Historic commission down to two after resignations

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By Melanie Lekocevic

Capital Region Independent Media

The Durham town board’s decision not to reappoint Historic Preservation Commission Chairman Patrick Ciccone has had a ripple effect, leading to the resignation of three members, leaving two remaining on the commission. File photo

DURHAM — Three of the five remaining members of the Durham Historic Preservation Commission resigned their posts after the town’s decision not to reappoint commission chairman Patrick Ciccone.

Ciccone has been an outspoken critic of the controversial Bosque housing development that would build 12 homes and a barn and related facilities in the vicinity of Strong Road. The site falls within the town’s historic district.

Ciccone said he believes the decision not to reappoint him was directly tied to a letter from the group finding that the development would have significant impacts on the town’s historic district.

“I believe it was purely in retaliation for us doing our jobs and I think that the three other commission members who resigned recognized that immediately,” Ciccone said Monday.

The three commission members who stepped down from their posts effective March 4 were Ellen Fried, Rosemary O’Brien and Ken Mabey.

“We are dismayed that the town board did not make any effort to understand the commission’s unanimous findings regarding the proposed Bosque development and/or to engage in dialogue that could have satisfied our concerns and paved the way for this project to move forward with consensus in the Cornwallville Historic District,” according to the letter submitted jointly by Fried, O’Brien and Mabey.

The three commission members said the town failed to communicate with the group about Ciccone’s dismissal.

“We believe contempt for the commission was fully exposed when its chairperson, a professional historic preservationist with seven years on the commission, was dismissed without warning or explanation of any kind; and without even some minimal communication with the five remaining members of the commission, either before or since the dismissal took place,” according to the letter.

Ciccone has been the commission’s chairman since 2018 and served as a member since early 2016.

At the March 1 meeting of the town board, Town Supervisor Shawn Marriott confirmed Ciccone would not be reappointed but declined to discuss the issue further.

“I can confirm that Patrick [Ciccone] was not reappointed, but we do not discuss personnel matters with the public,” Marriott said.

Attorney Jan Perlin challenged the commission chairman’s classification as a town employee.

“It’s not a personnel matter — he is a member of a public commission,” Perlin said at the March 1 meeting. “I don’t see how it’s a personnel matter.”

Town attorney Tal Rappleyea reiterated Marriott’s statement that the commission chairman is an employee and personnel matters cannot be discussed by the board in public.

“It is very much a personnel matter. That’s all there is to it,” Rappleyea said.

Ciccone said Monday he was notified Feb. 27 that he would not be reappointed.

“[Marriott] handed me the letter, which was undated, saying that I was not being reappointed because I was a holdover appointment,” Ciccone said. “Whether that is even true, I don’t believe for a second that that was what it was all about.”

The former commission chairman contended he is not a town employee.

“I am an appointed expert, I am not an employee,” Ciccone said. “I am happy for him to discuss it in public — he can say he didn’t reappoint me because he didn’t like what we were doing. He is allowed to do that.”

The commission chairman and members are unpaid.

The town of Durham is unique in that there is a historic preservation commission, but no planning or zoning board — the town board oversees those matters directly. The commission was established in 1990 in an agreement between the town and the state, Ciccone said.

“It’s a certified local government [program] between the town of Durham and the state of New York,” Ciccone said.

Certified Local Government programs are administered by the State Historic Preservation Office and allow municipalities to partner with the state and federal governments to identify and evaluate community resources and protect historic properties, according to the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

“There are reciprocal requirements on both sides, so the state is now looking at whether the town has violated its CLG agreement,” Ciccone said. “It is rare for a town the size of Durham to have a historic commission — it was a point of pride that we did.”

Ciccone said he believes he was dismissed because of the commission’s determination that the Bosque project would have significant impacts on the community and because of his extensive knowledge on the issues related to the project, which falls within the town’s historic district.

“I am a trained historic preservationist,” he said. “I work professionally as a historic preservationist and as a real estate developer. I am deeply familiar with the regulatory framework of all of this and I think that the town’s approach to the law is autocratic and improvisatory.”

“The duty of the commission is to protect the town’s historic resources,” he added. “It would be absurd to think that anyone part of that would just say OK, I am going to stand by blindly while the town ignores this. The other commission members who resigned obviously felt the same way.”

The next meeting of the town board will be March 15.

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