Upscale Adult Housing Project Approved for Pearl River Historic House on Site Will Also be Preserved

BY ROBERT KNIGHT
CITY EDITOR,
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES

ARC Properties got the final green light from Orangetown recently to proceed with developing a 160-unit upscale senior apartment complex in the Nauraushaun section of Pearl River, while at the same time pledging to restore the historic 250-year-old Seth house which occupies the site to its former pristine glory.

The agreement, reached between the Town Board and ARC attorney Donald Brenner at the council’s last meeting, was described as a “win-win-win” situation by Brenner. His client will benefit by getting to finally construct the long-awaited project, Brenner said; the town will benefit by getting an attractive new tax ratable with virtually no offsetting expenses and the community will benefit by getting an architectural landmark that will hopefully be placed on the National Register of Historic Sites once restoration is complete, at the developers cost.

Called “The Pointe at Lake Tappan,” the project has gone through many iterations since it was first proposed in 2002, a decade ago. The site, heavily wooded and undeveloped save for the dilapidated but historic Seth house, has languished from a succession of owners, various development plans, skeptical town officials and a slump in the regional housing market.

A plan was finally approved in 2005 to allow ARC to construct 142 “high-end” condominiums on the nearly 40-acre site, which is bordered by the Lake Tappan Reservoir and Blue Hill Road South to the east, Veterans Memorial Drive to the north, River Vale, NJ to the south and the Blue Hill office complex to the west.

Began as a PAC

That project was going to be a PAC development, created under the town’s Planned Adult Community Zone. Under PAC zoning, developers are permitted to construct more units than the zoning code permits, in return for promising to sell ten percent of the units to moderate income families at “Affordable” below market rate prices.

Units in a PAC project are restricted to active adults 55 and older with no minor children at home. The two-story townhouse-style units were expected to sell for nearly $1 million each, in a highly landscaped gated private community that would include a clubhouse, a swimming pool, elevators, fireplaces, two car garages and other amenities.

As approved at the time, the units would have been located in pods of five units per building, with the pods scattered throughout the entire site, with walkways, paths, gardens and similar landscaping separating them. Earthen berms constructed along the north and east roads, topped by lush evergreen plantings, would essentially screen the entire development from surrounding streets, with the gated entrance being the only evidence the complex even existed.

The 14 “affordable” units would have been scattered throughout the project, and would have been indistinguishable from the other full-price units.

Crash Changes Course

The economic crash of 2008 and beyond doomed that project however, Brenner noting that new home sales in the region had crashed, the market had essentially dried up, and financing was no longer available.

Rather than risk losing the site to foreclosure, however, he said ARC decided to try a different approach, and convert the original PAC sale units to a non-PAC apartment rental project.

The concept apparently worked

Under the newest proposal, submitted by Brenner earlier this year, ARC will group their units on the northern half of the site only, leaving the southern half of about 19 acres totally vacant and wooded and protected by a covenant as “forever green” space. This would include a marshy area that was deemed unsuitable for development, and would run from the existing Seth house driveway south to the New Jersey border at River Vale.

The units themselves would be smaller than originally proposed, containing two and three bedrooms each and with less amenities. They would be grouped in pods of 10 two-story buildings with 16 apartments and one garage per unit in each pod. The apartments would be on a single level, either upstairs or downstairs, in fully elevatored buildings, instead of the original two-story townhouse design. Grouping the buildings closer together on only a portion of the full site is known as “cluster zoning” in planning parlance, and is a common practice in communities seeking to gain additional parkland on the vacant portion of a site. There would still be extensive landscaping, Brenner said, and the entire project would remain a private gated community with the entrance and the internal streets being owned and maintained by the developer.

Because ARC is now going to proceed with rental units instead of individually owned units, they have withdrawn their request for the PAC zone. As a result, they will not get any additional units to rent at “affordable” levels, and all units will be leased at market rates. Brenner said the estimated rentals so far are about $1,750 for the 128 two-bedroom units and $2,250 to $2,500 for the 14 three bedroom units.

Fall Construction

Brenner said ARC hopes to break ground this fall and work throughout the coming winter and next spring, so the first units can become available sometime later next year.

