April 21, 2014

Big New York City Developer Humbled by Small Borough of Fenwick Historic Commission

Developer Frank Sciame, the loser in a dispute with the Borough of Fenwick Historic Commission

Developer Frank Sciame loses dispute with the Borough of Fenwick Historic Commission

A major New York City developer, Frank J. Sciame, Jr., whose many successful projects include a much praised renovation of the Morgan Library in Manhattan, has been defeated by the very small, Borough of Fenwick Historic Commission, thanks to the rulings of two recent, state court decisions.

The first loss for the New York developer was before Connecticut’s Superior Court earlier last year, and his second defeat was his more recent loss on January 7 before the state’s Appellate Court. In both cases the issue was whether the Fenwick Historic Commission had the power to order the developer to lower the height of two entry posts on his property in Fenwick, from a height of five feet to four feet.

Growth Around the Posts Pretty Much Obscures Their Height

In fairness to the developer, during the summer months the grasses around the two entrance posts grow to the point where they pretty much obscure their height. Nevertheless, the Fenwick Commission stuck to its guns in ordering the developer to lower the height of both his posts by a single foot.

As for the developer, he was equally determined to keep both posts at their present height, until he was ordered by two state courts to obey the directions of the Borough of Fenwick Historical Commission.  Accepting defeat, the developer chose not to try to take an appeal to the Connecticut Supreme Court, which more than likely  would have declined to even to hear his case.

When the second case against Sciame came down, wide media coverage ensued.  What added interest to the story was that Sciame’s waterfront property in Fenwick was once owned by the famed film actress, Katherine Hepburn.  Sciame, in fact, purchased the shore-front property from the Hepburn estate, and he has spent millions to renovate it, so as to put it up for sale.

Former Katherine Hepburn estate now owned by developer Frank Sciame

Former Katherine Hepburn estate now owned by developer Frank Sciame

The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal Cover the Story

Because of the Hepburn connection both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal carried extensive articles about the ordered shortening of the two entrance posts by a single foot in Fenwick. The New York Times article by Elizabeth A. Harris was headlined, “Where Hepburn Lived, Last Act in Legal Drama Over Posts’ Heights.” The Wall Street Journal article, written by the Associated Press, was headlined, “Owner of Hepburn Estate Loses Appeal on Post Size.”

The former Hepburn property, now owned by Sciame, is located at 10 Mohegan Avenue in the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook. Of particular importance in its opinion the Appellate Court noted that “The property lies in the Fenwick Historic District, which is subject to the jurisdiction of the commission.”

In short, the court is reaffirming that Sciame’s property is both located within the boundaries of Fenwick Historic District, and that Fenwick Commission has the power to decide the present case.

Sciame’s Losing Arguments before the Appellate Court

In vain Sciame argued before the Appellate Court that the Fenwick Historic Commission lacked the statutory power to order the one foot lowering of the height of his two gate posts.  The Appellate Court also rejected Sciame’s claim that by ordering the shortening of the two entry posts by a single foot, he was entitled to damages from the Fenwick Commission for the “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

Even though Sciame gives the impression that he is a typical, “tough as nails” New York developer, he argued before the Appellate Court that by ordering the shortening of his two gate posts, the Fenwick Historic Commission had hurt his feelings by engaging in “harassment and demands” against him, and that it “continued to harass and annoy“ him.

One of Sciame two gate posts crudely shortened to a height of four feet

One of Sciame two gate posts crudely shortened to a height of four feet

Left unmentioned by Sciame in his argument before the Appellate Court was the fact at that one point in the controversy, he tried to claim that he had shortened the posts by means of building up, by a single foot, the bases surrounding the posts. With these two, foot high bases in place, Sciame then claimed that the posts were in fact four feet in height.

However, when this strained interpretation was rejected, the developer simply chopped off the tops of the two posts by one foot each. However, even in his belated compliance with the Historic Commission’s order, the developer persisted with his lawsuit, until he was defeated in the ruling of the Appellate Court.

Sciame to Develop Major Residential Project in Essex

Even with the chapter now closed on Sciame’s dispute with the Fenwick Historic Commission in Old Saybrook, the developer is continuing to play a major role in the development of local shoreline properties. In fact, in Essex he was recently designated by the Essex Planning Commission to develop a major residential property at Foxboro Point.

Essex Foxboro Point site to be developed by Sciame

Essex Foxboro Point site to be developed by Sciame

At one point in this proceeding the Essex Planning Commission took under consideration a proposal that the developer create a “public access” pathway across the development property running from Foxboro Road down to the waters of North Cove.

However, after a questionable “closed” meeting, to which the general public was excluded, the Essex Planning Commission rejected this “public access” proposal, and adopted instead a plan that permitted only a “visual access” to the North Cove waters below. This, obviously, was a very different proposition from creating a “public access” pathway across the development property leading to these waters.

Also, in making its decision the Essex Planning Commission chose not to follow the example of the Fenwick Historic Commission of standing up to developer Frank Sciame, who has shown that he is prepared to spend his money on extensive court appeals.