January arson destroyed Beacon structure
A month after it ruled that a Beacon boardinghouse destroyed by fire must be rebuilt as a single-family home to comply with current regulations, the Zoning Board of Appeals this week began considering the property owner’s request for a variance.
If approved, a variance would allow Yeshia Berger to rebuild a structure at 925 Wolcott Ave. with single-room occupancy for short-term renters.
The ZBA discussed the request and held a public hearing on Tuesday (Aug. 15) but did not vote. It did approve an agreement that gives Berger until Sept. 25 to challenge the ZBA ruling in Dutchess County Court, although that deadline may be extended if the board continues to review his request.
Tuesday’s meeting was the latest chapter in a highly unusual sequence of events at the site.
On Jan. 3, a former tenant started a fire that destroyed the 4,136-square-foot, three-story structure. The tenant, Brian P. Atkinson, 57, turned himself in to Beacon police. He had been due in court that morning for eviction proceedings. Atkinson pleaded guilty on May 31 to the most serious charge against him, third-degree arson, and was sentenced to 4 to 12 years in state prison.
Berger had received a building permit in December to downsize the building’s density from 16 rental units to nine. After the arson, he sought permission from the city to rebuild the boardinghouse, which had been a “legal non-conforming use” in an area zoned for single-family homes.
Bruce Flower, the city building inspector, denied Berger’s request, citing a provision in the zoning code requiring structures that have been more than 50 percent destroyed, such as by fire, to be rebuilt according to current standards. (Beacon’s zoning code does not permit boardinghouses, but 925 Wolcott and several others like it had been grandfathered in as longstanding non-conforming uses.)
Need a Room?
Beacon has long had a history of single-room occupancy housing, including for tourists who came to escape the heat of New York City in an era before air conditioning and swimming pools, said Denise Doring VanBuren, president of the Beacon Historical Society.
When the Castle Point VA Medical Center was built in the 1920s, some locals also rented rooms to families who had loved ones being cared for there, she said.
Diane Lapis, a society trustee, added that some homes in Beacon in the early 20th century were converted to “rooms to let.” City directories from the time show households with occupants who had many different surnames, and news stories mention widows and widowers who made ends meet by providing rooms, she said.
After the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision instituted a seniority system for guards, many upstate residents came south to work temporarily at the Fishkill or Downstate prisons, or the Beacon Correctional Facility, while they waited for jobs to open closer to home, VanBuren said. “These folks needed housing and local homes were modified to fill the need,” she said. “This probably created the greatest single-room-occupancy demand.”
VanBuren said that the movement to place people who had once resided in group homes into the community likely also resulted in homes in Beacon being modified to accommodate single residents receiving state subsidies.
In July, the ZBA upheld Flower’s decision.
On Tuesday, Berger’s attorney, Taylor Palmer, argued that his client faces a “unique hardship” because of the arson. Palmer has asked the ZBA to grant either an “area variance,” which would bypass the 50 percent-destroyed provision, or a “use variance,” which would allow the boardinghouse in the single-family neighborhood.
If one of them is not approved, Palmer indicated that Berger would probably file a lawsuit.
Palmer said Berger could not “realize a reasonable rate of return” on the parcel if he builds a single-family home, but board members questioned data provided by a financial consultant as evidence.
A 2022 appraisal showed the boardinghouse property was worth $1.7 million, said Bill Pforzheimer, the consultant. Conversely, single-family homes in Beacon ranging from 2,000 to 5,000 square feet have sold for an average of $832,000 — a “very large discrepancy,” he said.
According to Dutchess County records, Berger purchased the parcel in July 2022 — two months after the appraisal — for $650,000.
And while a single-family home may generate $2,000 to $4,000 per month in rent, Berger was making $20,000 per month renting the single-room occupancies, Pforzheimer said.
“But the former use is not relevant” because the structure no longer exists, said Jordan Haug, the ZBA chair. In addition, board members wanted to know how much Berger had received from an insurance payout, and the estimated costs of rebuilding — numbers that Pforzheimer said he did not have.
The board also asked its attorney, George Alissandratos, for help defining “reasonable return.”
Flower noted that Berger began work on the boardinghouse before receiving a building permit. “The place was pretty much wide open because of the demolition that had already taken place,” Flower said. “When the fire was lit, it basically went through the building much quicker than if it was a finished space.”
During the public hearing, a half-dozen neighbors asked the board not to grant either variance. No one spoke in favor.
“With any type of investment, there’s a lot of inherent risk, just like with the stock market,” said Lisa Wagner, who lives on Sargent Avenue. “If I was going to buy a property and use it as an investment, I would want to know my worst-case scenario [such as a fire]. I’d check that out first.”
The zoning board has also received a petition with more than 100 names asking it to deny Berger’s request. Another neighbor said “every weekend there was a fight” at the site, echoing previous public comments.
The board adjourned the public hearing until its Sept. 19 meeting and voted 4-1, with Judith Smith dissenting, to hire a consultant to research Pforzheimer’s arguments.