Officials Differ on Merits of Putting Constitution Island Center on Main Street

Conflict between island association and West Point looms in background

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

A proposal to use nearly $750,000 in New York State grant money to create a Constitution Island Association education center on Main Street in Cold Spring drew conflicting opinions from officials at an unexpectedly convened state hearing on Monday (Aug. 19).

Flanked by Constitution Island Association Executive Director Richard de Koster, back to camera, and hearing officer Robert Martinez, right, Sheriff Donald Smith addresses the hearing. Photo by L.S. Armstrong

Flanked by Constitution Island Association Executive Director Richard de Koster, back to camera, and hearing officer Robert Martinez, right, Sheriff Donald Smith addresses the hearing. Photo by L.S. Armstrong

The way the Empire State Development Corp., a state agency, announced the hearing in an Aug. 7 notice in a Westchester newspaper and Aug. 5 note to the Cold Spring village clerk and the choice of Carmel as the hearing venue, similarly generated controversy.

At the Putnam County level, Sheriff Donald B. Smith backed placement of the center on Main Street, but Tourism Director Libby Pataki opposed it. Although she did not testify at the hearing, County Executive MaryEllen Odell welcomed attendees and also expressed doubts about putting the education center anywhere but Constitution Island. Closer to home, Philipstown Supervisor Richard Shea endorsed the endeavor but Cold Spring Mayor Ralph Falloon did not.

The Constitution Island Association view

The non-profit Constitution Island Association, charged with maintaining the contents of the historic Warner House on Constitution Island and promoting awareness of the island’s heritage, wants to use a state grant to purchase 107-109 Main St., to use as an educational visitor center. Its move comes amidst sharp conflict with the garrison command of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Through transactions finalized in 1908, a Warner heiress gave the island to the federal government for use by West Point. Since then the notion of making it part of the National Park Service – without necessarily disenfranchising West Point – has arisen periodically. U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer championed that idea in 2012, stunning West Point but delighting the association, which wants the deteriorating Warner House rehabilitated by someone, if not the Army. The association also argues the island should be more publicly accessible. West Point in turn recently refused to renew the association’s accreditation, in effect kicking it off the island.

War of the Revolution honor guard greets visitors to Constitution Island. (Photo by Kevin E. Foley)

War of the Revolution honor guard greets visitors to Constitution Island. (Photo by Kevin E. Foley)

West Point did not testify at the hearing, but in an email on Tuesday an official told that “the position from West Point is that the visitors’ center, to be funded by a $750,000 grant from Gov. Pataki, should be on Constitution Island, not in Cold Spring.” The grant debuted in the state budget in 2004-05, during the administration of Gov. George Pataki, husband of the Putnam County tourism director.

Association Executive Director Richard de Koster told the hearing that “the education center will clearly be good for Cold Spring in particular and tourism in the mid-Hudson Valley and tourism in general. There’s no doubt the education center makes economic sense for Cold Spring.” De Koster estimated the center would get 300 visitors a month, each spending $25 locally.

“That’s an additional $7,500 in Cold Spring merchants’ pockets and an additional $620 in sales tax for Putnam County on a monthly basis,” he said. “By contrast, the building currently pays $670 in monthly property taxes. The loss of revenue will be more than offset by the additional visitor dollars.”

He pointed out that with the Warner House closed, the association holdings have been physically scattered for the last several years, with Warner furniture stored in Patterson, archives at Locus Grove near Poughkeepsie, and a small office at Route 9D and Peekskill Road on the edge of Cold Spring. The education center “will give us a single face to the world,” he said.

Since news of the $749,766 grant in 2006, the association has sought to get the money disbursed, de Koster told the hearing officer, attorney Robert Martinez. For three years, the association worked closely with West Point and the then-garrison commander, seeking to repair the Warner House and put the education center on Constitution Island. But problems cropped up, among them challenges of construction near the Hudson River shore and a dearth of Army money to fix the house, de Koster explained.

