Two members of Schenectady’s Historic District Commission are disappointed Mayor Gary McCarthy didn’t reappoint them after years of service helping to ensure the preservation of the Stockade.
Marilyn Sassi, who served as vice chairwoman, and Frank Donegan were passed over for another term by McCarthy, who instead opted to appoint two new members to the commission.
Sassi, who served on the board for four years, was upset she wasn’t reappointed, saying the letter from the mayor thanking her for her service was “difficult for me.”
“The mayor never asked anybody about being reappointed,” she said. “As far as I know this has never happened before.”
Frank Donegan, who served on the commission for six years, said his term expired in 2014 and that he is confused as to why he was knocked off the board now.
“I have no idea what generated it,” he said. “It strikes me as if it’s a pocket veto. The mayor doesn’t exactly reappoint you but then decides when it’s time to leave and thanks you for your service.”
McCarthy said other people were recommended for the commission and that he wants to rotate members on the city’s volunteer boards.
“I understand their disappointment and appreciate the time and effort they put in,” he said. “You have to make a decision and sometimes people will agree and sometimes people will disagree.”
The seven-member board, appointed solely by the mayor, is tasked with deciding on project proposals requesting changes to the exterior of homes located in the Stockade Historic District.
The 350-year-old Stockade neighborhood is largely intact today and is on the local, State and National Registers of Historic Places. The historic district includes Dutch and English homes from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Stockade sits within the 100-year floodplain and was hit hard by tropical storms Irene and Lee in 2011. Homeowners continue to struggle with high flood insurance and costs for flood mitigation.
“The mayor and the City Council have no interest in the Stockade,” Sassi said. “They have never seen the importance of it. It’s a shame something hasn’t been done before now with all of the problems with flooding.”
In November the commissioners, including Sassi and Donegan, went back and forth for six months over allowing a home on Washington Avenue to be raised. They ultimately voted in favor.
Sassi cast the only no vote. She led the meetings during that time after former chairwoman Sara Stein left the commission in September.
The approval to raise the home marks the first in the Stockade. Sassi said she believes the debate was probably a factor in her getting bumped off the board.
“It was a very difficult issue and we all had a terrible time with it,” she said. “But that demonstrates our commitment.”
Sassi, who lives on Front Street in the Stockade, teaches American architecture and material culture. She lectures at Schenectady County Community College and Hudson Valley Community College. Before that she taught at Union College.
Sassi said it was always a dream of hers to live in the Stockade and that she loves the neighborhood.
“I lost my husband but before he passed away we were able to buy one of the homes in the Stockade,” she said. “I’ve tried hard to make sure the houses are respected and restored to the condition they should be.”
Donegan said he believes he may have been passed over for reappointment after speaking out against the city’s Law Department.
The commission recently reviewed a project proposal for a non-contributing structure in the Stockade. A non-contributing structure is a modern building located in a historic district.
Donegan said the commission mulled the request and made a decision, only to be told later by the Law Department that the commission’s sign off didn’t matter because it wasn’t required.
“We made a unanimous decision in the fall about a window replacement and then the applicant appealed it,” he said. “Then the city’s lawyers looked at the city code and felt it wasn’t in our purview. They didn’t tell us that before. They sandbagged us and I felt that was unprofessional.”
Donegan is a writer and wrote thousands of articles for a variety of magazines and newspapers. He now writes a monthly column on antiques and works part-time for the state Civil Liberties Union.
“I’ve restored a bunch of houses and have a lot of hands-on knowledge,” he said. “I was in the antiques business on the side for 45 years and still write about them. I love historic architecture and historic communities.”
Both Sassi and Donegan said serving on the Historic Commission is more difficult than it looks and that they will miss being a part of it.
“I’m disappointed because I loved it,” Donegan said. “It was lots of fun. I found it enjoyable and felt I was contributing something. Other people are younger with families and cannot spend as much time on projects like Marilyn and I. One thing we shared is that we both spent a lot of time on each application.”
McCarthy’s new appointments are Dr. Dean Bennett and David Lowry. Bennett and Lowry both live on North Ferry Street. Their terms will run until the end of 2017.
Bennett has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Washington and is an associate professor of history at SCCC. Lowry has a master's in public history from the University at Albany, is an adjunct professor at UAlbany and works at the New York State Archives in Albany.
Gloria Kishton, chairwoman of the Schenectady Heritage Foundation, applied to be on the commission but was not chosen by the mayor.
McCarthy also appointed Mark Meigher and Patricia Yager to the commission last year to fill two vacancies. Other commissioners include Carrie Britt, Jackie Craven and Ben Wiles.
McCarthy also decided not to reappoint Matthew Cuevas to the city Planning Commission after he was named unanimously by his colleagues as chairman of the board in September.
Cuevas served on the commission for 20 years. His term expired in December. He was the only commissioner not reappointed. Four other commissioners whose terms expired were reappointed.
Planning Commission appointments are made by the mayor and approved by the City Council. Councilman Vince Riggi, the only non-Democrat on the council, voted no on Cuevas' replacement, saying he believes the decision was political.
Reach Gazette reporter Haley Viccaro at 395-3114, [email protected] or @HRViccaro on Twitter.