Fire district takes heat

Local group asks court to block sale of historic home

ANCRAM–The Stiehle house was recently sold to the Ancram Fire District, but the Ancram Preservation Group says the transaction was a breach of contract and has filed a lawsuit against both the seller and the buyer to get the deal undone.

Chairman of the Ancram Fire District’s Board of Fire Commissioners Terry Boyles told The Columbia Paper Tuesday, January 19, that he would have no comment on the matter until the litigation had run its course.

The humble, two-story, grimy-yellowish Stiehle house has stood sentinel at the east end of this hamlet at the crossroads of state Route 82 and county Route 7 since sometime in the first half of the 18th century, according to the website for the Ancram Preservation Group (APG).

The only thing that separates the front of the house from eastbound traffic on Route 82 is a metal guardrail.

To the passerby, for the past 10 or 20 years anyway, the house seemed forgotten, untended, until the rear part of the structure started to collapse down the side hill above the Ancram Mill about two years ago. That’s when the APG stepped in.

According to APG President Christopher “Kit” White, the Stiehle house is one of three historic buildings in the center of the Ancram hamlet. The Simons General Store and the Tinsmith house, across the road from the Stiehle house, are the other two. The APG purchased and restored the general store several years ago, and that building is currently for sale.

Revitalization of the Ancram hamlet placed high on a list priorities identified in a townwide Comprehensive Plan survey last year, and the only way that revitalization will happen is if the town “looks okay,” said Mr. White.

Part of the private, not-for-profit group’s mission is to promote and advocate the architectural, economic, culture and historic vitality of the Ancram Community through historic preservation.

After securing a clear title to the house and property for John F. Stiehle, a process that took about a year, the APG entered into a five-year lease agreement with him in 2008, said Mr. White.

The agreement allowed the APG to remove the crumbling rear part of the Stiehle house and stabilize the rest of it. The group also put a coat of primer paint on the house last fall, said Mr. White.

The terms of the lease also allowed the APG “the right of first refusal” to buy the house and property for the same amount any potential buyer offered Mr. Stiehle and an option to buy the place for $35,000, if the group so decided.

According to the December 2009 APG lawsuit filed in state Supreme Court by the group’s attorney, Warren S. Replansky, the Ancram Fire District offered Mr. Stiehle $15,000 for the place last September.

Sometime in the past couple of years the fire district purchased the property adjacent to the Stiehle house on the west, the former Ancram Tavern, which is now the Firehouse Deli. The fire district also owns the property just west of the deli, on which the Ancram firehouse is located.

Upon hearing about the fire district’s purchase offer, Mr. White said he went to then town Supervisor Tom Dias and told him about the APG’s right of first refusal agreement. Mr. White said he subsequently met with Fire Commissioner Boyles and Fire Chief David Boice.

At the latter meeting, Mr. White said the men told him that the fire district wanted to tear down the Stiehle house to create an access route to a possible future addition to the firehouse.

Mr. White said he told them about the historical significance of the Stiehle house, its visual prominence in the hamlet and that the APG would not be interested in moving the house or seeing it torn down.

After receiving a copy of the proposed sale contract between Mr. Stiehle and the fire district from the fire district’s attorney, Roderick J. MacLeod, the APG’s former attorney, Ira Levy, communicated to Mr. MacLeod and Mr. Stiehle that the APG would exercise its right of first refusal and buy the Stiehle house for $15,000.

Despite the agreement the APG had with Mr. Stiehle, he sold the house and property to the Ancram Fire District in November.

Mr. MacLeod represented both Mr. Stiehle and the fire district in the transaction, according to APG Attorney Replansky.

The APG lawsuit alleges that Mr. Stiehle and the fire district “were fully aware of the existence of the [APG’s] right of first refusal” and the group’s intent to buy the property at the time title to property was transferred from Mr. Stiehle to the Ancram Fire District.

Making the matter more disturbing to Mr. White is that Mr. Boyles and Perry Miller, also a fire commissioner, went to Town Building Inspector Ed Ferratto seeking a permit to demolish the Stiehle house, even though the case was in litigation.

Mr. Ferratto confirmed that a permit was sought and that he did not issue one after finding out that ownership of the house was in question.

The fire district’s action in seeking the demolition permit “was a clear attempt at making an end run around the court,” said Mr. White, noting that the APG already has a $10,000 investment in the Stiehle house for legal fees, removal of the collapsed part of the structure and paint.

“That the most important public protection agency in town would act in such an unethical manner is disturbing,” said Mr. White.

The APG asks in its suit that the court allow the preservation group to purchase the Stiehle property for $15,000 and that the defendants be restrained from selling the property or disposing of it in any way that would “defeat the rights” of the group to the historic building.

Mr. Replansky did not know when a court date might be set.

Neither Mr. MacLeod nor Mr. Stiehle returned phone calls requesting their comments.

To contact Diane Valden email .

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