina Wu of Flushing to demolish the structure, heavily damaged by fire on Feb. 5. Saladino acted under Section 118-6(1) of the village code, which gives him the authority to issue such an order if he determines a structure “to be unsafe or dangerous to the life, health, safety or property of any person.” His letter mentioned “the persons who reside on properties abutting the premises.”

[Click to enlarge] This is the demolition order sent by Village of Baxter Estates Building Inspector Joseph Saladino to Baxter House owner Sabrina Wu. (Courtesy Village Clerk Chrissy Kiernan)

In a letter to residents, the village noted that, “With hurricane season approaching, the concerns regarding the stability of the structure have increased. Furthermore, since the fire, debris from the structure has periodically blown onto neighboring properties, the beachfront, Manhasset Bay, county and village roadways and sidewalks, and Baxter Pond Park….If decay of the remaining portions of the structure from the elements were to continue, then that condition would also worsen.”

On April 17, Wu had submitted a demolition permit, which Saladino rejected because it lacked necessary documents.

The village’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) met April 24 to answer Saladino’s request for guidance, and voted to authorize Saladino to formally charge Wu with violating Chapter 118-9 of the village code, which deals with historic preservation. The house, even before the fire, had fallen into disrepair and the village and Wu were engaged in legal wrangles over its condition.

The LPC had granted the house landmark status in 2005, against the wishes of Wu, who had bought the .4-acre property in 2003 for $990,000. It is assessed by the county at $791,200.

Though that April 24 meeting reaffirmed that the LPC needed to authorize a demolition, the jurisdiction of the building inspector, according to the code, supersedes that of the LPC with respect to life and safety issues.

“This action is not subject to the [LPC]’s review and approval,” according to the letter sent from the village.

“Ms. Wu had requested that the building inspector do this some time ago, shortly after the fire and after the building inspector and the village’s engineering consultant recommended demolition, but the village demurred,” stated Wu’s attorney, A. Thomas Levin in an email. “After further review, and recognition of the hazards caused by having the fire-damaged structure remain in place, the village now has directed Ms. Wu to proceed to demolition. Ms. Wu welcomes this, as she has been requesting that permission for some time now. She has begun to compile the extensive documentation which the village requires, and intends to proceed to demolition as expeditiously as reasonably possible.”

The Baxter House, before the Feb. 5, 2017 fire. (Photo courtesy Stephanie Hall)

At the April 24 meeting, Levin had argued that his client was in a basic “Catch-22,” noting that the LPC “is requiring documentation from us before it will consider the [demolition permit] application—and we can’t get that documentation from other agencies until we have a permit.”

In an email to the Port Washington News, Levin stated, “[Saladino’s order] avoids the ‘Catch-22’ where Ms. Wu needed certain documents before going to the Landmarks Commission, but couldn’t get them until after she received Commission approval. Other than the time required to gather the documentation required by the village, there are no obstacles to her obtaining the demolition permit.”

Saladino’s letter listed a number of requirements in order for Wu to receive the demolition permit, noting, “You are hereby ordered to commence those requirements within ten (10) days and diligently pursue to completion.” Among the requirements are that all utilities must be shut off, asbestos removed, the oil tank emptied and other detailed instructions.

Mayor Nora Haagenson stated, “The trustees and I are deeply saddened by what has transpired concerning the Baxter House. At the same time, the building inspector has a very important function and responsibility to all village residents with respect to health and safety, and we respect his decision. The village will continue to insist that applicable legal process is followed, to ensure that the rights of the residents of the Village of Baxter Estates, as well as those of the private property owner, are upheld and respected. The village is exploring with the property owner a means by which the village may enter the premises to identify and remove and secure selected architectural elements for preservation. The village still awaits from the owner an application or other notification as to what she proposes to construct on the property.”

Residents React

Though property owners in the village have not been formally polled, a public hearing before the PLC on March 1 to discuss the future of the landmark indicated that a large majority favored some sort of preservation, and at minimum, that Wu build a replica.

Baxter Estates residents Michael Scotto, Kathy Coley and Gloria Marmor, all advocates for preservation, penned an open letter on May 12 that noted, “Last Tuesday [May 9] the Landmarks Commission met to formally issue a written declaration which would have allowed the village to issue orders requiring the owner to make repairs to the house, and even—as we read the law—remedy it to a pre-fire, pre-decay condition—something that the trustees had mentioned was their intention at the March monthly trustee meeting.

