New historic district for Bellport?
What do the first Bellport office of the New York Telephone Company, the home of Oliver Hazard Perry Robinson (inventor of the ball bearing in 1866), and a former slave house on the plantation of Nathaniel Brewster have in common?
Aside from their South Country Road location, these are three of 18 properties included in a new historic district proposed last year by the Bellport Historic District Preservation Commission. If established, the South Country Road Historic District would become the sixth historic district in the village.
At a public hearing held on Saturday, Feb. 11, members of the historic commission, village board and public presented their thoughts on the proposed district. Brian Hannon, chairperson of the historic commission, affirmed that Bellport is a unique and historic place.
“Driving down South Country road is a pleasure,” he said. “I always say that this place just doesn’t change. This is home — it’s where I love coming back to.”
However, Hannon explained, Bellport has changed. Hannon highlighted architectural giants that once stood in the village such as the Bell house, Wyandotte Hotel, Goldthwaite Inn, and the Otis property known as the “Locusts,” home of today’s golf course. Hannon cited these properties as examples of why the village first took interest in preserving and protecting its structures for the future.
This potential sixth district, Hannon said, would connect all of the districts and includes 18 properties east of the commercial district on South Country Road. According to Hannon, 17 of the properties were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
“It’s a great recognition, but does not protect them or the streetscape in which they are located from being compromised,” Hannon said. “That requires village legislation.”
The historic commission explained potential benefits of establishing a new historic district, such as real estate value, a positive economic impact from tourism, a way to encourage better design and educational benefits.
“They help preserve a community’s heritage, explain the development of a place and are a record of our ancestors, ourselves and our communities,” he said.
Mayor Ray Fell agreed. “Local historic districts give communities a voice in their future,” he said, and are a way for residents to make the decisions together in a structured way.
Residents Andrew Egan and John Melfi, who live in the proposed South Country Road district, sought clarification on the guidelines set forth by the historic commission regarding home expansions.
“If there is room from a zoning point of view for an addition and it doesn’t alter the streetscape or historic value of the house, then there’s no problem,” said commission member Roger Thomas.
Thomas used examples of homes on Bell Street and Bellport Lane, which have undergone recent renovations. “One homeowner on Bell Street worked with the committee to effectively double the size of their home, which on Bell Street is an engineering feat all in itself because the lots are extremely small,” he said.
Though Fell supports the idea of a district, he raised concerns about costs for homeowners who may not be able to afford renovations that preserve the architectural integrity of their home. Hannon said that they always encourage homeowners in historic districts to work on the back of their home first, an area that would not need approval by the historic commission. Commission member James Carson added that the commission was a great resource to help find affordable materials as well.
“There’s a great improvement in manmade materials that from the street have the look and visual mass of original materials, and they are approved for long term use — we’re not talking vinyl,” he said.
Trustee Bob Rosenberg noted that this isn’t the first time they heard public comments on the issue, citing two previous informal public hearings. “The general range of views went from enthusiastic support to indifference, with two vociferous objections,” Rosenberg said. “I think everyone should hear them. They are well taken and heartfelt.”
The two residents in opposition of the district, Joyce Roquemore Hanly and Jill Hayman, were unable to attend the hearing but wrote letters that were read aloud. Hanly wrote that many houses are not visible from the street and there are already inconsistencies in the architecture of the homes. South Country Road, Hanly pointed out, has been widened several times and thus no longer has the historical character as other village streets, such as Bellport Lane.
“The village is a community of taxpaying citizens with individual tastes,” she wrote. “This is not a co-op. All residents should have the right to maintain or renovate their properties as they see fit in character and style.”
Hannon added that the guidelines for home renovations were about preservation. “They are a snapshot of what’s there now,” he said.
For Hayman, the location of the district was also an area of concern. “[South Country Road] is a multi-use area containing a hodgepodge of structures,” she said, noting that all of the properties were not strictly residential. She also added that the area would be the “most logical location for economic development,” and said the creation of this historic district would eliminate any practical possibility of retail establishment in the future.
Rosenberg empathized with their feelings and said that the commission should look at the need for uniform guidelines. Since the houses are not on quiet village streets, property owners take more precautions for screening noise and pollution, such as fences or hedges. “It’s a legitimate concern that should be properly addressed,” Rosenberg said. “Not in a one-size-fits-all contract, because it doesn’t.”
Village clerk John Kocay also wondered about hedge height, since he lives in the proposed district along South Country Road. Vice chairperson for the historic commission, Tom Binnington, said that he was not sure how the 6-foot number for hedges came to be.
“It’s a walking village. People like the see the homes as they walk by,” he said. “I don’t think it’s ever been enforced,” he said of the hedge-height guidelines.
If they had never been enforced, Rosenberg felt that they should be eliminated from the guidelines altogether. “If you allow a hedge to grow 10 or 12 feet high, you can’t see the front of the house, so what does it matter what the homeowners do to their house?” he wondered.
Carson pointed out the difference between hedges and other landscaping and the house itself. “Hedges can be replaced and cut down and they die in storms,” he said. “Once a house is gone, it’s gone. Fifty years from now, that’s what’s going to count. That hedge may not be here, so the focus needs to be on preservation. I have a 4-year-old daughter. I want her to be able to stare or peek through the gate of some of these very old houses.”
Village resident Pam Hannon agreed. “We are but stewards for the moment of the homes we live in,” she said. “Yes, we own them. We pay for them, maintain them and pay property taxes on them, but our children and grandchildren should be able to go down each street and see what was there when their grandparents or great-grandparents grew up.”
Rosenberg still felt that some of the guidelines should be revisited before any decision is made. Fell was unsure of when the vote would take place, but said they would happen at either the February or March village board meeting.
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