A breakdown in communication within Town Hall apparently allowed the demolition late last year of the Elaine Benson Gallery, long a point of reference on Bridgehampton’s main thoroughfare, although the town had decided to revoke the owner’s demolition permit one day earlier. The penalty for the illegal demolition, paid by the owners: $92.
On Tuesday, Southampton Town Chief Building Inspector Michael Benincasa explained that Farrell Building Company of Bridgehampton, the property owners, had received a demolition permit to tear down the house at 2317 Montauk Highway on June 4. But town officials notified Farrell by phone in early December that they were revoking the building permit because the application had never been sent to the town’s Landmarks and Historic Districts Board for review.
According to Farrell’s attorney, John Bennett of Southampton, the call came in the day of the demolition—and by the time it was received, the house had already been partially demolished.
“We didn’t get any notification in writing from the town until the demolition was 80 percent complete, at which time my client called me and I told them to complete it, because at that point it’s a health and safety issue,” Mr. Bennett said. He noted that there was no court order to stop demolition, and he challenged the legality of town officials revoking a permit in the manner they chose.
Charles Bellows, the chairman of the Southampton Town Landmarks and Historic Districts Board, said on Tuesday that the building department had an administrative agreement to notify his board when the owners of the Benson Gallery applied for a demolition permit, though there was no requirement in the town code to do so.
“The demolition was totally unexpected and shocking to all of us on the board,” he said. “Had our board received notification of Elaine Benson, then maybe the same might not have happened. We don’t know because it’s history and we were out of the loop … there’s no reason the hamlet should have lost this structure. It’s an irrevocable loss to this hamlet.”
Mr. Bellows said the former gallery, built in the late 1800s, had most of its architectural detailing intact and was a good representative of the Victorian architecture that prevailed in Bridgehampton during that time period. He also said the landmarks board had just finished work on the Bridgehampton Hamlet Heritage Area and were ready to present the findings to the Town Board for possible historic designation. Just under 200 properties in Bridgehampton are included in the proposed heritage area, properties the board feels have historic significance and which they feel are eligible for state or national historic designation. One of those properties was the Benson Gallery.
As a result of the demolition, Mr. Bellows said the landmarks board is now seeking to have the town change the way it processes site plan applications or subdivision plans on properties that contain historic structures to ensure the landmarks board is notified early in the process. At their last meeting, on January 20, Mr. Bellows said the board asked the Town Board to amend the code so the landmarks board will receive notification whenever a plan that includes any structure more than 50 years old is received by the Planning Board.
Presently, the landmarks board is notified when the town receives an application for a demolition permit for any historic structure, and board members are given 30 days to respond to the application. Though they have no legal authority, they have, in some cases, been able to convince the landowner to preserve historic structures.
Although the landmarks board would still not have the legal authority to prevent the historic structure from being demolished, Mr. Bellows said the amendment would give them additional time to speak with the landowner and other board members to alert them of the property’s significance.
“All we’re saying is that the board ought to have correct information on whatever they’re reviewing to do their work to the utmost,” he said. “We just want to make a small improvement in the review procedures that will hopefully improve our notification procedure.”