The Town Board approval of the concept change last month from sale to rental, and increasing the total number of units from 142 to 160, is now complete, and no further council action is anticipated. The matter now moves to the Orangetown Planning Board, where specifics of the entire project will be reviewed in detail, and changes could yet be made.

The project was delayed at the Town Board level in June, when a public hearing was held but it was discovered that the referral for comments to the Rockland County Planning Board had never been received back. The county agency did respond in July, however, with a lengthy letter seeking answers to 23 questions and comments.

Town Attorney John Edwards advised the Town Board at the continued hearing on July 17 that most of the county’s comments and questions were not actually addressed to the council, but rather to the Planning Board, which had yet to actually see the application. The only question that appeared to be aimed at the council was why the application had not been submitted to the River Vale, NJ borough council, since the site adjoins that neighboring community across the state border.

When asked by Orangetown council members how to respond, Edwards said it was his opinion that New York State law does not require the town to refer project applications to surrounding states, only to neighboring municipalities within New York State. If the town Planning Board wants to make such a referral once it gets the application, it is within its rights to do so, Edwards added, saying it was his understanding that the Planning Board does indeed usually make such referrals, as a courtesy to a neighboring community.

Since the portion of the site bordering River Vale will be the “forever green” half of the property, Brenner said he had no fear of such a referral, and he guesstimated that River Vale would probably love the plan.

Seth House

The final portion of the Town Board’s public hearing last month dealt with the historic Seth house, which is located in the middle of the 40-acre site.

The Seth house is one of the most historic structures in Orangetown, according to Town Historian Mary Cardenas, who testified at the hearing.

It was built in three sections, with the two oldest, of red sandstone construction, occurring in 1752 and 1776. A large frame middle section was constructed in 1830 to connect those two stone wings, and apparently replaced an earlier structure on the same foundation, Cardenas said.

It was occupied continuously for about 250 years, well before the United States was founded, and is one of the oldest such homes in all of Rockland County. The last owners were Mr. and Mrs. William Seth. After William Seth’s death about 15 years ago, his family sold the 90-acre property to the Mercedes-Benz Corporation, which intended to construct its North American headquarters on the site, fronting Veterans Memorial Drive.

World economic turmoil and ownership changes within the giant Daimler-Chrysler-Mercedes conglomerate altered those plans, however, and Mercedes stayed where it was, in nearby Montvale, NJ, where it remains to this day.

New Owners

Mercedes eventually sold the property to ARC, a large New Jersey developer, which in turn sold slightly more than half the site to the Hunter-Douglas window treatment company, which has been planning to construct its American headquarters there for the past decade. According to Brenner and Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart, those plans are still expected to materialize, although no groundbreaking date has yet been announced.

They are expected to construct their headquarters on the south side of Veterans Memorial Drive, mid-way between the Blue Hill office complex and the planned site of the Pointe At Lake Tappan.

ARC in the meantime has submitted numerous plans to Orangetown for its planned use of their remaining 40 acres of the Seth estate.

Each submission carried a different corporate name, including Millenium Homes, Inc., Pearl River Veterans, LLC, BNE Real Estate Group and Barton Partners, among others. Brenner explained at the July 17 hearing that these were all corporate subdivisions of ARC, the parent firm, which remains in charge of the overall development.

Restoration

As part of the original approval process in 2005, Brenner and ARC pledged to put up $300,000 to move and restore the Seth house. It would be moved about 1,000 feet north, to a one acre site ARC would donate to Orangetown at the corner of Veterans Memorial Drive and Blue Hill Road South.

Cardenas objected on two grounds at the time, however. Moving the house would make it ineligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Sites, she said, and would thus make it ineligible to receive federal and state grants as well as many foundation grants for restoration and maintenance.

That means if the house and acre of land were given to Orangetown, it would fall to Orangetown government, and ultimately its taxpayers, to fund it.

