Interpretation: How Rezoning Failed to Save the Curry house
by Larry Saphire
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In these days of zoning gimmicks put forward in the name of achieving a benefit for the public, the strange story of the old Curry House in Shrub Oak should give some pause in considering the sincerity and effectiveness of such proposals. Last week, the 19th century Shrub Oak landmark was demolished by order of the Town Board for the sum of $1500. What made this act unusual was the fact that the Stonegate 40-townhouse development behind the old Curry House had been rezoned with the apparent idea of saving the landmark.
Prior to June 16, 1970, the six-acre Curry property had been zoned as follows: the house and its two acres of frontage on Old Route 6 was commercial, and the four acres in the rear was half-acre residential. What that meant was that the Curry House could be used for a commercial purpose such as a restaurant, antique store, or demolished and replaced by a commercial building. The residential land to the rear could be a minor subdivision with six houses and an access road that would remove 50 feet of the commercial frontage for access. Neither of these two possibilities for which the property was zoned was particularly feasible in the present market.
"Quid pro quo"
Since Shrub Oak was the main section of Yorktown 100 years ago, all the houses have a reason for being preserved. Even though there are commercial uses around Stoney Street, the area has the aura of 19th century farmtown life. The Curry House was an important anchor in the group including the John Hart Memorial Library and the Methodist Church and graveyard. But since the property had in the past been zoned commercial, returning it to residential use would be a financial loss for the owner. Here was an opportunity for some sort of zoning exchange to save the Curry House.
The land had a residential density which permitted six dwelling units to be built on the four rear acres. Changing this to quarter acre would have doubled the density and thus the value of the 4 acres. Under the town's various density provisions for "flexible" development, 12 or 16 townhouses under quarter-acre could have been built and the Curry House donated to the town. The proposal made, however, much like the one being put forward for the Christal Farm, was for much more: changing the zoning from half-acre to two-family. In Yorktown, a two-family house requires less land for the two sets of inhabitants than a single-family house -- a mere 5000 square feet, whereas a single-family house on a quarter-acre requires 10,000 square feet.
Laying it on thick
This anachronism in the town zoning ordinance, which almost twenty years of professional planning has failed to modify, was precisely the quid pro quo invoked to save the Curry House. The entire six acres was rezoned to two-family, which meant that 48 dwelling units instead of 6 could be built. Perhaps the price was worthwhile to save the Curry House.
In the course of processing what was to become the Stonegate development under "flexibility" standards, 40 semi-attached units (townhouses) were to be built and the one acre on which the Curry House stood was to be donated to the town. With such a bonanza to the builder (without townhouses and a communal septic field in a central open space, inadequate sewage facilities would have prevented the construction to two-family houses on 5000 square foot lots), the town could have required him to donate a restored Curry House. But the Town Board and Planning Board required no such benefit for the town.
An insensitive blunder
Even without the aid of the favored developer, a member of the Curry family offered at least $10,000 and possibly $20,000 to restore the house. The town planner attempted to line up volunteer professional help to save the house. Letters were written to solicit state and foundation money, which was not forthcoming. The town Historical Society looked at the house and the town Landmarks Committee looked at the house. This writer wrote a column last September called Save the Curry House Landmark. With all this activity and pledged money, somehow nobody realized that there was no positive group charged with organizing ways and means to save the Curry House.
Leadership in a town such as Yorktown is most frequently assumed by interested residents. But in the final analysis, it is the town officials who must exercise leadership. They did not. In the absence of a committee, they did not call for one. It was incumbent upon them to do so, particularly because of the zoning manipulations designed to save the house. Finally, with little ado, the Town Board decided to bulldoze the house a little over two weeks ago.
I say they had no moral right to do it, and that it was a shameful and insensitive act.
Source: The Yorktowner, "Interpretation: How rezoning failed to save the Curry house," by Larry Saphire, May 23, 1973
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