The fate of a house believed to have once been owned by a historic East End figure, Pyrrhus Concer, still hangs in the balance, as activists hoping to save the home and Southampton Village officials are in a standoff with the property owners, who are seeking to demolish the structure.
A lawsuit by the property owners, David and Silvia Hermer, is expected to be filed by attorney David Gilmartin later this week. The suit follows a notice of claim, which paved the way for a $10 million legal action against the village, after the village’s Board of Architectural Review and Historic Preservation refused to allow the house’s demolition.
In the meantime, a group seeking to preserve African-American history on Long Island is refusing to wait silently while the fate of the home that Mr. Concer, a former slave and whaling captain, once owned is determined. Last week, a group of East End residents went before the Suffolk County Legislature to make the case for preserving not only the Concer homestead in Southampton but other properties of potential significance to black history on Long Island.
The group—which included the chairwoman of the African American Museum of the East End, Brenda Simmons; the president of the Association of Suffolk County Historical Societies, Georgette Grier-Key; the president of the Eastern Long Island chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Lucius Ware; and the director of the Southampton Historical Museum, Tom Edmonds—are also advocating that more money be allocated to groups dedicated to preserving landmarks of African-American culture.
“The main point of the presentation is that a lot of these properties are so rare, and yet they are not given the same attention as other properties, and we need to change that,” Ms. Grier-Key said in a phone interview this week, referring to the presentation to the County Legislature earlier in February. “Not only are the properties not given the proper attention, but the organizations that can be stewards for these buildings do not receive the same financial support, and we are looking to find a way to change this and create a study group that will be housing information for African-Americans and minorities on Long Island.”
While discussions among these local groups about preserving Long Island’s African-American history have been ongoing, the issue was catapulted into the spotlight in September 2013, when an application to demolish the Concer house was first heard by the Southampton Village ARB. After several months of sometimes heated debate, both in front of the ARB and behind closed doors, according to several sources, the board ultimately denied the request for a certificate of appropriateness to demolish the house to make way for a two-story, single-family home on the property at 51 Pond Lane.
Shortly after, the attorney for the owners, Mr. Gilmartin of the Water Mill law firm Farrell Fritz, filed a notice of claim against the village, announcing his intention to file a $10 million lawsuit for the loss of property value, the loss of investment and a violation of his clients’ constitutional rights.
This week, Mr. Gilmartin said his clients would be amenable to settling the suit out of court, but it would be up to the village to accept his clients’ offer, which he says has been on the table throughout the public hearing process. According to Mr. Gilmartin, after a certificate of appropriateness to demolish is issued, his clients will allow anyone who is interested to remove any portion of the house they feel has historical significance, before the house is demolished. His clients, he said, also will allow a plaque explaining Mr. Concer’s significance to be placed on the property.
“We would allow anyone with an interest to come into the house to take whatever materials they wanted, so long as it is within a reasonable time, and we would agree to the installation of a plaque on the property,” Mr. Gilmartin said. “That offer will not remain open forever. We also feel very strongly in the lawsuit, and we are very confident we will be successful in the outcome. The decision by the ARB is arbitrary and capricious, it violates the Southampton Village code, and, beyond that, the decision violates our substantive and due process constitutional rights.”
While the lawsuit has not yet been filed, the group has decided not to wait to fight for the house, and its members are hoping to find the funds to save the house and the property it sits on within the village. One option the group is considering is to approach Southampton Town for Community Preservation Fund money to buy the home.
This week, Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman said the group made a solid presentation to the legislature, and he noted that it is up to the parties directly involved to negotiate the status of the house.
“It was a very good presentation,” he said. “They talked about various important historical figures and buildings in Suffolk County, and they certainly did a good job highlighting the Pyrrhus Concer house.”