Orangetown is already struggling with funding the restoration, operation and maintenance of two other Dutch sandstone homes it owns, the Salyer House and the DePew House, both of which comprise the Orangetown Historical Archives and Museum complex in Nauraushaun. To add a third house to the complex would put an impossible burden on the town and on the volunteer committee that operates the museums, she told the board.

Private Ownership

To avoid those pitfalls, Brenner and ARC changed their pitch last month. Brenner said ARC will still pledge the $300,000 for restoration, but will leave the house where it is, and will retain its ownership themselves rather than burden the town with that obligation.

The money will be used to restore the structure and the exterior only, to their original condition, in full accord with state and federal guidelines on historic restoration, Brenner said. To insure that this is done correctly, he said he would use Mrs. Cardenas and her volunteer board as their consultants, along with representatives from SHPO, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation’s State Historic Preservation Officer.

In return, Mrs. Cardenas said she would gather the necessary people, investigation and documentation to get the house listed on the federal Register of Historic Sites, and to help apply for any appropriate grants that might be available.

Asked by council members what ARC would do with the house once it is restored, Brenner said that hasn’t been decided yet, but it will remain a private facility for their use. He said they might convert it to a residence for their on-site manager, or a rental office, a complex office, a maintenance facility or a clubhouse for tenants at the Pointe.

No Town Burden

It will also be within the gated community, so it will generally not be open or available to the public, other than by special invitation. Since only the exterior will be listed on the National Register of Historic Sites, the interior will not be restored, but will be modernized to make the space livable and/or usable for 21st century usage, Brenner added.

It will be maintained strictly at ARC’s expense, he continued, and will not be a burden to Orangetown in any way.

Brenner also explained the somewhat complicated financing package ARC agreed to offer Orangetown when the project was first approved. He insisted the same financial offer is being made today, unchanged.

$2 Million Donation

To gain approval, he said ARC volunteered to donate $2 million to Orangetown. $1 million of that is to go to the town’s sewer department, for the operation and maintenance of the town’s elaborate sewer system. The donation is justified, Brenner explained, because ARC is installing its own internal sewer system with the Pointe complex, but it will be hooked up to the town system outside of the gate, because the town will be treating the effluent at its sewer treatment plant in Orangeburg. The million dollars is to be paid to the town in stages, as certificates of occupancy are issued for each of the 160 apartments.

The other million dollars is to be donated to the town’s Parks Trust Fund, a “money-in-lieu-of-land” account Orangetown maintains for developers who do not want to donate part of their properties as town parkland, but must then give cash instead, to maintain town parks elsewhere. That money is typically used by the town to purchase needed parkland at various locations, or to make improvements to existing parks, serving all town residents.

Under the original agreement, ARC will donate $700,000 of that in cash, directly to the trust fund, and was to spend the other $300,000 to move and restore the Seth House. As part of the amended agreement now in place, that $300,000 will go toward just the restoration, in place.

Brenner said it would pay for all of the exterior work and the structural work. If any money is left over, it will be used for the interior work.

Under & Over

In response to council questions, Brenner said if the entire project costs less than the $300,000 pledge, any left over money would go back to the park trust fund, along with the $700,000 that is going there directly. If the project costs more than $300,000, ARC will pay that cost, regardless of the amount, at no cost to Orangetown, he concluded.

No one at last month’s hearing had any information on a missing out kitchen, which had been located adjacent to the Seth House, and was the last such Dutch kitchen in the entire township according to Mrs. Cardenas. It was a tiny structure built of native red sandstone, and was used by the original occupants to do their cooking in the days before kitchens were located within homesteads.

Brenner agreed with Mrs. Cardenas that the out kitchen was supposed to have been preserved, but he said he had no knowledge of who removed it, when, and on whose authority. Mrs. Cardenas said the kitchen had been missing for “several years,” along with barns and other outbuildings, all of which have been destroyed.

The Seth house today is in sad condition, with holes in the roof covered with what remains of a huge blue plastic tarpaulin. Windows and doors are broken or missing, molding has been stripped from inside walls and fireplace mantles were stolen, later to be found by police and returned, but not re-installed.

The house is sealed off from visitors by a high wire fence and locked gate, as well as vegetation so thick a rabbit would have difficulty getting through.