A Staten Island judge on Thursday ordered the owners of one of the city's oldest houses to fix it immediately or run the risk of having to pay fines of more than $8.5 million — 20 times the property's fair market value.
In a colorfully written, 22-page decision, Staten Island Supreme Court Justice Philip Straniere said the owners knew in 2009 when they bought the historic Manee-Seguine Homestead that the house and surrounding acres were landmarked and they would be responsible for maintaining the building.
Instead, he said, they adopted a policy of “demolition by neglect” and ignored prior court orders to make repairs and post bonds that could be used to fund fixes.
Straniere added that the owners never filed a hardship application with the city to get out of the landmark designation for the house, which was built starting in 1690 and designated a landmark in 1984.
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Under the designation, the owners were allowed to build residential units on the two-acre, ocean-view parcel as compensation for maintaining the historic home — one of the six oldest houses in the city. But they did not do that, either.
"(The owners) do not have to take any steps to develop the property; that is their choice. But they are required by the statute to maintain it. They have not done so," the judge wrote.
He said the city's request for an injunction to block the owners permanently from “continuing their policy of ‘demolition by neglect’... is granted.”
Howard File, the lawyer for the owners Seguine Bay Estates and Leo Tallo, said they would appeal.
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File said the $8.5 million fine that the judge agreed to impose would never be collected because the law puts a cap on the fine at the “fair market value” of the property. File said the value is “negligible” — even though it's separated from the ocean by just a park.
The judge has scheduled a hearing for February to determine the market value.
The owners initially proposed putting a large building on the property with both residential units and a commercial use, serviced by a large parking lot, but city sources said they never went forward with that plan and started demanding permission to demolish the historic house.
The judge rejected the owners’ argument that repairing the building would be a waste of money because it’s structurally unsound. Straniere said city lawyers satisfied him that the building is largely in need of just cosmetic repairs.
Using song lyrics and musical references, the judge said the problem with the landmark law is that it requires private owners to spend money to maintain structures for the public good.
And he raised a question of whether the city really thinks the house is so important historically because it never moved to repair it and send the owners a bill, as allowed by law.
“Just because something is old does not mean it is worth saving. Something my wife and I discuss every time she wants to throw out my 50-year-old Curtis High School sweatshirt,” the judge wrote.
Straniere introduced his decision with lyrics from songs that offer opposing views of what to do with old houses — from the Yellow Taxi Cab’s “...you don't know what you got/'Till it's gone/They paved paradise and put up a parking lot” to “Ain't gonna need this house no more.”Send a Letter to the Editor