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7th July

First Published in The New York Sun, July 7, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

For quite a while I have been warning against pushing for the designation of the ritzy Fieldston community in the northwest Bronx as a “historic” district. Few listened, and the plan was passed despite a clear majority of homeowners ultimately opposing this designation for their properties. Now the true cost of this folly is beginning to be realized.

Designating an area as a “historic district” puts all of the structures and vacant land therein under the jurisdiction of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. This is no small matter. If your house is included, even the smallest improvement to your property must be approved by city bureaucrats, and even, in some cases, public hearings before the Commission are required to be held. Even a matter as simple as installing an air conditioner in a window must be reviewed.
There are some instances that most of us would agree are appropriate for government intervention. Laws and regulations to insure the public safety through construction codes would be among them. I suspect there are few who would object to regulations requiring that wiring installed in the buildings we erect conform to safety requirements to minimize the potential of fire.

But the rules the Fieldston property owners now find themselves obligated to obey have to do with things less clear than what gauge of wire should be used in the circuits of your house. Does a proposed new house “fit in” with its neighbors? Well you can say po-tay-to and I can say po-tah-to, but both spuds can make perfectly good French fries.

The first applications under the recently passed resolution declaring Fieldston a historic district are wending their way through the bureaucracy. The experience of the owners is instructive and should give a clear warning to those who may seek similar designation for their neighborhoods. Once you come under the thumb of government, be prepared to be squeezed.

Carol Lyons, who owns a house on Greystone Avenue, is seeking to build a new house on the lot adjacent to her own. This is exactly the kind of instance in which the free market would work most admirably. After all, it is unlikely that a person building the house just next door to her own will come up with something that is offensive or ugly. After all, she will have to live with the consequences every time she looks out of the window.

But Ms. Lyons now has a partner in this endeavor, the City of New York. To satisfy the dictates of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, she has had to hire an architect familiar with their processes.

Her architect, Hal Dorfman, presented plans to the local Community Board in Riverdale the other night. He came up with a proposal for a Victorian house which, after some adjustments such as changing the orientation of the steps leading into the entrance, seems to be on track for approval. This was difficult because the Commission has yet to come up with written guidelines for Fieldston that would guide his design. Establishing guidelines is a long and contentious process that is sure to cause even more fireworks. Fieldston is a community of structures in many different styles.

According to Elisabeth deBourbon, the Landmarks Commission spokeswoman, “We are in the process of completing the guidelines for Fieldston, also known as the Fieldston Master Plan. Although they are somewhat similar to the Douglaston guidelines, they are being tailored to address the unique features of the homes in Fieldston.” Meanwhile the Commission is using the document developed for Douglaston in Queens, akin to telling the Iraqis that if they don’t have their constitution in place, we’ll just use Japan’s in the interim.

But the Landmarks Commission alone is not all of the hoops Mr. Dorfman must jump through.The property is also part of the Riverdale Special Natural Area District or SNAD, that regulates things like how the slope of the land is changed and the disposition of trees on the property.

It isn’t cheap trying to squirm out from under the government’s thumb. Charles Moerdler, chairman of the local Community Board’s Land Use Committee and an opponent of the designation of Fieldston as a historic district, questioned Mr. Dorfman about this, wondering if the design of the new house cost “several thousand dollars more.”

Mr. Dorfman tactfully replied that it “probably cost more than several thousand dollars extra.”

This is for a whole new house. Another application, to simply replace some windows, also became a lot more complicated than letting your fingers do the walking and simply hiring a window contractor.

Lewis Weinger had to get approval for the replacement of windows in the rear of his house on Iselin Avenue, invisible to the general public, unless they were trespassing on his property. Nonetheless, Mr. Weinger was told that the window application had to be submitted for a public hearing because it was “visible from a public street.” This added to the cost of the project.

The spokeswoman for the Landmarks Commission, Ms. deBourbon, promised that the approval process would be streamlined.“The guidelines are being established to enable our staff to write permits for certain types of work,such as hardscaping, skylight replacement and window replacement.” Meanwhile, the added costs to Mr. Weinger and Ms. Lyons mount up. My guess is that things will get worse and probably never get better.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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