North Hempstead to let caretakers live in historic homes

North Hempstead Town has passed a law that North Hempstead Town has passed a law that allows caretakers and their families to reside in historic, landmarked homes, including this one, the Horatio Gates Onderdonk House in Manhasset. (Sept. 13, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

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North Hempstead Town officials have passed a law that allows caretakers and their families to reside in historic, landmarked homes.

The legislation, passed last week at a town board meeting, seeks to remedy threats, such as vandalism and abandonment -- and the cost of upkeep for the properties.

The issue surfaced in the spring when managers of the 1836 Horatio Gates Onderdonk House sought to make renovations, and town officials reviewing the plans uncovered an accessory apartment upstairs, a violation of town code.

The new law applies to that landmarked home, and town officials say about a dozen in all could qualify. Onderdonk, a Greek Revival house with white tall columns, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Off Northern Boulevard in Manhasset, it is nestled in the cozy Levitt community of North Strathmore.

"This will open up opportunities for somebody to reside there, and take care of these places," said Jeffrey O'Brien, president of the North Strathmore Association, which owns the home.

The tax-exempt group includes about 250 homes whose owners are charged $75 in yearly fees, O'Brien said.

Anna Kaplan, town councilwoman for the district, said the new provision enables the group to collect a reduced rent and curbs the financial strain for members. "This is something we could do for other historical properties," Kaplan said.

Michael Levine, town planning commissioner, said the law lets a caretaker reside in no more than half the home's floor area.

Since the Onderdonk home was deeded to a community group in the 1930s, six years after the town's zoning code was established, the caretaker unit could not have been grandfathered in as an acceptable use of the property, Levine said. "Until somebody ran into a problem, nothing alerted us that there's a hole in the code that needs filling," Levine said.

Caretakers have helped some Island and even New York homes evolve into safer public centers in recent years.

Andrew Dolkart, director of the historic preservation program at Columbia University, said caretakers beef up security at many historic homes in New York.

Among Island treasures, "a lot of these sites are very underused," said Kathy Curran, executive director of the Suffolk County Historical Society. Caretakers can ward off vandals and ensure there "is someone who can keep the heat on, the lights going, and keeps all the infrastructure of the house working."

Levine said the town consulted other area ordinances while devising the caretaker law, such as ones in California and Massachusetts.When construction work is done on Onderdonk, O'Brien said the group will look for a caretaker. Though the house has had tenants, it will seek a more permanent one by year's end with defined responsibilities, which may include shoveling snow from driveways and ordering plumbing and electrical inspections, O'Brien said.

"Technically, there hasn't been a true caretaker," O'Brien said, or "a watchful eye. Being an old house, it's important."

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