Town officials in Clifton Park are patting themselves on the back for obtaining a $40,000 settlement from the development company that illegally demolished a historic house on old Route 146 last fall. Not only does the agreement bring the town far more money than if it had pursued and won its criminal (misdemeanor) case against the company, it obviates the need and expense for further prosecution. But while $40,000 represents a far stiffer penalty than the $3,000 fine that might have been obtained had the developers been convicted of thumbing their noses at a variety of town regulations, it still seems to let them off the hook too lightly.
The Greek Revival house destroyed by Provident last September was built in 1845 by John and Phebe Rosecrans. It sat on a knoll across from the historic Clifton Park Methodist Church and was part of the early hamlet of Clifton Park. Though it wasn’t on the National Register of Historic Places, a local historian suggests it would have easily qualified for listing there.
Regardless, the town’s Planning Board had given the developers explicit instructions last year, when they sought permission to build a 6,200-foot office building on part of the property, that they were to leave at least the front of the old house standing. So there was no excuse for knocking it down. Their offer to build a replica of the house’s facade, made subsequently in response to community outrage, was properly rejected; as Town Attorney Thomas McCarthy told a reporter last week, it would have been a “farce.”
The $40,000 settlement, with the money earmarked for historic preservation, is undoubtedly a better solution. But the town has been through this sort of thing before — in 2003, when Robert McCormick Jr. knocked down a 102-year-old barn on Grooms Road to accommodate a large-lot subdivision he was planning there — so a statement like the one by Town Board member Scott Hughes about strengthening town codes to allow for tougher civil penalties has less credibility than it otherwise might.
Tougher penalties are indeed in order for monied developers who probably consider what was levied here as a cost of doing business. And Clifton Park shouldn’t be the only municipality with historic property contemplating them; all should.