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Developers sue over landmark status of Wantagh house

Developers had planned to build two new houses

Developers had planned to build two new houses on the Wantagh property.  Credit: Jeff Bachner

Developers blocked from tearing down a 1925 Wantagh home have sued the Hempstead Town Board for designating the house as a historic landmark.

Town board members voted Feb. 2 to give landmark status to the Colonial Revival-style house on Elm Place to prevent developers from building two new homes in its place.

The developers, South Nassau Building Corp., filed a lawsuit last week arguing the town’s vote and the town's Landmark Preservation Commission’s recommendation were unconstitutional and not based on any historic significance.

Christian Browne, the Uniondale-based attorney for South Nassau Building Corp., said he filed the federal civil rights lawsuit because the town's landmark status took away property rights and devalued the property.

"It’s so preposterous it was approved that all of a sudden an ordinary residential house that had been sold, knowing it was going to be developed. It’s surprising that such a tenuous and thin application could be taken seriously," Browne said. "I’ve made numerous statements to the landmark commission — don’t turn yourself into a development control authority. You don’t exist to stop people from exercising ordinary property rights."

Town board members unanimously landmarked the house built by architect H.T. Jeffrey Jr. as an example of an early 20th century Colonial Revival home. It was constructed for the Van Tuyl family, who owned a lumberyard and served in World War I and II.

The designation prevents the home from being leveled and requires town approval for any visible changes to the outside of the structure.

Hempstead Town officials said they do not comment on pending litigation.

The developers, with Fairwater Builders, purchased the home on the 20,000-square-foot property last March for $1 million and planned to subdivide the property into two lots. Attorneys said in the lawsuit, "The home on the property is outdated, falling into disrepair and in need of significant renovation."

Wantagh neighbors began their effort to save the home after they learned the Nassau Planning Commission was having a hearing last August on a proposed subdivision.

One of the organizers to save the house, Joan Kemnitzer, cited an architectural expert's report that noted similar homes lost to suburban sprawl.

"For all of the reasons we gave for landmarking it, to destroy this house would be a tragic loss for the town," Kemnitzer said in an interview Thursday.

The lawsuit states the outside of the home has already been modified, including a sunroom that was not original to the home’s design.

"Defendants’ actions, therefore, substantially burden Plaintiff’s property rights, but do not advance any legitimate governmental objective," the lawsuit states. "Rather, Defendants’ election to grant historical landmark status to the home on the Property is the result of political pressure and is designed to assuage activists and neighbors who simply wished to derail Plaintiff’s plan to construct two new homes on the Property."

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