In 2009, the garrison commander himself recommended the association create an education center “off the island,” de Koster added. Meanwhile, he said, the association had obtained a legal opinion warning it could not turn the grant – state money – over to the federal government, represented by West Point, to repair the house.

Around that time, de Koster continued, Anthony Phillips, then mayor of Cold Spring, proposed the association use The Grove, the deteriorating, 1853 home the village owns across from Foodtown plaza. “There was no suggestion by anyone that this might be inappropriate,” de Koster said.

Local and county officials’ perspectives

The current mayor, Falloon, observed “that [Grove] building is still available.” He opposed using a Main Street store for the education center. “A not-for-profit organization essentially will take the building off the tax rolls,” he said. “We do appreciate the money, and the tourist dollars help us, but it doesn’t directly help the taxpayer. I personally really do support the Warner House, Constitution Island, and West Point and I believe that [island] is probably the best place for that [education center] to be. Main Street, I don’t feel, is the best for us.” However, he promised, “going forward, we are willing to work with anybody and yourselves to come to a better resolution.”

Falloon, like others, criticized the handling of the hearing. “The hearing is in Putnam County [offices] and the building” the association wants “is on Main Street in Cold Spring, so we feel it would have been better for us if it was there, being that’s what the project has to do with,” he said.

The sheriff supported the venture. “I’ve been involved over the past several years, working with the association and working with West Point to try to do the right thing for Constitution Island,” said Smith, a West Point graduate, former faculty member, and retired Army general.

Smith said conditions make establishing an education center on the island difficult; as an example he mentioned the narrow road from Cold Spring, which hinders access by emergency vehicles.  “For a center like this to be truly effective, I do believe the best place for it would be in the village,” he said. “Clearly, if we want to help tourism, I think having it in Cold Spring is where we are going to get the maximum exposure about what Constitution Island is, what it means. And I think it would cause people to want to visit Constitution Island.”

Libby Pataki referred to the need to directly visit some places to understand their beauty and significance. “As tourism director I believe the visitor experience is very important. I believe the experience of Constitution Island has to be lived on Constitution Island.”

She said she thinks the association’s “intentions are good, but I really believe that to experience Constitution Island as one of the great sites of this county, any monies that are awarded … would be best-suited and best placed and best used and best appreciated by the public, and especially our children, if the monies were to go toward the island. I believe very strongly the original intention of this grant was that the monies be placed toward the refurbishing of facilities on the island, and not off the island.”

Pataki likewise objected to not being told the education center effort was underway. “I should have been informed of this since they do couch it as a tourism undertaking,” she said. “I was never told that this project was indeed perhaps imminent and intended.”

Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell welcomes participants in the hearing. Photo by L.S. Armstrong

Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell welcomes participants in the hearing. Photo by L.S. Armstrong

In her remarks before the official session began, Odell also questioned the proposed location. “It comes as a surprise to me, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, to find out that the funding has been granted but is not going to be earmarked for the actual restoration and rehabilitation of the site” on the island, she said. “I am unclear as to why this money that was earmarked has now been re-assigned to a different location,” one that will have “a substantial impact” detrimental to the Philipstown economy.

However, Shea endorsed the Main Street location, in a letter read at the hearing, which he did not attend. “A visit to Constitution Island is a unique Hudson Valley experience for our local residents and visitors to our region,” Shea wrote. “An education center in the Village of Cold Spring would be a huge benefit to tourism and to our local residents as well. The Town Board of Philipstown is in strong support of the Grant for Constitution Island Association’s education center to be located in the village.”

Concerns about state actions

Carolyn Bachan, a former vice president of the Empire State Development Corp, addressed the hearing as an individual. (She serves on the Cold Spring Historic District Review Board.) Bachan too objected to holding the hearing in Carmel and publication of the newspaper hearing notice outside the county. “If intentional, that’s outrageous; if accidental, that’s gross incompetence.  It’s bad form either way,” she said.