This postcard shows the centuries-old structure in an earlier age. (Courtesy of Chris Gain)

“After spending over $100,000 on legal fees in connection with the house, why has the village now decided to throw in the towel, despite finally having a determination from the Landmarks Commission that the owner has violated the historic preservation law? Remember, the law allows the village to initiate a court action to require that the house be restored: why is the village choosing to ignore this option? Similar laws have been upheld across New York State, yet the village has not sought to pursue that avenue.

“There is no assurance…that the owner, if allowed to demolish the house, will rebuild as required by the landmarks law. As we have said before, it is our belief that the prospect of a bonding company providing a performance bond to assure the owner’s compliance is slim as the owner has a history of failing to comply with orders to remedy conditions at the house.”

Scotto followed up with a letter on May 15 to LPC Chairman Peter Salins and members of the commission. He urged the LPC to meet “in order to discuss the village’s plans to demolish the Baxter House.”

Though Scotto acknowledged the jurisdictional authority of the building inspector in the circumstances prescribed by the code, he added, “I submit that demolishing the village’s sole landmark, the village’s namesake as a way to remedy debris falling onto neighboring properties is an extreme and unwarranted measure,” and further, “the directive to demolish is not only disproportionate, it is unlawful. In the case of a dangerous or unsafe condition, the village is required to seek court approval to demolish (Village Code §80-7). It can’t be the case that the village can simply raze a landmarked home based merely on a finding by a village official. Further, how is it possible that a request for demolition follows a mere two days after the [PLC] issued a written resolution affirming the building inspector’s conclusion that the owner had violated the historic preservation law by allowing the house to fall into a state of disrepair? What was the point of that finding if the outcome will still be loss of the house? And why are we rewarding the homeowner for her callous disregard for the house and the village’s landmark law?”

Scotto concluded, “Demolition under these circumstances, without regard to what follows is hardly an acceptable outcome and certainly one that is contrary to the careful historic preservation scheme that the village enacted and the Commission is empowered to enforce. I implore you meet and discuss intervening to protect the Baxter House…. Once the house is gone we lose not only our village’s namesake, but I believe our identity. What indeed is the Village of Baxter Estates without the Baxter House?”

10 COMMENTS

  1. This article omits to mention that my client, Ms. Wu, disputes that the Village has any authority to require her to rebuild the former Baxter House. While some people have been criticizing the Village for not taking action to require her to do that, the fact is that the Village has no such authority, and would be wasting its resources by initiating such an effort. Much attention is being given to the random comments of people who are not knowledgeable about the law in such cases, and your newspaper would better serve the community if it took time to verify these claims instead of merely repeating them. The constant repetition of these erroneous statements only serves to create more controversy, where the Village and the public would be better served by focusing on solutions. As noted in your article, the Village’s order to demolish the house is consistent with Ms. Wu’s previous requests to do so. She will proceed with compliance, and as soon as the Village’s complicated documentation requirements can be satisfied the demolition of the blighted hulk of the former house will be removed.

  2. I am glad the demolition will finally commence and the Village may stop harassing Ms. Wu. This episode exemplifies local govt. overreach and the dangers of organized, elitist hypocrites. There are many Baxter residents who disagree with the Village and PLC on this matter and who feel the time and money wasted are embarrassing to all. Good luck to Ms. Wu, and let’s hope the new dwelling improves the property value and image of our town.

  3. Mr Levin, I believe that the Baxter House was and is protected by local law as deemed by the LPC as a historic property. That includes making any changes to the house (fire or not). It is tragic that a fire has helped her in her consistent effort to knock down the Baxter House. (thank you for noting “consistent” in your comment as one of her applications, predating the fire, was to knock down Baxter House and build two houses ) All we want to do in Port Washington is to preserve what little is left of our history. Why did Ms Wu buy Baxter House? There are plenty of other investment properties available, if she wanted to do a “flip”. Why buy Baxter House, the oldest house on Long Island and let if fall into complete disrepair and then try to circumvent the law?

    • Ms. Hall misquotes me again. I did not say that Ms. Wu’s position was consistent as to proposing to build two houses. I clearly stated that her position was consistent, from the time the Village gave her an order to vacate the house as unsafe, that the house was unsafe and should be demolished. Ms. Hall’s interpretation of the law is inconsistent with the language of the law; she may want it to read that way, but it doesn’t. And Ms. Wu has made clear from the outset that she bought the house to live in it, as she did for several years. She never sought to “flip” it, and consistently sought to be able to use it as a residence for herself and her family. There was a period when it was rented, due to financial circumstances, but even then, and continuing to today, she seeks to live there.

