Osborn Castle: Iconic Landmark at the Center of a Far-reaching Debate

Osborn Castle

Philipstown considers draft historic preservation overlay 

By Michael Turton

Everyone involved seems to want Osborn Castle to be preserved. But that’s where unanimity ends when it comes to views regarding a proposed zoning change aimed at saving the castle and other local historic properties. The Historic Preservation Use Flexibility Overlay (HPUFO) was discussed at the Aug. 31 Town of Philipstown workshop. If adopted, it would become part of the town’s zoning code. The overlay is intended to encourage preservation of historic buildings and properties by permitting adaptive reuse, including commercial activities. The draft HPUFO document states that it will, “promote the town’s rural character, historical past and contribute to tourism, the tax base and economic development.”

Supervisor Richard Shea and other board members were careful to describe the overlay as being at the draft stage. “This is the beginning of a process, not the end,” Shea said.  Although HPUFO would affect as many as 38 properties in Philipstown, the recent workshop discussion centered entirely on Osborn Castle, which is owned by Castle Rock LLC. The castle, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, was built by railroad baron William H. Osborn in 1880. The property is currently zoned rural residential.

Residents oppose commercial use
A number of neighbors who live on Old Stone Road, which leads up to the castle, strongly oppose the overlay – citing decreased property values and increased traffic that would result from commercial uses. Speaking on their behalf, attorney George Rodenhausen said, “I can assure you it will be litigated if you pass this. Let economic development happen where it should – under the Comprehensive Plan.”  Jennifer Gray, a lawyer with the White Plains firm of Keane and Beane representing Castle Rock LLC, spoke in favor of the zoning change as an effective way of preserving the castle.  “We need it to attract investors – and to save the property.”

As it stands, the draft HPUFO would permit a number of retail and service-oriented uses of historic buildings including, “lodging, conference facilities, spas and health clubs, convalescent facilities, cosmetic treatment centers, restaurants and employee and caretaker housing.” The town had considered adopting such an overlay as part of the new zoning approved last May, but in the face of considerable opposition, it was withdrawn. This allowed the balance of rezoning package, a project that has taken years to complete, could move forward without further delay. Town officials stated at the time that the overlay would be revisited as a separate issue.

Chicken and egg
Castle Rock LLC has not yet put forward a proposal outlining intended uses for the property. Contacted after the workshop, Rick O’Rourke, another lawyer with Keane and Beane said, “Typically in such a large project, in the millions of dollars investors are reluctant to invest. if zoning is not in place.”  O’Rourke said that many historic sites have been lost over the years simply because, “You have to have something to sustain them. We just spent a lot to repair the roof. The interior has been gutted. You can’t rebuild the interior until you know what you are doing with it and you can’t do that without zoning in place.”

Rodenhausen doesn’t agree. “It’s chicken and egg. When the owners have a proposal that makes sense – put it before the town for consideration. They have the right to ask for [a] zoning [change]. The Board does not need this law. You’ve made it too broad. If you pass this we have no alternative but to sue the town.” Jennifer Gray challenged that notion. “I absolutely disagree that there must be a site specific plan. It happens every day in New York State. There are ways to do this,” she said.

In speaking with Philipstown.info, O’Rourke said there are disadvantages to the owner if they bring forward a proposal without the uses permitted under the HPUFO. He said that investors would be reluctant to provide financing since even a preliminary proposal could cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to complete. “Somewhere in between [HPUFO and an individual proposal for the site] there is probably room for a good ordinance that protects the environment and the neighbors,” he said.

(L-R) John Van Tassel, Nancy Montgomery, Richard Shea, Betty Budny and Barbara Scuccimara

Property rights and just what is ‘ordinary use’
Property owners along Old Stone Road actually own the roadway. Castle Rock LLC has an easement that grants access over the road. Kristin Burke, a property owner on the road said she was concerned that commercial activity at the castle would negatively impact her property rights and property values “ and would also increase traffic.” She said that as few as 14 cars traveling the road over a short period “”¦is disconcerting”¦I’m an owner of that road. All of us bought that road. The U.S. was built on property rights. I feel you [the town board] are missing the point”¦ to save the castle [you will] trample on property rights.”