Moreover, she said, the Empire Development agency violated the law on several counts. First, she maintained, the state grant fund has about a dozen sub-categories. “None of the categories permit a grant to a not-for-profit for the acquisition of real property, which this project entails.”

Furthermore, she said, the agency “is required to cooperate and consult with municipalities, which it clearly has not done since no elected or appointed official heard of this proposed purchase of a building on Main Street until Aug. 5, and most had not heard until August 15 – four days before the hearing.” Also, according to Bachan, the applicable “statute requires consistency with locally adopted master plans or goals.

The Cold Spring Village Comprehensive Plan emphasizes and encourages retail nature establishments and the continuity of Main Street. This project creates a dead zone at a cost of $750,000 in taxpayer money.” Then too, she said, “Empire State Development must state the basis for its findings of substantial job creation or substantial increase in tourism visitation.  There is no basis for either of these findings.”

She cited other state missteps and likewise concluded the association cannot function properly off the island. “The Constitution Island Association will not be able to fulfill its mandated mission from a remote site and cannot arrange visits to the island from which it has been banned,” Bachan said.

A merchant’s plea

Petula Eng, who operates Chickadee Gallery at 107-109 Main St., protested that she had not been informed of the education center plans. “We are the persons who are mostly affected,” she said. “This is our fourth year in this business. We’ve put a lot of efforts, investments, and time in, and we were not even notified. It’s going to affect our livelihood, our planning – everything.”

5 thoughts on “Officials Differ on Merits of Putting Constitution Island Center on Main Street

  1. I am biased on this subject since I lecture and write about Anna B. Warner as an inspirational gardener and about the history of the island. I chaired Garden Day in 2008 then researched and found her vegetable garden plans and favored seed varieties and secured a grant to built and maintain it, but it was rejected by the Committee due to their personal conflict with Entergy. Hopefully one day, the Warner House and her gardens will be restored.

    By law, the Empire State Development Corporation cannot approve grants for real estate purchase.

    Since the long-standing convivial relationship with West Point now has issues, certainly funding can be privately raised by the august Board to have a dedicated place somewhere in the Village to showcase the wonderful artifacts to tell this story.

    But West Point owns the island. Period. Since 1916, the Association’s mission has been to “perpetuate the memory of the Warner sisters” but Anna was totally against it ever being a public park or for any entity making any profit from it (see terms of deed transfer below).

    She turned down lucrative offers – including an amusement park! Her friend, Mrs. Russell (Margaret) Sage, gave Anna the price she wanted to sell it to West Point for then gifted it to West Point from both of them. President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a thank you note to both women. Here are the deed conditions:

    “I am prepared to execute a proper deed whenever I am assured that my gift will be accepted for this purpose, and that any necessary authority has been obtained from Congress or from the State of New York so as to vest in the United States the same jurisdiction over the Island which now exists over the military reservation at West Point. My deed will be accompanied by full abstract of title and will contain no conditions except:

    “First’. That the Island be for the use forever of the United States Military Academy at West Point, N. Y., and form a part of the military reservation of West Point, and (pursuant to the covenant in Miss Warner’s deed to me, which runs with the land) ‘that no part of it shall ever be used as a public picnic, or excursion, or amusement ground, operated by private enterprise, individual or corporate, for profit; and

    “Second: That Miss Anna Bartlett Warner have the right to reside as at present on Constitution island, in full possession of her house and the gardens appurtenant thereto during her natural life, and to the use of such spring or springs from which she now gets her water supply, together with the right to pasture her cows and horses, and to take such firewood as will be necessary while she resides on said Island, it being clearly understood that these reservations in her favor are restricted to her own life only.

    “It is a great satisfaction to me to be thus able to carry out the great desire of Miss Warner’s life, and I am sure that her unselfish and high minded refusal to sell Constitution Island for other than Government purposes will be a tradition dear to the heart of every West Point graduate.

