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A. Thomas Levin Quoted in Port Washington News, “Baxter House Has A Date With Wrecking Ball”

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.”

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.”

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.

“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?”