“We’re not trampling on anything – this is a discussion,” Shea said.

“I used strong language”¦this is my life investment,” Burke said.

Gray again argued differently. “Property rights are strong, but not unfettered. There is zoning and the right to request changes if it is in the best interests of the community. I agree about property rights – but that has to be qualified,” she said. Both Burke and Rodenhausen said that the owner’s easement over the road is limited to “ordinary use” and that commercial use would create traffic that would go beyond “ordinary.” Chris Jarero, chief legal officer for Castle Rock LLC, countered that “ordinary use” would be interpreted differently under HPUFO since it permits commercial activities.

Will proposals preserve “a unique jewel?
Fred Osborn, a descendant of the castle’s builder, and owner of Cat Rock, a Philipstown estate that is used to host weddings and other events, wants to see the Osborn Castle preserved, but doesn’t think the proposed overlay is the way to do it. “I have an enormous interest in preservation. At Cat Rock we’ve looked at various options, a conference center etc. In each case we explored business plans, but in each case there was caveat with the developer – ‘We’ll need town board approval.’ It is absolutely unnecessary to solve one problem by [adopting] this overlay. It’s overkill,” he said.

“You will have the specifics for any project proposed,” Jarero said. “Property values would increase. Until now the owner has been willing to invest a lot of money. It needs structural repair. We can’t do that until we know what we can do. I don’t want to throw away more money “without knowing we have a chance.”

“That’s a risk every entrepreneur takes,” said Doug Banker, another neighboring property owner.  “It [the castle] is a unique jewel, not just for Philipstown but for the whole country. The idea of sullying it with commercial activity is outrageous,” he told Philipstown.info after the meeting. He also said the site is not suited for commercial uses. “It’s small, and the rooms in the castle are small.” Banker said that the owner has let the building deteriorate over the past 25 years. “Are they doing this for preservation? Baloney!” Board member John Van Tassel was more empathetic towards the owner. “Spending a million dollars on the roof tells me they want to preserve it,” he said.  He contrasted the castle with the historic Loretto Rest property in Cold Spring, which he described as “a horrible eyesore, ready to fall down.”

Views differ widely
Andy Chmar, executive director of the Hudson Highlands Land Trust (HHLT), expressed concern over the broad reach of the proposed overlay. “Zoning is established for the benefit of the entire community – not individual property owners. This law would not just give this [town] board but any future town board, authority to permit any use it deems appropriate for any property it deems historically significant.” He described the overlay as “an atomic bomb.”

Philipstown resident Dave Vickery described the overlay much differently. “HPUFO is an inspired document. And I know that the word ‘no’ is used by [town] boards and used very well. Frivolous ideas will be quashed pretty readily. As for this particular proposal, if this came before the board the answer would be ‘no’- come back with another proposal. I think the law is potentially good. If there is control through the boards.”

Is compromise possible?
Shea seemed somewhat pessimistic, yet hopeful. “I’m not naive. This will likely go to litigation of some sort. Everyone wants to see the castle preserved.  Ideally, maybe Castle Rock, the neighbors and maybe the town can get together,” he said. Board member Nancy Montgomery requested that a list be drafted of the 38 properties that could be affected by HPUFO. In its current form it doesn’t list such properties or define in detail what constitutes “historically significant.”  She would also like see conceptual plans from Castle Rock LLC. “I’m uneasy not knowing the intent for the property. It’s not uncommon for developers to present plans. It doesn’t have to be detailed “but there has to be some idea,” she said. Barbara Scuccimarra, the only Republican on the town board, who, along with fellow board member Betty Budney, worked on the HPUFO said, “It’s a compromise situation. If parties can work it out it would behoove us all. We don’t want to end up in court.”

Chickens or eggs? Increased or decreased property values? Economic development or loss of a treasured local historic site? A specific proposal or HPUFO? An “atomic bomb” or an effective preservation tool?  Compromise or litigation? Time will tell.
Photos by M. Turton


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