Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Judge: Group sued too soon over Fort Orange Club demolitions

Times Union - Albany NY

Last updated: 12:47 p.m., Wednesday, February 10, 2010

ALBANY -- A judge today dismissed a lawsuit challenging the Planning Board's blessing for the Fort Orange Club to tear down two 19th-century Washington Avenue buildings -- but the demolitions are still not likely to happen anytime soon.

Acting State Supreme Court Justice Richard Platkin ruled the Historic Albany Foundation sued too soon because the demolition plans still need to be approved by the city's Board of Zoning Appeals, Historic Resources Commission and once again by the Planning Board before the Building Department can issue a permit to raze the buildings.

For nearly two years, Historic Albany has opposed the 130-year-old private club's plans to demolish the buildings to make way for three new parking spaces in a lot adjacent to the clubhouse, itself one of Albany's most historic buildings.

Historic Albany contends the buildings are part of the historic, urban fabric of lower Washington Avenue, a stone's throw from the Capitol.

Club officials have countered, however, that the buildings, which date to the 1830s, have no historic value and that demolition also will help them convert more spaces from valet parking to self-parking, something members want, while at the same time making the lot safer.

The demolitions are part of the club's larger plans to expand its athletic facilities.

In his 15-page decision, Platkin said the historic preservation group cannot sue until the city actually issues the demolition permit.

"It does place us in a little bit of a precarious position because we won't know the exact moment when the building commissioner grants the demolition permit," said Historic Albany's attorney, George Carpinello.

"We may be involved again in another race to get to the courthouse before the wrecking ball hits the building," he said. "Usually the owner tries to tear the building down before we can get to a judge."

Carpinello noted, however, that Platkin did say that Historic Albany can challenge the Planning Board's determination that the demolitions would have no significant environmental impacts -- just not yet.

The club had contended that the four-month clock for such a challenge started ticking when the Planning Board first issued a so-called "negative declaration" under the State Environmental Quality Review Act in May 2008.

But Platkin rejected that argument, noting the club later withdrew its plans to demolish the buildings amid sharp public backlash in September of that year.

Historic Albany sued Jan. 22, the day after the Planning Board granted its conditional permission for the demolitions -- the first in the wake of a new city ordinance requiring Planning Board review of non-emergency tear-downs.

The law was prompted in part by the club's initial plans to raze the buildings in 2008.
Robert Sweeney, an attorney for the club, has repeatedly called allegations that the club was working covertly to demolish the buildings unfair. He said the club followed established procedure, at the direction of the building department, for six weeks before requesting a demolition permit on Nov. 6.

"The record is very clear on that," Sweeney said, "and it's insulting to the Fort Orange Club to suggest otherwise."

Jordan Carleo-Evangelist can be reached at 454-5445 or by e-mail at

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