    Respectfully yours,

    Margaret Olivia Sage
    Oyster Bay, N.Y.
    September 5, 1908”

  2. Anyone who has read the original letter to President Roosevelt and who knows even a little about the history behind the island and the Warner connection to West Point should clearly understand that Anna intended the island to be part of West Point in perpetuity. I don’t blame the Academy for being annoyed with the Association’s efforts to steamroll over the intent of Ms. Warner’s gift; it seems to me that they should be the last ones to suggest separating the island from West Point.

    I agree that it’s a shame the Army does not have the interest to restore the house (but please, don’t tell me they don’t have the funds. Please!) But, why has that prevented the Association from raising the entirety of the funds needed for restoration themselves, especially with a $750,000 head start? I’d say the Association is failing to meet its mission.

  3. Firstly, Barbara, thank you for your kind response and your awareness of how important the Warner message is in the 21st century. There are just a few misunderstandings that I hope to clarify.

    Anna Warner was against Constitution Island being made into an amusement park. Anna Warner was not against Constitution Island being made a public park. As a matter fact, her deed of transfer specifically supported that possibility. The Association has acted at all times in accord with its mission and with the law governing not-for-profit organizations. In the past we have expressed the belief that Constitution Island would be better used as a national park. This belief is supported by a covenant in Anna Warner’s deed to Mrs. Russell Sage (which, in turn, was incorporated in a later deed in which Mrs. Sage transferred the Island to the United States of America). The statement below is part of Anna’s original deed:

    “Nothing herein contained shall be deemed or construed to prevent the dedication or conveyance of the [Constitution Island]premises, or any part thereof, for the purpose of a State or National Park….”

    Transfer of the Island would not “go against the terms of the original gift.” As noted above, the original gift was subject to a covenant that explicitly foresaw that the Island could become a State or National Park. At any rate, the Association has been part of the West Point community for the past 97 years, and our thoughts on the potential disposition of the Island were given in a respectful and thoughtful way.

    It is environmental and cultural opportunities that make Cold Spring different from many other nearby communities. The Putnam History Museum, Boscobel, the Shakespeare Festival, Cold Spring Foundry and Constitution Marsh are the types of sites and organizations that bring visitors to our community. Through exhibitions, lectures series and other events our Center would bring visitors to Cold Spring through out the year. If the Center is located on West Point it will be open 26 days a year, as the site normally is.

    With respect to the above article’s statement that The Association is “charged with maintaining the contents of the historic Warner House on Constitution Island and promoting awareness of the island’s heritage,” I would just like to clarify that the Association is not “charged with maintaining the contents of the historic Warner House.” The Association owns the contents of the Warner House. This recognition is part of the regulations of West Point: USMA Reg 210-21 (26 July 1991), Paragraph 3(j): “The property and furnishings [of the Warner House] belong to the Association.”

    We hope to return all of these furnishings to the Warner House in the near future. And, through the education center, we believe our story can reach thousands more every year.

    One final note: the Island was not transferred through Mrs. Sage’s letter. The letter is not a legal document. The transfer was accomplished through a Deed of Transfer, a legal document.

  4. I also was at the public hearing, but was not mentioned by Liz in her account, which doesn’t surprise me at all. I guess I’m not important to the account of the public hearing. I guess it was a ghost who read the building inspector’s report on the project. Damn those ghosts.

  5. The very idea of removing yet another retail space from Main Street further exemplifies the lack of consideration that the Village officials have for the merchants who have so much invested here. We are getting hit from all sides by higher taxes and over-regulation that many will find it no longer profitable to be here. The icing on the cake is the decision not to put up the Christmas lights for the holidays.

    Are they trying to keep Cold Spring a secret? If so, they’re succeeding. By the way, I can’t tell you how many customers we lose because there is zero signage for the Village at the Route 9/301 intersection. They have signs for Peekskill and Fishkill facing 301 as you’re coming from the east, but nothing for Cold Spring which is about a mile further down the road heading west. You mean to tell me that nobody in local or county government has figured out that you can’t find the Village, let alone Main Street, if there are no signs?