The demolition of a house in the Village of Dering Harbor sparked outrage among residents, with the action coming just days before the Board of Trustees was to consider a moratorium on demolishing houses to prevent the loss of buildings with historic character. The moratorium was approved during a contentious Board meeting on Saturday.
A building permit to raze the house at 4 Sylvester Road — the childhood home of Alice Fiske (see below) — had been secured from Building Inspector George Butts; the Village’s Zoning Code also required notice to be given to the Board of Trustees and landowners within 250 feet of the property 10 days prior to the demolition.
At Saturday’s meeting, it was confirmed that the building inspector had notified the trustees, but the owner did not notify the neighboring residents.
Village resident George Birman said in an interview that even if the procedure may have been technically legal, there had been considerable concern voiced by residents about such demolitions and the Trustees had discussed it at previous meetings.
“It was not very democratic,” Mr. Birman said, for the approval to be given in the face of “all the discussion and concern raised by the public.” In addition to Mr. Birman, other residents raised the concern at the Board’s January meeting.
The Sylvester Road house was recently purchased from Maria Catsoulis Kempf by Ken Tropin, who owns adjoining properties, including the Mostly Hall estate once owned by heiress Rachel Carpenter.
Several other properties have recently changed hands or are about to, and several residents have complained that there is no way to prevent further demolition of houses that may have historic or architectural character that is an essential attribute of the Village. While there are strict standards for new construction or remodeling houses, the demolition question is a loophole, some feel.
If a building is crumbling and in severe disrepair, demolition can be justified, but there are not sufficient safeguards to prevent a historic house from being torn down, Mr. Birman said. He sent photos of the demolition to all Village residents and the Reporter, urging those who shared his concern to attend the meeting Saturday.
“We’re going to lose the soul of this place,” he said.
The six-month moratorium passed Saturday must be reviewed by the Suffolk County Planning Board.
Mr. Tropin was represented at the meeting by attorney Kay Lawson, who said she serves as Chair of the Sag Harbor Planning Board. She said that municipality had undergone a similar code revision, which had also needed to be approved by the County. She said the demolished house had not been a good example of Dering Harbor Village’s architecture and not particularly attractive. She acknowledged that Mr. Tropin had not notified neighboring residents.
That omission led the building inspector to issue a stop-work order the day after work began, but by then the house had been torn down. It was not clear what penalty would be imposed on the owner for not complying with that part of the zoning code.
After voting on the moratorium, the trustees opened the meeting up for questions, with several residents making pointed criticisms of the trustees and Village Attorney Wayne D. Bruyn.
The trustees explained that the code gave them no option to block the process; notice was given to them by the building inspector but did not give them the opportunity to approve or deny.
Trustee Brad Goldfarb was charged with seeking guidance from a consultant on having the Village or part of it designated as an historic site, so the Village could decide whether that would be suitable for protecting some 28 historic houses in the future.
Alice Fiske’s place in Island history
The Dering Harbor house just demolished had been the childhood home of Alice Fiske, whose husband Andrew was the 13th-generation descendant of Nathaniel Sylvester, who settled Shelter Island in 1652.
Ms. Fiske helped restore Sylvester Manor and its gardens to their 19th-century glory, including trees that the family believes were brought to America as cuttings in the 17th century.
As the founder of the Andrew Fiske Memorial Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, she sponsored archaeological excavations at Sylvester Manor that have illuminated the Manor’s history as a slave-holding plantation.
She also oversaw the family’s large collection of papers, dating to the founding of the plantation, and donated them to New York University.
Her childhood home is listed in a book about historic Dering Harbor houses written by Village resident and architect Ken Walker in 2000, naming it as “Kuttroff Cottage,” built in 1907. Important details of the house cited in the book, which was included in a compilation of Design Principles posted on the Village’s website, are a two-story porch supported by square columns with a balcony above.
The book includes photographs and important architectural details of several notable houses built between the early 1970s and mid-1930s, in Victorian and Colonial revival styles.