      As to the last comment, which is based upon suppositions not supported in fact, Ms. Wu has consistently maintained that she has been in compliance with the law. Although the Village cited her for alleged violations, all those violation citations have been withdrawn. She was never found to be in violation of law, was never summoned to court, was never found guilty of any violation, and was never fined. Notwithstanding the baseless accusations of various social media commentators and other uninformed indi individuals, those are the facts.

      I can’t stop people from believing as they will, nor wishing for the facts to be other than they are. But I can try to set the record straight before the mis-statements continue to spread, and be repeated by others who also don’t know the facts. ,

  4. Yes, Mr Levin, Ms Wu is a good citizen of Port Washington and has maintained and lived in the Baxter House. She has been a great neighbor and cared for her property in such a way that it never caused an issue for any of her neighbors. She respected the history of Port Washington and worked diligently to respect the local LPC laws to preserve the Baxter House. (….. I know you are a lawyer, so please note that the following comment was written in “sarcasm font”) ….. there is no arguing with a lawyer. They are always right and you are always wrong. Peace out.

  5. My friend Mr. Scotto doth protest too much. Contrary to his argument, the Village isn’t trying to raze an unsafe structure. It has exercise its authority to direct the owner to remove an unsafe structure, to which the owner has consented. There is no need to get court approval for this, although there would be if the owner resisted demolition. As to the propriety of the remedy selected by the Village, I submit that the Village’s experienced and qualified Building Inspector, and its independent consulting engineer, along with five architects and engineers who have inspected the house, all of whom have recommended demolition, might have more insight into this than people who have no relevant experience and have not been in the house since the fire.

    And as to the owner’s alleged “callous disregard” for the law, I point to my previous comments that there never has been any determination that she violated any law. There are a lot of people who keep repeating these allegations, but there has been no proof, and no such adjudication. As Mr. Scotto of all people knows, allegations that someone has done something are quite different from proof; in this case there have been nothing more than allegations, each of which has been disputed or challenged by Ms. Wu, and all citations for violations rightfully have been withdrawn by the Village.

  6. Just to set the record straight on another point, while there have been a string of social media comments about how the Building Inspector has no authority to “bypass” the Landmark Commission and order demolition of the property, the fact is that the Village Code specifically allows this. Code section 118-6(I) provides this authority.

    After all the time that has gone by, it’s time for a reality check. The house has been destroyed by fire and is beyond repair. The Village properly has ordered demolition, which is consistent with the owner’s position and she is moving forward to get the detailed paperwork done. She needs to get appropriate contractors, and permits or approvals from the County Health Department, the Port Washington Water District, the Port Washington Water Pollution Control District, and other utilities and agencies. This documentation is being filed with the Village as it is obtained, and Ms. Wu intends to remove the dangerous blighted structure as soon as this can be accomplished.

  7. When an attorney has time to surf local websites to make his argument, one wonders 1) how much he’s getting paid (do you bill for your internet time, Mr. Levin?) and 2) why he cares (because if you’re so right, what does it matter what everyone in town thinks?). The fact that Ms. Wu has never paid a fine and that all violations have been withdrawn is simply a result of the awful combination of a spineless (and possibly complicit) Village Board and a homeowner with poor problem-solving skills and a disappointing set of priorities (she could have sold the house at any time. Her vindictiveness and your greed are a bad combination).

    But that doesn’t mean she’s in the right. The sad fact is that if you play nasty (like letting a house rot, something you never admit but never deny), you can achieve your greedy goal. You can also argue your way to that goal, whether it’s right or not. That’s what you were trained to do, Mr. Levin, so it would be pretty bad for you if you couldn’t. But everyone knows that what you’ve done is wrong, and no amount of social media posting will change that. Indeed, you’ll both always be remembered as the pair whose avarice brought down the oldest and most historic house in Port Washington. It’s a dubious honor but one that will be all yours, with the VBE board as supporting players.

  8. Mr Levin…. REALLY???!! – You say: After all the time that has gone by, it’s time for a reality check.

    and you also say; **….And Ms. Wu has made clear from the outset that she bought the house to live in it, as she did for several years. She never sought to “flip” it, and consistently sought to be able to use it as a residence for herself and her family. There was a period when it was rented, due to financial circumstances, but even then, and continuing to today, she seeks to live there.**

    I can smell that statement all the way to the west coast….Lets just see….what reality holds….

    at this point all we can say is shame, shame on you, shame on Ms. Wu….history is sacred, and this house should have never been considered an investment, ever….

  9. Maybe Baxter Estates should assess a special one time levy on home owners to purchase the property, to restore or rebuild a mirror image. They could apply for grants to offset expense.

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